What Did You Learn In School Today?: Israel's Center Cannot Hold

Dan Ben David, a Tel Aviv University economist, and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, has led the writing of a report on Israel's failing educational system. He summarizes its findings today in Haaretz. For secular Israelis--not Israelis who oppose expressions of religious imagination, but those who see these as inherently voluntary, and civil society as a space where conscience is protected--the results are sobering. It makes you happy to be 60 and not 20.

Israel's education system has four streams: state, state-religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab. There are fewer primary school students in the state education stream now than there were a decade ago. In contrast, the state-religious primary schools have seen a 9 percent increase since 2000. The number of children in the Israeli-Arab stream grew by 35 percent, while the number of ultra-Orthodox children grew by 49 percent. All of this transpired in just one decade. About half of all primary school students in Israel already study in either the Israeli Arab or the ultra-Orthodox systems.

And what is Israel's next generation studying? Is it receiving the tools it needs to survive in a modern and competitive market?

If these children adopt their parents' work norms, then what can Israel look forward to in a number of years? Last year, 12.5 percent of men of prime working age (25 to 54) in OECD Western countries were non-employed, meaning they were either unemployed, or had dropped out of the labor force. The percentage of non-employed Israeli Arab men was almost twice that. Of the ultra-Orthodox men, more than 70 percent were non-employed. Among women, 74 percent of Arabs and 46 percent of ultra-Orthodox were non-employed, compared to only a third in the West.

Could such rates of non-employment characterize the majority in a first-world country? Could a non-first world, non-Muslim country survive in this Middle Eastern neighborhood?

And what about the current majority that is destined to become the minority? Non-employment rates of 16.5 percent among non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of prime working age may look good when compared to other groups, but they are nonetheless one-third more than is common in the West. How has this happened?

One explanation can be found in grade-school curricula as it relates to core subjects. Recent studies have found that education in core subjects affects an individual's income and the country's standard of living. A new study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which will appear in an upcoming report on the state of the country's society and economy, summarizes an entire decade of international exams, and compares Israel to a fixed list of 25 OECD countries.

Since 1999, Israel has participated in five different international exams in mathematics, science and reading. In all but one of the exams, Israel's children performed lower than their peers in every single Western country. In light of the fact that since the 1970s, Israel's living standards have been steadily falling farther and farther behind the leading Western countries, these outcomes do not suggest a change in direction is in the offing.

Educational gaps within Israel were higher than those in each of the 25 OECD countries during every year in the past decade. Since Israel's economic gaps are already among the highest in the West, and in view of the fact that the education system is the primary springboard into the labor market, how could one expect any future improvements?

Since 1999, Israel's weakest students, those in the bottom fifth percentile, have performed worse than the weakest students in every one of the 25 OECD countries, on every single exam. Israel has one of the Western world's highest poverty rates - and among its children, one can see what the future holds

It is important to point out that pupils in ultra-Orthodox schools, who do not study math or science at core curriculum levels, do not participate in the international exams. In other words, Israel's children managed to garner these problematic achievements without any assistance from the ultra-Orthodox sector.

During the decade since 1999, Israel passed a milestone when its future formally parted ways with its past. In the past decade, former Israeli pupils went on to receive more Nobel Prizes in the sciences per capita than in any other country in the world. Meanwhile, current pupils, those in the country's top fifth percentile, ranked close to the bottom compared to the Western world in every single exam (see table). How ironic it is that while receiving such a reminder of Israeli society's potential, we're also witnessing the terrible bungling of the baton's passing between generations.