Classes for Gifted Students in Israel Set Up Mainly in Prosperous Cities, Hardly Ever in Poor Ones

The highest rates of students studying in gifted classes are concentrated in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, while a far greater number of outlying communities in the south lack such programs

File photo: Israeli high school students.
Michal Fattal

In 2016, a year after he took office as education minister, Naftali Bennett mused out loud at a cabinet meeting about the disparities in the achievement test scores among students in various parts of Israel, particularly between the center of the country, including the Tel Aviv area, and lower scores in outlying parts of the country. “Did the Blessed Holy One distribute the smarts only in the center among the wealthy?” he asked.

He has posed the question on a number of occasions over the past several years. Last Friday, referring to the town in the south not far from the Gaza border, Bennett said: “In Ofakim, there are no fewer smarts and talent than in Ramat Hasharon,” a relatively wealthy northern Tel Aviv suburb.

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But if one looks at the map of communities where Bennett’s Education Ministry has set up classes for gifted students, one finds an entirely different picture. Data from 2018 being reported here for the first time reveals that for years, the ministry has distributed funding for gifted classes in high schools inequitably, with most of the funding going to the Tel Aviv area, the Sharon region just to its north and east and elsewhere in economically well-off communities.

As a result, the highest rates of students studying in gifted classes are concentrated in a relatively small number of cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv suburbs of Kiryat Ono and Ramat Hasharon. By contrast, in outlying communities in the south such as Ofakim, Dimona, Ashkelon and Sderot, and Kiryat Shmona in the north, there are no gifted classes. Of the 256 local communities in Israel, only 21 have gifted programs, including four in Arab communities. Haifa has a program at the Leo Baeck school.

On a nationwide basis, only 0.85% of high school students study in gifted programs, but in Kiryat Ono, a relatively economically well-off Tel Aviv suburb, the rate is about 7%. And in Ramat Hasharon, it is 5%. In Ra’anana, a short distance to the north, it is 1.8%, still more than double the national average. In Jerusalem the gifted classes are at the city’s elite high schools. Of the students of one Arab community in the north, Nahf, 7.6% are in a gifted class. Two other Arab communities, Arabeh and Kabul, have over 4% of their students in the classes.

Schools with gifted classes are entitled to increased government funding for them and are geared for students with the greatest abilities. The students are drawn from the schools themselves as well from elsewhere in the town and sometimes from adjoining towns. In many cases, they are run out of public high schools that are considered prestigious. The classes have tough admissions criteria.

The Education Ministry said only 20% of students who are identified as gifted are placed in gifted classes, while the others participate in other enrichment programs outside of their own schools, sometimes outside of their own communities, but the external enrichment programs are just once a week and the students who attend them do so instead of attending classes at their own schools, and not in addition to their regular classes. The ministry insists, however, that the enrichment classes have not been found to be more advantageous than the enrichment centers.

In those communities without gifted classes, there is frequently major emphasis on vocational subjects rather than preparing students for matriculation exams, even though success on the exams paves the way for university admission. TheMarker has also found that ministry funding for special remedial classes for weak students has also gone disproportionately to relatively wealthy communities.

For its part, the Education Ministry said it is working to expand both the gifted class program and the enrichment programs outside of the students’ schools. Special emphasis is being placed on expanding the gifted classes in outlying parts of the country. Among the 16 new classes this year, there is one in Shlomi in the far north and another in East Jerusalem. New classes are also being opened in the largely Arab “Triangle” region in the north, in Hadera and in the Krayiot suburbs of Haifa, the ministry noted.