C Minus in Equality

Officials usually like to talk about shrinking the education gap much more than they like to act.

The start of a new school year, which happens today, is exciting for students, parents and educators alike. While we can hope the thrill of discovering new worlds does not fade too quickly, it is clear from analyzing scholastic performance that this experience is not equally accessible to all students. As the Education Ministry boasts of its pedagogical progress, such as suspending the nationwide achievement tests and its planned changes to the matriculation exams, the time is ripe for addressing education inequality.

The results of the most recently administered Meitzav tests in elementary and junior-high schools, which evaluate students’ math, English, science and language skills, underline the close link between socioeconomic background and academic success. Almost half of the 45 lowest-scoring schools were in the south, and about 70 percent were in Israel’s poorest communities. Many of these schools are in the Arab and national-religious school systems.

Educational inequality measurably affects children’s futures, beginning with their chances of passing the matriculation exams and being admitted to university and continuing with their chances of finding a job. Inequality forces these children and teens onto the margins of society.

Schools are not bubbles, sealed off from the students’ home environment. That is one reason why the education system must try harder, to advance policies that will offset as much as possible the effects of the handicaps with which these children enter the classroom on their accomplishments at school.

One way to reach this goal would be through a new budget arrangement that allocates more funding to schools in disadvantaged communities in a kind of affirmative action program. In addition, education policy must also change so that it no longer sanctifies the matriculation pass rate to the exclusion of all other goals, which leads to students who “pull down the average” dropping out in greater numbers.

History teaches that Education Ministry officials like to talk about reducing the education gap much more than they like to take concrete action toward that end. Sporadic, scattershot action is no substitute for policy; it’s a bandage that falls off before the next test results are published. Education Minister Shay Piron talks about the ethical dimension of education. Inequality is a moral stain on Israel’s education system.