Study: Academic 'Tracking’ Causes Ethnic Education Gap

Schools could mend the intra-Jewish ethnic breach, but the Jewish-Arab divide is beyond their ability to heal, say researchers.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Or Kashti
Or Kashti

In recent weeks the ethnic divide has experienced a renewal of sorts. The intensity of the debate on the issue, thanks partly to Amnon Levy's TV series “True Face: The Ethnic Demon,” is probably the result of many years of denial and repression.

A new study finds that Ashkenazim and Mizrahim with similar socioeconomic background characteristics will reach similar achievements.But overall, the Ashkenazi advantage at every stage of the educational scale is clear-cut.

Ashkenazim are Jews with ancestry in central and eastern Europe and Mizrahim have their origins in the Middle East.

Another conclusion that emerges from the study is that the ethnic disparities could probably be reduced in the compulsory education stage, if the system wanted to do so. But the system "tracks” the students in separate study courses, perpetuating the gaps.

The gaps between Jews and Arabs are something else, the study found; they are deeper and beyond the capabilities of the educational system to cope with.

The study, entitled "Access to Higher Education Among Young People from Israel’s Social Periphery,” examined the differences among Jews and between Jews and Arabs at their entry into higher education, and in choosing "profitable" fields of study.

It was conducted by Dr. Yariv Feniger of Ben-Gurion University and Prof. Hanna Ayalon and Oded Mcdossi of Tel Aviv University. Based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, Education Ministry, universities and colleges, the study focuses on youngsters who were born in 1978-1982, passed their matriculation exams by the end of the '90s, and started their academic studies within a decade afterward.

The researchers’ assumption is that if the disparities are so significant among these youngsters, who come from relatively equal socioeconomic stations, then in the overall society they are much greater.

They examined differences in wages between those who graduated college with an engineering or management degree, and those who opted for a less gainful discipline such as education or one of the liberal arts studies.

The Ashkenazim's advantage is clear in every aspect. The rate of high school graduates in higher education among Ashkenazim was 75.4 percent, compared to 69.3 percent among children of mixed families, 61.2 percent among Mizrahim, 64.9 percent among children to parents born in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and 51.3 percent of those whose parents were born in Ethiopia. The average rate among Jews was 68.7 percent, compared to 50.6 percent among the Arabs.

The rate of immigrants from the FSU in disciplines leading to a high income was the highest (27.1 percent), followed by the Ashkenazim (22.2 percent), people of mixed origin (20.7 percent), Mizrahim (16.7 percent), people of Ethiopian origin (9.3 percent), Christians (9.2 percent) and Muslims and Druze (6.2 percent).

"The Arabs enter academic studies a lot less than Jews and some of them focus on subjects leading to a low income," says Dr. Feniger.

"We assume one of the reasons for this is discrimination in the labor market. They know their chance of finding work in engineering, high-tech or finances is relatively low, so they choose in advance not to try, even if they meet the requirements."

The researchers found that when they neutralized the effect of the matriculation certificate and psychometric exam, there were no differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim with similar socioeconomic characteristics in choosing study fields and in their studies for the first degree.

"Maybe the 'ethnic demon' isn't so terrible after all," says Feniger. "We didn't find deliberate discrimination or significant obstructions.”

He added, “The gap is in the socioeconomic situation and in what happened at the high school stage – the gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in obtaining a matriculation certificate that meets the universities' basic requirements, and in the psychometric exam. These two factors work against the Mizrahim."

"If the education system could close the gap in the 'compulsory' and 'free' education stage, presumably the gaps would disappear in higher education," he said.

But the education system doesn't really try to advance groups that enter it in a relatively low starting point, but rather tracks them in separate groups and study courses. "This mechanism perpetuates the Mizrahim's [already lower] status," he says.

An Israeli school.Credit: Moti Milrod

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