How Have Some Arab High Schools Become Israel’s Top Performers?

New research shows that Arab schools have made significant progress to close gaps with their Jewish counterparts. But some experts say that’s despite Israeli policies – not because of them

The Druze High School for Science and Leadership, Yarka, Israel.
Gil Eliahu

The best high school in Israel isn’t in an affluent neighborhood in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa, but in a small Druze village in the Galilee – according to recently published rankings.

The Darca Druze High School for Science and Leadership in Yarka had the highest proportion of students in the country – 75 percent – recognized for outstanding achievement on their matriculation certificates last year.

Right behind it was Al-Qasemi High School in the northern Israeli Arab town of Baka al-Garbiyeh, where just under 60 percent of graduates chalked up the same accomplishment. (The national average for outstanding high schoolers is 7.5 percent).

For several years now, Arab and Druze schools (which are categorized separately by the Education Ministry even though the Druze are often considered part of Israel’s Arab minority) have neared the top of the country’s high-school rankings. These tables are based not only on the percentage of students recognized for outstanding achievement, but also on the proportion of students who obtain matriculation certificates and on those who take high-level exams in subjects like math and science. Matriculation certificates are a prerequisite for attending university in Israel.

So is it just a myth that Arab schools suffer from discrimination and are woefully uncompetitive because Israel prioritizes its Jewish majority? A new study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel shows that Arab schools have indeed made significant progress in recent years to close gaps with their Jewish counterparts.

Druze High School for Science and Leadership School principal Kamil Shela.
Gil Eliahu

“When you consider that most Arab kids in this country start out with a considerable socioeconomic disadvantage, I would say that these new findings are nothing short of astonishing,” says Nachum Blass, an educational researcher at the Jerusalem-based center.

Closing the gaps

The study, which Blass conducted, found that the percentage of Israeli Arab students taking matriculation exams is almost on par today with the proportion of Jewish students who do so – following a long period in which the Arab kids lagged behind.

Although a gap still exists when it comes to everyone who ultimately obtains matriculation certificates, Blass’ findings show that the divide has narrowed over the years. In 2000, only 28 percent of Arab students obtained a matriculation certificate, compared with 45 percent of Jewish students. By 2015, these numbers were more than 50 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

The Taub Center study also showed that the Education Ministry still invests less in Arab students than it does in Jewish students (16,000 shekels annually – or about $4,500 – compared with 20,000 shekels each), but the gap has been narrowing in recent years. Moreover, classrooms in Arab schools have also become less crowded.

Gil Eliahu

The study also found that the quality of teachers in Arab schools has improved in recent years, with a growing percentage holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Blass attributes these developments to several factors, among them declining birth rates among Arab women, better-educated parents, especially mothers, and special budgetary assistance from the Education Ministry. “The government has come to the realization that it serves the country’s economic interest to invest in educating both the Arab minority and the ultra-Orthodox,” Blass says.

Still, significant discrepancies remain between Jewish and Arab communities, especially in matriculation and international test scores.

“The main reason, to my mind, is that Arab students, by and large, start off with a socioeconomic disadvantage,” Blass says. “If we really want to close these gaps, then, it will require affirmative-action programs.”

In fact, several schools in Israeli Arab and Druze communities that achieved high matriculation marks are able to provide their students with a better education because they enjoy external funding. The Darca school in Yarka, for example, is part of a network that receives charitable donations from the Rashi Foundation, an organization serving the underprivileged in Israel, often in the country’s outskirts.

But those top-performing schools, says Dr. Ayman Agbaria, an expert on Arab education from the University of Haifa, are the exception rather than the rule.

“When you have Arab schools that have achieved such measures of success, it is despite, not because of, the Israeli educational system,” he says. In addition, those institutions tend to be selective ones that require admissions tests, or alternatively, they are private or semiprivate schools that, by definition, cater to students from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds, Agbaria adds.

“Most of the Arab schools in Israel are still at a third-world level,” he says. “And if you look at how students in these school perform on international tests, you’ll find that they trail far behind not only other Israelis but also students in other Arab countries like Lebanon, Bahrain and Jordan.”

Muhammad Amara, co-chair of Sikkuy, an NGO that promotes civil equality for the Israeli Arab community, also considers these schools to be outliers. “They definitely don’t reflect the norm in Arab society,” he says. “There are still large gaps between the percentage of Jews and the percentage of Arabs receiving matriculation certificates, and if you take into account the levels of exams they take, what we refer to as the quality of their matriculation certificates, then the gaps are huge.”

As a result, Amara notes, a significant percentage of graduates from Israeli Arab high schools are still not eligible for studies at universities and colleges.

For their part, Christian schools in Arab communities have been among the country’s top performers, consistently outranking Jewish schools. But they are almost exclusively privately run. Like the Druze, Christians represent a very small portion of the total Arab population in Israel.

To have and have not

Dalia Fadila, the founder and director of a new network of private English-language schools serving Israel’s Arab minority, believes that the trend toward privatization will strengthen because there are proven results. Asked whether this could create new classes of haves and have-nots in Israeli Arab society, she said: “From my perspective, this is about creating alternatives, not about widening gaps. I’m here to provide alternatives for those who want something different.”

Fadila’s “Q” network of schools now operates in about half a dozen locations around Israel but does not yet include any high schools.

The explanation for gaps between Israeli Jewish and Arab schools is not always money or selectivity, however. The public high school in the Druze village of Beit Jann in northern Israel, whose students have excelled consistently in recent years, is a case in point.

In locales like Beit Jann, notes Agbaria from the University of Haifa, a new generation has come to see education as the key to changing the destiny of minorities in Israel. As he puts it, “There is this new liberal or neoliberal ethos that has taken hold in Arab society, and as a result, many truly believe they can beat the system if they are simply better educated.”

In the case of Beit Jann, not at all a well-heeled village, enormous energy has been invested in improving the quality of education at the local school, with almost unimaginable results to show. There are other examples as well, especially in the Druze community.

The new study by the Taub Center shows that in 2000, fewer than 30 percent of Druze students in Israel obtained a matriculation certificate. By 2015, more than two-thirds had – a higher rate than any other community in the country. The proportion of Druze students taking matriculation exams is also higher than any other.

The beginning of this century marked a turning point for the community in this regard, says Amir Khnifess, director of the Institute for Druze Studies in Isfiya near Haifa.

“For the previous generation, there was a belief that if you wanted to integrate into society, the way to do it was to join the army,” Khnifess says, referring to the fact that Druze, unlike most Arabs, tend to enlist in the Israeli military. “The new generation has come to the realization that this isn’t enough, and what we began seeing are bigger and bigger investments in education. I believe this holds true for all Arabs in Israel, and that’s why we’re seeing growing numbers entering universities in recent years.”

They shouldn’t delude themselves, though, warns Agbaria, because success in school is not necessarily a guarantee for success in life.

“These elite schools are an encouraging story because they prove that things could be otherwise,” he says.

“Once their graduates get out into the job market, though, they will see that there is still considerable discrimination in this country.”