Israelis Just Received a Report Card. It Shows That We're Frightfully Mediocre

Much of the reason for the low score can be attributed to education gaps in the country's ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens

FILE Photo: Students at Tel Aviv University, June 9, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The school year is ending. Now we Israelis can take a moment to look at our report card.

We actually collectively receive a report card on our capabilities. It’s produced by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies of the OECD. The PIAAC tests evaluate the skills of adults in the world’s developed countries in fields including language, math and digital knowledge. The PIAAC scores show that the average Israeli has horrifyingly mediocre skills.

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We shouldn’t be surprised. Twenty years ago, the OECD’s standardized testing in schools, the PISA tests, showed Israeli students on average had less than stellar academic skills, ranking the country in 40th place in the world. Surprise surprise, mediocre schoolchildren turn into mediocre adults.

The Finance Ministry’s chief economist’s office has analyzed the PIAAC results based on social class and has found that Israelis in the top five deciles — the top 50% — were actually reasonably skilled, ranking more or less on a par with the worldwide average. The problem is with the other half of the population. Here, Israel was found to be seriously lagging. And for the bottom decile, the gap was estimated at the equivalent of three years of schooling.

If we ever want Israel to be successful, the government needs to be paying more attention to what is going on with the weakest population groups. So how do we improve things for half of all Israelis? It’s no secret who they are. They include Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens, as well as non-Haredi Jewish Israelis living in outlying areas. It’s also no secret that Israel has abandoned these groups, even though this is what’s preventing us from becoming an advanced, successful country.

Nearly all government resources are devoted to advancing the stronger half of the population. We are systematically strengthening the strong, and weakening the weak — and as a result, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and destroying everyone’s future.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than when it comes to the educational system, where Arab students are blatantly discriminated against. Jewish schoolchildren receive on average 18% to 36% more funding than Arab children, while ultra-Orthodox children are abandoned to a school system that doesn’t even teach core subjects. Such systematic abandonment worsens in secondary school, where the government’s attention and resources are directed to academic preparation for college and university.

Israel invests more than 12 billion shekels ($3.3 billion) a year in academic education even though only 43% of Israelis born in any given year enroll in college or university. What about the other 55% who don’t continue on to higher education?

The government took note just three years ago, when it began asking how it could neglect some half of all teens, who needed the skills to join the workforce. The 2030 Employment Committee, which is due to publish its secret report sometime after Israel’s September elections, dedicated a large section of its draft report to them: ultra-Orthodox and Arab students, students with disabilities, teens who have dropped out of high school and never received a matriculation certificate and those who only met the minimum matriculation requirements and therefore haven’t qualified for college admission.

What do we do with all these people in a country that has a surplus of unemployed lawyers and accountants but lacks technicians and engineers? The paradox is that Israel needs welders, engravers and technicians, and yet the money is going to training more lawyers, not welders.

The government invests some 33,000 shekels per university student. Yet government funding for students at the technological colleges, which train practical engineers and technicians, is 11,000 shekels per student. Israel’s needs are one thing, yet the resources are going someplace else.

Over the past year and a half, a reform has begun to be implemented at the technological colleges: Instead of being given 11,000 shekels per student, the colleges are getting 19,500 shekels, along with a one-time grant of 250 million shekels for construction and equipment. Instead of 30 small technology colleges with an average of fewer than 500 students each — along with another 30 colleges targeting the ultra-Orthodox community that are even smaller — the colleges are being given incentives to merge with larger colleges that have at least 800 students.

Instead of an antiquated course schedule that was devised without regard to the workforce, a pedagogy committee is expected to reduce the amount of required coursework, to better adapt it to the needs of the workplace and to incorporate on-the-job training. Instead of giving students the option of receiving a practical engineering degree after two years or simply dropping out, they will have the option of studying for just a year and receive certification as a technician so that they can enter the workforce more quickly.

The decision to proceed with the change was made a year and a half ago, but until recently it was stalled due to a conflict between the Education Ministry and the Labor Ministry over the Education Ministry’s insistence on maintaining its technological colleges as an independent system — what is known at 13th and 14th Grade, where students complete their technological education before being drafted into the army.

There’s no logic in having such a duplicate system, but ultimately the Labor Ministry gave in, so the Education’ Ministry’s track remains in place as the only technology education available to teens who wish to go in that direction before being drafted. But finally, at least, the dispute has been resolved. The reform is expected to improve technology education — and the job options — of those who have not earned a high school matriculation certificate or who completed only some of the requirements.

The problem is that only 10% of high schoolers then pursue technology education, so the problem of Israel’s bottom 50% still won’t be resolved.