Poor PISA Scores No Surprise to Arab School System Officials

Educators and officials cite classes in prefabs, poorly trained teachers, neglect as reasons why Israeli Arab students trailed Jewish counterparts

Students in Tayibe, an Arab-majority city in central Israel, December 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Education Ministry officials called the poor performance of Arabic-speaking students on the PISA test “a total surprise” and “a slap in the face,” but in the country’s Arab schools, officials sounded as if they almost expected the enormous educational gaps revealed by the scores.

“It’s an all-time low, but no one should have been surprised,” Hilal Masarwa, principal of the Amal high school in Taibeh, told Haaretz. “For a decade now, the results in the Arab community have been going from bad to worse,” added Ayman Agbaria of the University of Haifa’s Educational Leadership and Policy Department.

The scores for Hebrew-speaking students on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), administered in all 36 economically developed countries of the OECD, were virtually unchanged between 2015 and 2018. By contrast, the average score for Arabic-speaking students fell by 29 points in reading, 26 points in science and 12 points in math.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash) called Wednesday for an official inquiry “to expose the scope of inequality in education and to narrow the intolerable gap between Jewish and Arab students.”

Students in Tira, an Arab-majority city in central Israel, December 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Education Ministry began some years ago to allocate additional instruction hours and other resources to elementary and middle schools in disadvantaged areas, but the policy does not apply to high schools. In the 2018-19 school year, the average allocation per high school student was 31,639 shekels ($9,113) in the Jewish community and just 24,533 in the Arab community.

Wealthier local governments supplement the national allocations to schools, widening the educational gaps between communities. Education Ministry officials say they don’t have figures, but sources say that in wealthier communities, per-student spending is double the amount allocated by the state.

Sharaf Hassan, an educator and the chairman of the Monitoring Committee for Arab Educational Affairs, says that despite the ministry’s new focus on differential funding, Israel’s Arab schools are still decades behind their Jewish counterparts. “There are gaps in the physical infrastructure and investment in teaching, and they can’t be fixed in a few years. Thousands of Bedouin children in the Negev are still being taught in prefab classrooms. The situation is still difficult,” Hassan says.

An official in the Education Ministry says that some 4,000 Bedouin children did not go to kindergarten last year due to a lack of classrooms.

But Ahmad Mwassi, manager of the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation’s Arab Community Division, says the real problem is the quality of the teachers and the instructional methods, not funding. He points to pressure on principals from local governments in hiring teachers. And whereas in Jewish schools the demand for teachers outstrips the supply, some 10,000 Arab teachers are waiting to be assigned to a school. “A teacher-hiring reform is needed,” Mwassi says.

While young teacher-training graduates are begging for jobs, older teachers — using teaching methods that haven’t changed in decades — are staying put, Mwassi says. Student-directed learning may be a hot topic in the Education Ministry, but in Arab schools, he says, “The students memorize, regurgitate the material for the exam and that’s the end of it.” That may explain why the gaps are so great on the PISA, which assesses analytical and problem-solving skills rather than information learned by rote.

Most of the additional state funding aimed at reducing the gaps was earmarked for increasing instruction hours, but educators question the approach. “They gave additional hours for test preparation, but it’s the regular teachers who do it. If the teachers did their jobs in the first place, there would be no need for reinforcement,” says Kamal Shoufani, former principal of the comprehensive high school in Shfaram, who went on to serve as city manager.

“The additional hours turn into baby-sitting hours, because there are only so many hours students can study.” Shoufania says he was one of a handful of principals who returned these extra hours to the Education Ministry, adding, “Not everything can be solved with hours, not everything is about the budget.” He points to a lack of motivation among Arab students, perhaps due to a shortage of role models or because the system doesn’t push them enough.

PISA is just part of the story. Already in the fifth grade, in the Meitzav standardized tests administered by the Education Ministry’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, there are gaps in math achievement between Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students, although they have narrowed greatly in recent years. And while 64 percent of Arab high school graduates now earn a bagrut (matriculation) certificate, compared to 45 percent a decade ago, this figure also rose for their Jewish peers, to 80 percent.

Thus, the gaps between the two communities have barely narrowed. “They brag about the bagrut eligibility percentages, but what about the quality of the diploma? Can it get them into academia?” asks Mwassi of the Rothschild Foundation.

The Education Ministry does not publish figures on the level of bagrut certificates for Jews and for Arabs, but according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, while 15.7 percent of Jewish students chose to be tested in math at the highest level, five units, just 8.4 percent of their Arab counterparts did so. And while 58 percent of Jewish students passed the English five-unit bagrut, only 14 percent of students in Arab schools did so, according to a 2018 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

This gap has implications for higher education, of course. The Council for Higher Education in Israel is proud that the number of Arabs studying in Israeli colleges and universities has doubled in the past decade, yet their dropout rates are still high. There is also an enormous gap between men and women in the Arab community. In 2017, 23 percent of Arab women aged 20-24 earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to just 9.7 percent of their male age-cohorts. “Graduates of the Arab school system reach higher education not on account of the system, but rather despite it,” Mwassi says.

The Rothschild Foundation sponsors a leadership program for Arab high school graduates to prepare them for higher education and adult life. “We have to make up for years of gaps, in all areas,” Mwassi says. “Even students who took the five-unit bagrut exam in Hebrew are incapable of holding a conversation. English, math, learning skills — there are gaps in every area.”