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Israel's Real Existential Threat Is the Gap Between Jewish and Arab Students

Haaretz Editorial
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File photo: High school students attending during class, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
File photo: High school students attending during class, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Haaretz Editorial

Israeli students’ poor results on the PISA exam sends a warning of unprecedented severity to the Education Ministry. The average scores, which fell below the international average in language, mathematics and science; the rise in the percentage of students who failed the test; and above all, the inconceivable gaps among diverse segments of society all require an immediate change in policy. Without such a change, successive education ministers will be leading Israel into an unprecedented socioeconomic disaster, even as the prime minister for the past decade, Benjamin Netanyahu, has demonstrated zero interest in the subject.

The PISA exam is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development once every three years, and is considered the most reliable tool for comparing education systems around the world. The latest results project that the proportion of Israel students who won’t be able to integrate into society and the job market after graduation has risen to 22 percent, the highest level in a decade. It is also worth noting how the exam’s results do not reflect the entire picture. Under orders from their rabbis, ultra-Orthodox students don’t even take the test. Thus the real situation is actually even worse.

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The latest exam, given in 2018, reveals a real decline in the achievements of Arab students. As a result, the gap between them and their Jewish peers (whose scores didn’t change much) rose significantly. In math, science and language, they are at least three to four years behind. If you isolated Arab students’ scores from those of Jewish Israelis, they would be in last place among the 79 countries where students took the exam, in the same league with countries like Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Morocco.

Embarrassingly, the ministry found it difficult to accept these results, so in an unusual move, it asked the OECD to recheck them. Nevertheless, the ministry’s own internal check found no flaws. On Tuesday, it announced that it would set up a task force to examine Arabic-language curricula and the way classroom hours and other resources are used. But after so many years of discussion about the built-in systemic gaps between Jewish and Arab students – in classroom hours, school infrastructure, teacher training, assistance to weaker students and more – establishing yet another committee is merely playing dumb. It’s a way to shun responsibility.

The only way to reduce the achievement gap is to reduce the enormous gaps in funding for Arab and Jewish students – gaps that have become the hallmark of Israel’s education system. By choosing not to implement an emergency program to reduce these differences, senior ministry officials are sentencing students to a level of ignorance that will make it hard for them to enter higher education and integrate into the job market. Their low scores aren’t a decree of fate, but a direct result of years of neglect.

This policy endangers Israel’s future. It must not be allowed to continue for even one more day.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.