In a country that has faced and continues to face enormous upheavals from the very beginning of its political existence, there is much to commend the Israeli education system and much change to hope for. Israel ranks an impressive third globally in terms of the number of academic degrees per capita. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Weizmann Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University are highly regarded internationally. Some of these are also ranked within the top 100 universities globally. According to a 2012 report on the state of education in Israel published by the University of Maryland Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, as many as 90% of school-age children in the country go on to complete secondary education. 

These achievements cannot, however, negate the significance of challenges that the Israeli establishment faces on the ground in the field of education. Instead, they compel one to wonder how a country that is globally regarded for its expertise in high technology, defence and intelligence can manage to fare poorly in international assessments of learning achievement at the primary and secondary levels. Surveys such as this one indicate that Israelis are not satisfied with the education system.  This article attempts to explore some such issues connected with education in Israel.

Enforced Conscription: Boon or Bane?
Like the country itself, there are several distinctive features about Israel’s education system. One of the better known and widely discussed of these is compulsory military conscription for young men and women, a reflection of the nation’s violent history and of its continued priorities and insecurities. Proponents of this system argue that it makes responsible and dutiful citizens of its young people, allowing them to gain diverse skills and valuable life lessons at an early age. They argue that such students are more mature when they return to higher education which ensures they make the best use of it. Dissidents would contend that unlike young people of the same age in other countries who are free to work, study or travel, the energies of young Israelis are being misdirected into violence. The matter remains open to debate.

Divergent Streams in Society and Education
Fault lines in Israeli society are also reflected in its schooling system. There are four separate and distinct streams of education known as the State, State-Religious, Arab and Ultra-Orthodox streams. The intent behind this was to allow Israel’s diverse communities to preserve and strengthen their respective identities. Of course, Arabic-medium schools and Hebrew-medium schools also tend to differ on their interpretations of the nation’s history and the treatment of its ‘original’ Arab inhabitants.

These divisions are not, however, quite as clear-cut on the ground. It is estimated that about 1% of the Arab population, usually urban Arabs, in fact attend secular ‘Jewish’ schools. These public State schools follow a secular curriculum with Hebrew as the medium of instruction, although Arabic is a compulsory subject up to a certain level. Recent government initiatives have also taken steps to ensure collaboration between Hebrew-medium and Arab-medium schools to foster mutual respect and understanding.

Graduates of secondary education from Arabic-medium schools generally find it difficult to integrate into the mainstream and perform well because the majority of higher education institutions adopt Hebrew as the medium of instruction. Nor do Arabic-medium students follow the same course as students from Jewish schools who return to higher education only after serving compulsory military service. Hence, there are significant differences in age, outlook, skills and life-experience between the two groups at the higher education level.

Ultra-Orthodox schools present different challenges altogether. Apparently, as many as 60% of male graduates from such schools do not actually enter the labour market. Thus, the government’s investment in this stream of education does not elicit proportionate economic returns.

Although the divided school system aims to maintain diversity, it does not achieve much by way of empowering disadvantaged groups. Instead, it ends up creating the opposite outcome because they are unable to integrate successfully into the mainstream. In fact, a 2015 CNN report identified growing social inequality as one of the top 5 critical concerns facing the Israeli government.

Other Problem Areas
Since the government is legally obligated to provide religious-based education to those who demand it, this leads to the creation of smaller schools. These are typically not as well-funded or well-managed as larger schools with better attendance. Arabic-medium schools catering to Muslim, Christian, Bedouin and Druze families have generally remained underfunded as compared to Hebrew-medium ones. They also tend to have poorer teacher-student ratios and poorer access to resources.

Economic disparity directly corresponds to disparity in learning achievement as wealthier children on average tend to perform better than poorer ones. Affluent parents are able to afford private tutors and better resources and tend to place more emphasis on educational achievement. Among economically disadvantaged sections, children are pressured to generate incomes leading to increased absenteeism and dropout rates. Among the Bedouin, higher rates of illiteracy, large family size and increased incidence of learning disabilities as a result of marriage within restricted populations are blamed for poor attendance and performance.

It must also be noted that while cost of living varies widely across rural and urban areas, teachers’ salaries remain uniform throughout the country.

The Path Ahead
It may justifiably be stated that education in Israel is as diverse as its peoples and landscapes. Opinions remain divided as to whether this is necessarily a good thing. It is heartening, however, that the government has taken note of existing challenges in education and attempted to introduce reforms. This includes improved access to education among the scattered Bedouin, initiatives to encourage integration of Ultra-Orthodox men and women into the mainstream and improved training for teachers. 

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