Darker Side of the Start-up Nation

Report: Israeli Adults Less Skilled Than OECD Peers

While there are Israelis who work in highly skilled positions and jobs that require a lot of expertise, a large portion of the country’s population is far behind.

David Bachar

The two faces of the Start-Up Nation have been revealed once again. While there are Israelis who work in highly skilled positions and jobs that require a lot of expertise, a large portion of the country’s population is far behind, lacking the basic skills for integration into the modern workforce and contemporary society. 

And Israeli Jews generally scored significantly higher than Israeli Arabs. Among ultra-Orthodox participants, in general, the situation was more complex: The failure rate in tests that examined Hebrew and math skills was the same as among the rest of the population, but many ultra-Orthodox participants failed in computerized problem-solving tests. 

On average overall, adult Israelis aged 16 to 65 demonstrated poor reading, math and problem-solving skills, according to a report published by the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the grouping representing the world’s developed economies. The finding is based on surveys conducted in 34 countries as part of the organization’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.
Measuring skills that people need in life

The tests set out to measure skill levels in basic areas, which people use to advance in society and the workplace – skills that may be in daily demand in different settings such as booking a hotel room, exchanging a product purchased on the internet, understanding instructions regarding arrival times at kindergarten, reading of graphs and understanding data, and dealing with percentages and other functions in Excel programs.

The results place Israelis in general on the lowest rungs in all the areas tested, and the disparities in the performance of various groups within Israel’s population are very large in comparison to other Western countries. They were the worst among all countries participating in the survey in the realm of problem-solving, and second-worst (after Singapore) in math and reading. This is similar to the results of international tests conducted in Israel’s school system.

Disparities were particularly prominent when comparing Israelis with different socioeconomic status, and, as noted, in comparing the scores of Jews and Arabs.

Furthermore, the data show that every third person in Israel lacks basic math skills (a 31% failure rate). The reading level of people with more than a secondary-school education is lower than that of people with only secondary-school education in other countries that took part in the OECD survey (Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, the Czech Republic and Belgium). 

“Adults who are proficient at these skills have a good chance of taking maximum advantage of opportunities and resources which are available in developed countries. Those who lack these skills may be left behind,” according to an analysis of this data, written by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Education Ministry’s Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education. 

William Thorne, the deputy director of education surveys at the OECD, said at a press conference that “the tests didn’t require complex calculations, but asked people to show an understanding of information and a successful handling of topics they would encounter in life. Anyone familiar with economics and education understands the economic importance of relating to the quality of human beings and their skills, as well as the need to deal with inequality.”

In all three areas examined – reading, math and problem-solving – Israelis scored significantly lower than the average results among the 34 participating countries. In reading, Israel ranked 28th, with Slovenia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Chile and Indonesia coming in lower. The average score in Israel was 251 on a scale of 200 to 800. The OECD average was 263. 

The OECD survey showed that the higher the skills demonstrated in the tests, the higher the wages of the person taking them. In Israel, for example, people with the highest reading scores (levels 4-5) had an average monthly salary of 15,300 shekels (just under $4,000). This was almost twice as high as that of people who failed the test, who earned 8,500 shekels.

This was true for men and women alike, although women’s salaries were lower than men’s even when their skill levels were higher. The average monthly salary of Israeli women with a level 3 reading capability (considered high) was 11,900 shekels, whereas men at level 2 earned 12,200 shekels, on average.

“This dismal picture of low achievements, in comparison to other countries, with its large sectorial and social gaps, is seen repeatedly in all the international educational surveys conducted in Israel,” says Prof. Michal Beller, president of Levinsky International College of Education. “It’s not surprising but it is disappointing to see this yet again.”

Beller says that the results of the OECD survey are “worrisome and demand planning and a systemic long-term strategic vision that will require the cooperation of several government departments. This should begin with early childhood education and the first years in school, as well as dealing with professional training of adults in the workforce, including in higher education,” she adds.

“Acquiring skills and education does not stop after graduating from high school or attaining a B.A. or a professional degree. Lifelong learning is vital in the global world we live in."