Learning the Education Basics

Over the years, Israeli society "progressed," and what we progressively forgot, the OECD is teaching us anew - the hard way.

What Jewish heritage passed on through the generations, science began to prove in the last century and the organization of leading industrialized countries - the OECD - began to internalize and assimilate in recent decades: Education has the ability not only to lift up the individual, it can also uplift an entire society. Over the years, Israeli society "progressed," and what we progressively forgot, the OECD is teaching us anew - the hard way.

Several years ago, the OECD began to examine how much its children knew about the most basic educational fields in a modern society and economy. In the most recent such examination, PISA tests administered to 15-year-olds in science, mathematics and reading - Israeli students were ranked below 28 of the 30 OECD member-countries. As if this were not enough, gaps in educational achievement in Israel were the highest among all of the countries taking part in the exam. The question is why. What are the other countries doing that we aren't?

As opposed to conventional wisdom, OECD data published a few days ago show that the average number of hours per year of total compulsory instruction time for 15 year-old Israeli pupils is not low. Actually, the State of Israel budgets more instruction hours than 19 of the 22 OECD countries for which there is data. So why don't the children of Israel know the material?

One reason, though not the only one, is related to the way the instruction time is used. As indicated in the figure, nearly half (48 percent) of Israel's 15-year-olds receive less than two hours of science instruction in school per week. This compares with just a third of the children studying less than two hours of science in the OECD schools. In reading, the share of Israelis studying under two hours in school (34 percent) is more than double the OECD share (15 percent). The mathematics numbers are also unfavorable to Israeli kids: 17 percent of the country's pupils study less than two hours of math in school versus 14 percent in OECD schools.

What's going on here? On the one hand, we pay for much more compulsory instructional time than is common in the West. On the other hand, our children receive much fewer instruction hours in the basic fields. Where does the remaining instruction time go? What exactly are we paying for?

In fact, the number of pupils per science teacher in the OECD is 13.4 as opposed to just 12.7 in Israel. In other words, we are not only financing more instruction hours, but we are also paying for more science teachers than the average OECD taxpayer. It appears that a great deal of what enters the budget pipe on one end appears to perform an inexplicable disappearing act on its way to the children who require it at the other end.

What the kids don't receive in school must ultimately be paid for, again, privately - though not every parent is fully aware of education's importance nor does everyone have the means to pay for it. Instead of receiving instruction on the basic subjects in school, Israeli children are forced to attain the missing knowledge on their own.

The share of Israeli pupils that devote four hours a week on out-of-school lessons, self-study or homework is 50 percent higher than it is in the OECD in science and in reading (13 percent of Israeli children versus 9 percent of OECD kids study 4 hours of science a week outside of school, while 20 percent of Israeli pupils versus 13 percent of OECD students do so in reading) and more than twice the OECD rate in math (38 percent of Israeli children versus 15 percent of OECD kids study four hours a week outside school).

In light of all this, it should come as no surprise when our children perform so abysmally in the international exams. What the future holds in store should also not surprise when today's pupils in Israel and abroad grow up and begin competing in the global market. This may be the holy land, but miracles only happen to those who take control of their own destinies.

The author teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy at Tel-Aviv University.