Analysis

The Results Are In: Israel's School System Is Sick. Here's Why

Israeli students' poor scores in the international PISA test are a wake-up call. But all the wake-up calls won't change a system encumbered by obsolete pedagogical models and sectarianism

Alon Ron

Israel’s education system is sick. There is no other way to describe the fact that Israel featured the widest gaps between strong and weak students of any of the 36 developed countries participating in the OECD's latest round of the PISA test; that two-thirds of Israel’s Arab students have difficulty with reading, math and science; and that the gaps between them and their peers born to Jewish parents have reached levels equivalent to 3-4 years of schooling.

It is a wake-up call for pedagogues and budget officials. The chronic lack of interest, practically ideological, in closing the gaps – between communities, population groups and within the schools – demonstrated by the Education Ministry top brass could lead to collapse. The PISA results are the first symptoms. We need to open our eyes.

The results now revealed of the PISA tests, which were conducted last year, can be boiled down to three main grades: the average grades in the three areas tested were below the international average and down a little from the last PISA in 2015: 470 for reading on a scale of 200-800, 463 for math and 462 for science.

Israeli PISA scores vs. those of other countries

The proportion of pupils who failed all three tests rose to 22 percent, compared with the international average of 13 percent. The gaps between the students’ achievements widened to the highest level of any country. We’re Number One!

The internal gaps characterize most of the communities in Israel. Among Jewish students the gap is wider than the international average, while the commensurate gap among Arab students remains unchanged. The educational significance is painful: Too many students are left behind. After every international test, the Education Ministry reels in shock at the results but does little to address the crisis.

In contrast to other international tests that focus on knowledge already gained – assuming, perhaps wrongly, that knowledge assures future success – PISA tests kids’ abilities to deal with challenges in their environment and at work. These tests stress creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

Average PISA math scores in Israel and the OECD

An obsolete model

Last year, Professor Andreas Schleicher, head of the education department in the 36-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), visited Israel and told TheMarker that pedagogy in Israel is highly traditional and standard, and does not aim to develop the pupils’ talents. It does not stress creative thinking and problem solving, and too much relies on rote learning, but things don’t work that way anymore.

School is one of the few social institutions that has barely changed since its format was invented in the 19th century. Despite the upheavals around it, the basic model remains that a student sits in front of a standing teacher. The chain of control is familiar. A teacher’s ability to excite himself and the children is not recognized and is certainly not encouraged.

Average PISA reading scores in Israel and the OECD

This applies especially to the Education Ministry in recent years. It has focused on religious nationalism at the expense of openness to opinions and meetings between different peoples; this applies from science to the lessons that build identity. Critical thinking is perceived as dangerous; teachers and managers who depart from routine may be called in for “a talk." Approaching any boundary by any teacher or headmaster is dangerous and sanctions lurk.

True, there are islands of educators who behave otherwise, but the Education Ministry leaders, while perhaps talking boldly, won’t let them lead systemic change.

From that perspective, the PISA fiasco is an important reminder of pedagogical blindness shared by former education ministers Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, who opted for a know-it-all, constantly-critical model over trust and pluralism.

Average PISA science scores in Israel and the OECD

In the case of Arab students, the oppressive pedagogy is especially grievous. Their study program does not address the needs of Arab society, including with regard to the students’ sense of identity, says Sharaf Hassan, chairman of the Arab-education monitoring committee. He calls on the Education Ministry to sit with them and build a comprehensive, consensus plan to handle the state of Arab education in Israel.

The chance of getting the agreement of Education Ministry leaders, who never appointed an Arab manager, not even in the north where 60 percent of the students are Arab, is negligible.

Pedagogical obedience is another aspect, complementary to the terrific gaps in the budgeting of Jewish and Arab schools. The differential budgeting plan adopted by the ministry in recent years is too little, too late. Even now, Arab high school seniors get 40 percent less budget funds than their Jewish peers – and those are figures from the ministry itself, released at the lowest possible profile.

One wonders whether the special committee that Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav set up – vowing that it will “turn over every rock” to figure out why Israeli Arabs’ achievement is so low – will absorb these figures, or instead find any way to disclaim responsibility and roll the blame onto the victim.

Some years ago the OECD issued a special report on Israeli education. Education Ministry officials know the recommendations perfectly well. They include narrowing the gaps between students, starting core subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools and eliminating budget discrimination towards Arabs. That never was high on the agenda at the Education Ministry, not under Naftali Bennett and even less so under the current minister, Rafi Peretz. The conclusion is clear: The next government would be wise not to give the Education Ministry to a small, sectarian party.