How Can Israelis Be So Smart and So Dumb?

Tests show Israeli children are among the dumbest in the developed world, yet when they grow up they found startups and win Nobel Prizes. They do it despite their education?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center, white hair, reddish tie, light shirt, black jacket) visiting a school in Tamra, on the first day of school.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting a school in Tamra, on the first day of school.Credit: Gil Eliahu
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

It was back-to-school day on Thursday in Israel, with rituals that would impress the most pious Druid priest for their fixed and timeless qualities. “Hello First Grade” ceremonies, the prime minister or the local mayor posing for a photo op with a classroom of children, pages of newspaper coverage,  a teachers strike and/or a parent strike and, no less important – much verbiage devoted to the sorry state of Israeli education.

A lot of the bellyaching about Israel is overwrought, but on the subject of education, it’s really hard to deny that Israeli schoolkids are among the dumbest in the developed world.

The PISA exam compares student achievement in reading, math and science across most of the most advanced economies. Israeli 15-year-olds score near the bottom of the class: they averaged 474 points in the 2012 exam, which was a big  23 points below the average of countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Actually, the Israeli score should be even worse because Haredi schools, which don’t teach math or science, don’t administer the PISA exam at all.

Maybe it's genes, or poor upbringing. Someeven suggest that Israelis score poorly because unlike students in the rest of the world, they don’t waste their time on voluntary OECD tests that won’t raise their formal grade or matriculation scores.

But the more probable reason for the dumb Israeli students is the schools.

Day packed, with nothing much

Israeli classrooms are more crowded than in most other OECD countries, but the teacher-student ratio is close to the OECD average, classroom hours are extensive and early-childhood education is widespread. 

The problem is how the system functions. Teachers spend fewer hours of their week actually teaching (18.3 hours a week, ranking Israel 23rd of 32 surveyed countries) and spend more time on discipline and administrative tasks like attendance and more on general administration (5.2 hours, or eighth among 32 countries).

Almost half of Israeli students surveyed said they skipped days of school, but since their math scores on PISA were almost no different from those who took the trouble to attend lessons, it’s hard to fault them. Anyhow, they’re providing a de facto solution to the problem of crowded classrooms.

Yet kvetch as we may about Israeli education, there’s no denying that we’re still Startup Nation. We invented drip irrigation, send satellites into space and always seem to be winning Nobel Prizes. The schools look terrible, but could they be a national asset after all?

The value of playing hooky

Afraid not. The schools are the mainstream norm and the talented men and women at the startups that succeed are a tiny minority. The great majority of Israelis work in local companies, do their job poorly and wouldn’t stand the test of global competition (because, among other things, the skills sets the employees bring are inferior to other developed countries’ labor pools). Exhibit A for that is Israel’s low rate of labor productivity.

Israeli schools cannot take credit for the people behind Startup Nation. Most learned their relevant skills in the army. They exhibit abilities like out-of-the-box thinking, risk-taking and entrepreneurship they probably learned playing hooky.

These qualities may lie at the heart of startup culture but are less critical for other kinds of businesses. If you work at widget factory, ordinary skills like math and reading are much more important than innovative thinking because your job isn’t to disrupt the widget industry but to make sure you make good widgets at competitive cost, reach their markets and satisfy your customers’ widget needs.

Ultimately, Startup Nation comprises a small part of Israel's economy, and an even smaller part of its population. But even in a knowledge-based economy like Israel, it is the mundane skills you learn in school that make the wheels go round. Israel's wheels are creaking. For the nation to truly prosper in the years and decades to come, the schools need profound improvement.