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What's Threatening the Future of Israeli High-tech? A Shortage of Math Students

In Israel, too, STEM studies are on the decline by every measure. The Education Ministry blames parents for letting their children study art in high school instead of math and schools for caring too much about matriculation eligibility rates.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Students taking a matriculation exam at a high school in Hadera.
Students taking the matriculation exam in math at a high school in Hadera.Credit: Alon Ron
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The president of Intel Israel, Shmuel “Mooly” Eden, is worried. “There’s no future for Israeli high-tech,” he says. It’s not foreign competition that has made him gloomy, but rather Education Ministry figures pointing to a dramatic drop in the number of people registering for the bagrut matriculation exam in math at the highest level, five units.

In 2007, nearly 13,000 took the five-unit exam; in 2013, only around 9,000 did. And only about 5% of today’s high school graduates have a matriculation certificate that reflects advanced science studies.

“Without high-school students who study math and science at a high level,” Eden warns, “there is no reservoir of high-tech employees for the next generation. There is already a shortage of thousands of workers in Israeli high-tech. What will happen when we come to recruit the next generation in which just 9,000 students study five units of math?”

Eden is very active in a volunteer project in which employees of Intel and other companies teach math at high schools around the country. It may not be anywhere nearly enough, however, going by the dismal figures when it comes to math study.

It’s important to note that students who sit for higher levels of the matriculation exam also take math classes in high school to prepare for the exam, so the numbers of those taking four and five units of math on the matriculation exam also reflect the level of the math classes they are taking in high school.

And it turns out that over the past five years, just as the number of students taking the matriculation exam for five units of math has fallen, something very strange has also occurred regarding the grade distribution on the math matriculation at every level of difficulty. Nearly everyone who took it passed it, with pass rates of between 94% and 99%. And suddenly there was also been a jump in the numbers of students at all levels of difficulty, from the most basic three units to five units, who are scoring 85 points or more out of a possible 100 points. In 2012, among those sitting for the three-unit math test, 37% got at least 85 points; on the four-unit exam, 42% did so, and on the toughest, five-unit test an astounding 55% scored at least 85.

That is clearly not a normal grade distribution. Even the Education Ministry acknowledges that the high numbers of those getting at least 85 points on the math matriculation test, which qualifies the student for what is considered an outstanding score, represents a lost opportunity. It’s nearly certain that those with outstanding scores on the three-unit exam could be taking the four-unit test and passing with at least a decent score, and that those who score 85 and up on the four-unit test could do well on the five-unit test. Were that to happen, the number of people taking the four- and five-unit math test would almost double.

This all suggests that around half of the students who are capable of studying math at the higher levels choose not to. From a national perspective, that’s a waste of a critical potential resource for Startup Nation.

Negative incentive

So why do so many students who are capable of taking the higher-level bagrut exams in math not avail themselves of the opportunity? There’s no consensus on the reasons. Eden and his high-tech colleagues point to what they say is a faulty system of incentives that the Education Ministry dangles before the country’s high schools, the holy grail of which is achieving the highest bagrut eligibility rate.

High schools compete furiously with each other to produce the highest percentage of graduating senior who qualify for a matriculation certificate. Math is a required subject to earn the certificate, and failure on the math test by a large number of students would drag down a school’s overall qualification rate. The schools therefore have a clear incentive to encourage students to take lower-level math classes to ensure that they pass the math matriculation at some level. On the other hand, we need to remember that the pass rate on the math matriculation test ranges from 94% for three units to 99% for five units, so the chances of failure on the exam are slim. It appears, however, that the drive to boost the school’s overall matriculation qualification rate trumps the small risk that a student would fail the math test. The schools therefore encourage less challenging math classes for their students.

And on top of that misguided incentive, there is the faulty incentive that the country’s colleges and universities inject into the picture. The universities, on the face of things, do provide an incentive for students who have taken five units of math. It comes in the form of a bonus in their admissions calculations of 15 points for four units and 25 points for five units of math. The 10-point difference between the two is not enough, however. Students rightfully calculate the outcome of getting, for example, a 90 on a four-unit math matriculation exam or a 70 on a five-unit exam. In such a scenario, from the perspective of university admissions, they are better off with the four-unit score.

Some institutions of higher education, such as Haifa’s Technion Israel Institute of Technology, require five units of math for admission to many of their programs and also give their own bonus for five units in their admissions calculations. But other schools accept candidates with four units of math into highly competitive programs such as law and business administration. And due to the small difference in the point bonus given for five units, high school students don’t have an incentive to make the extra effort to take the more advanced math level.

Some Education Ministry officials say they encounter the same difficulty in convincing high-school students to take the advanced bagrut test as they do in persuading them to take the advanced matriculation exams in history or Bible study. They blame what they say is a growing trend of studying art, philosophy and the social sciences, adding that parents are part of the problem. Many parents are on the defensive, they say, allowing their children to study the subjects that they like in high school, including art, out of a belief that children shouldn’t be pressured and with the idea that they can retake the bagrut exams after the army in order to improve their scores. Ministry figures say this attitude is most common in privileged areas of central Israel.

The withering STEM

Then there’s the issue of how the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are taught in school. Curricula are outdated and Education Ministry figures acknowledge that they tend to be boring. They stress formal exercises rather than creative thinking and problem solving. A shortage of suitably trained teachers is also a problem. Most math teachers in school did not major in math in university. In the sciences, the situation is even worse. It is impossible to find adequate numbers of physics teachers. In these circumstances, it’s no wonder that math is losing out to art in the competition for the hearts and minds of high-school students.

Education Ministry officials say they are aware of the problem and intend to fight it. Earlier this month Education Ministry Director General Michal Cohen announced a 15-million-shekel ($4.2 million) program to encourage STEM study in high school, including increased hours of math study and the recruitment of “stars” to teach math teachers how to teach the subject more effectively. Ministry officials are also in talks with the country’s colleges and universities about changing the way matriculation scores are calculated in the admission process.

For now, these efforts seem insufficient to reverse the trend. Mooly Eden will presumably continue to worry.