In Turnaround, Israel's Religious Elementary Schools Have More Mixed-gender Classes

Mixed-gender religious school classes tend to be located in relatively well-off communities, but have a high percentage of children from poorer families, study finds

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A mixed-gender class at a state-religious school, 2019.
A mixed-gender class at a state-religious school, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

After about a decade and a half during which increasing numbers of children in Israel’s state-religious elementary schools were in gender-segregated classes, the trend has stabilized and over the past three years there has been a slight rise in the percentage of students in mixed-gender classes.

This is according to a study by the religious Zionist Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (Torah and Labor Faithful) movement that analyzed Education Ministry figures. In another finding from the study, data show that the gender-segregated classes tend to be in communities that generally rank poorly by socioeconomic measures, but the students in the classes are actually likely to be from more economically well-off families.

One explanation for the paradox is the presence of the so-called Garin Torani movement, which was created to help disadvantaged communities and has brought young Orthodox Israelis to these communities, where they run religious, educational and social programs. In some locations, the programs have directly or indirectly screened out socioeconomically weaker students and schools in these areas have received children from these newly arrived families as well as other economically better off children from the local community.

“It’s possible that gender separation is not only for Torah-religious reasons but also constitutes a tool to limit integration and to ‘screen’ pupils on a socioeconomic basis,” the movement’s report stated.

The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement has been tracking gender-separation trends in the country’s state-religious schools, public schools with an Orthodox educational orientation, which can be distinguished both from Israel’s state secular schools and ultra-Orthodox schools.

Since the vast majority of state-religious high schools have practiced gender separation for decades, the battle over the issue between those with rigorously Orthodox views and more moderate members of the community has focused on elementary schools. The movement’s new analysis shows that in 2000, 57.3 percent of state religious elementary school children were in mixed classes, compared to only 38.4 percent in 2017.

In the past three years, however, there has been a slight increase in the number of students in mixed-gender classes, a figure that is now 39.5 percent. The data suggest that the trend towards mixed-gender classrooms began earlier in first grade, which is generally a harbinger of things to come in schools.

Religious elementary schools have five different models when it comes to the classroom placement of boys and girls. In some schools, all the classes are mixed; in others the lower grades are mixed, while in the higher grades – generally from fourth grade – the boys and girls are separated. There are also schools that have both male and female students, but where there is gender separation in all the classrooms, while other schools are attended only by boys or girls.

Over a 20-year period, the proportion of mixed-gender state-religious schools dropped from half to a third, while the percentage of schools educating exclusively boys or girls increased from roughly 20 to 30 percent. Interestingly, there are consistently more students in exclusively girls’ schools than in the comparable schools for boys.

Another significant finding is that, although about 40 percent of the country’s state-religious elementary school students are in mixed-gender classes, nearly 70 percent of students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are. In light of other studies indicating similar trends, apparently schools identified with so-called Hardal Orthodoxy – religious Zionists who tend towards ultra-Orthodox religious practice and maximum possible gender separation in the schools – are more likely to serve students from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds.

A 6th grade classroom of boys at the Harel state-religious elementary school in Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Interestingly, the separate-gender schools tend to be located in local communities that are very poorly ranked on the socioeconomic scale.

“The significance of the data is that there is a significant disparity between the relatively high socioeconomic profile of the pupils in the schools that are only for boys or girls and the socioeconomic level of these schools’ geographic location,” the report states.

For the mixed-gender schools, the opposite is true: They tend to be located in relatively well-off communities but have a high percentage of children from poorer families.

Drawing on Meitzav achievement tests scores, the report states that the results in math and particularly in English are generally better in mixed-gender settings than gender-segregated ones, and that students who attend classes with both boys and girls tend to be more satisfied with the social climate and educational environment in their schools.

In the battle over gender segregation in state-religious elementary schools (and beyond in a broader context), that’s an important finding. Even in mixed-gender classes with students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, their academic achievements tend to be better.

“In the early 2000s, many parents thought gender separation would assist in their children’s education,” said the director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, Shmuel Shattach. “The drop in student achievement and in the climate in separate classes along with the realization that separation doesn’t really contribute to strengthening the level of Torah studies at the institutioned many to reconsider the idea of full separation. We believe that mixed education at elementary school age has many social, psychological and educational advantages.”

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