haredi kids studying 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel recently released the main conclusions of a study on Israeli education conducted by executive director Dr. Dan Ben-David. Here is the rather discouraging summary of the report: "Not only do the children of Israel have the lowest achievement levels among industrialized countries, educational gaps between them are the highest in the West."
The study examines standardized test results in math, science and reading administered in the major industrialized countries. Israel has both the lowest overall level and the highest gaps. That means that while the average Israeli is on a level slightly lower than his or her peers in comparable countries, the best Israeli students are farther than usual above the average; they are comparable to the best students in other countries. But the worst-scoring Israelis are farther than usual below the already low average; they are far behind the lowest-scoring students in other countries.
Sounds bad? Things are actually worse than they seem.
In most countries, the standardized tests are taken by almost all of the student population; in general, there is no more than about 5 percent of students not included in the tests. But in Israel, most of the haredi education sector is excluded. Ben-David's assumption, which I believe is correct, is that if students in this sector took the tests, their scores would be below the average for Israel. This means that a fair comparison would show Israel even farther behind its peers.
These results suggest two ethical issues:
â€¢ The State of Israel is not fulfilling its responsibility toward the weakest students in government-supervised education.
â€¢ The haredi community is not fulfilling its responsibility toward its fellow citizens in the provision of haredi education.
The first assertion could be challenged if we found that the students who are not obtaining adequate skills are also not interested in them. That is why I do not claim that the results show that the state is not fulfilling its educational obligation to haredi students, because most of this sector is not interested in improving its standardized test performance and refuses to take the exams.
However, it is clear that all the participants in the state system, including the poor, the periphery and Arabs, are very interested in better education. Making sure every child gets a decent education is a basic governmental obligation, so I am confident in the first assertion.
The second assertion could be challenged if we found that the haredi sector is not interested in the benefits of secular education. Even if we acknowledge that basic skills are essential to earning a living at a level suited to a modern developed economy, it is possible that this community simply prefers its own education system and is reconciled to the lower standard of living that accompanies it.
This position is not inherently unreasonable; we find that the sages of the Talmud praised the generation of King Hezekiah because the entire population was devoted to intense Torah study even at the expense of neglect of their material standard of living.
However, we find that the representatives of the haredi community consistently insist on being supported at a material level comparable with that of the surrounding community. This demand could still be reconciled with an internal haredi education system incapable of generating such a standard of living as long as the haredi community remains a small and marginal population. Many countries have small marginal populations that subsist on public largesse.
But in my opinion, the haredi population has already passed the level at which this status can be practically maintained, and based on current enrollments, they will be a very significant portion of the workforce within less than a generation.
Another possibility is to challenge Ben-David's assumption that haredi children are worse prepared for the workforce than children whose test results are reported. Many have claimed that haredi education, especially that for boys, is particularly effective at cultivating high-level cognitive thinking. I believe that this is true, but these kinds of skills contribute to workplace advancement only for a small minority of very talented students. The skills needed for learning Talmud may help someone headed for a career in law or academia, but for the average person who will have to find an entry-level salaried job, the kind of skills measured by standardized tests are more relevant.
I am more optimistic than Ben-David, because I believe the skills measured by standardized tests are weakly correlated with workplace productivity. (I have written in the past about the studies of William Lewis in this regard.)
But I am also more pessimistic, because Ben-David believes educational reform is a viable solution to our problem. Given that a large and growing fraction of the Israeli populace is beyond the reach of educational reform in the government sector, I am concerned that reform will remain a partial and inadequate solution.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).