STEM Is In, Humanities Out in Israel's High Schools

Shifting priorities of students and parents within the school system reflect changes in Israel's labor market and the country's aspiration to compete in the global marketplace, experts say

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Tel Aviv high school students studying outdoors, in February.
Tel Aviv high school students studying outdoors, in February. Credit: Moti Milrod

Priorities in Israel’s school system have been changing over the past decade. Figures relating to Israeli matriculation exams, or bagrut, show a dramatic rise in the number of students registering to be tested in science, technology, engineering and math subjects, along with a drop in the number taking exams in the humanities, which never were that popular to begin with.

The data reflects not only the priorities of the school system but also the nature of the labor market and the impact of these on the aspirations of high school students.

The numbers further show a closing of the gender gap, with more female students showing interest in STEM. But while 75 percent of girls are eligible for bagrut compared to 71.6 percent of the boys, the gap is still large when it comes to subjects like computer sciences and electronics, where boys constitute a significant majority, that is maintained in university as well.

According to the Council for Higher Education in Israel, only 29 percent of students in subjects such as computer sciences, electrical engineering and electronics are female. The gap begins in junior high school, where boys make up most of the students taking related subjects, although girls are making some headway in topics they used to avoid.

The graphs shown below, based on Education Ministry figures, reflect the number of students taking the highest level of matriculation exams in different subjects over the last decade, with a gender distribution shown for 2020.

The number of students taking high-level math matriculation exams reached a nadir in 2012. The Education Ministry decided to take steps to change this trend, launching a program in 2014 meant to encourage students to take these exams. Classes were opened in the periphery of the country, contributing to the increase in the number of students taking the highest level of exams, which peaked in 2020. These numbers still reflect only 15 percent of the overall number of students taking the highest level of math in the matriculation exams.

“This effort is reaching its target,” says Eli Huvritz, the executive director of the Trump Foundation, which aims to improve achievements in math and science in Israeli schools. The foundation and the Education Ministry have let up their intense efforts to increase the numbers, given their success so far. “The stable numbers indicate success,” says Hurvitz.

In math, a 30 percent gap in the number of girls taking the highest-level math courses that existed in the 1990s had dwindled to 2 percent. The number of students taking the highest-level courses in computer sciences has jumped 1.5-fold in the last decade, partly explained by the ministry’s website, that claims that these studies will open the way for social and economic mobility, enabling academic studies and leading to improved chances of finding jobs.

So far, these courses are only offered in a limited manner, with high school students required to choose these as part of an expanded program in computers.

Surveys by the Trump Foundation show that math, English and computer sciences are considered by students and parents the most important to ones to invest in. “However, the school system doesn’t produce large numbers of graduates in computer sciences,” says Hurvitz, far from reflecting the demand by industry.

The ministries of education and science are advancing a program to introduce computer programming into elementary schools and kindergartens. The question is which teachers are qualified to do the instruction and whether this would come at the expense of other subjects.

While boys are a majority of students taking physics, girls take more biology and chemistry. “This is a reflection of societal values,” says Hurvitz. “In junior high school, classes for talented students in math and computers attract mainly boys. By high school, it’s too late for girls to catch up.”

The mirror image of these changes is the drop in the number of students matriculating in humanistic subjects. There is a constant erosion in these subjects, with a possible projected cancellation of mandatory matriculation exams in literature, history, bible studies and civics. The number of students taking the highest-level literature exam has dropped by a third since 2010, and by one fourth in history.

“This reflects a functional mindset among parents and schools, which focus on Israel’s ability to compete in the global marketplace,” says Nir Michaeli, the rector of Oranim College, formerly the head of the pedagogic department at the Education Ministry. “The consideration is – what will help my career, what will increase my chances of getting into an army cyber unit,” he says.

However, he stresses, these subjects are important. “Every year some high-tech star declares that he’s looking for employees who didn’t necessarily study computer sciences but rather humanistic subjects that encourage rich and critical thinking,” says Michaeli. “People realize that these subjects have value, in creating culture, patterns of thinking and human sensitivity. These are lost when these subjects are not taught.”

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