If the Israeli education system is to minimize gaps between students and catch up with their OECD counterparts, the next government and education minister must significantly reform the country’s middle schools, according to research carried out by the Trump Foundation.
The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2016 showed that Israeli students continue to lag behind OECD counterparts in literacy, mathematics and science, with standardized test results and international data pointing to gaps between pupils beginning to widen after entering middle school.
Seeking to identify the roots of the disparities, the Modi’in-based Trump Foundation, a philanthropic organization established in 2011 to improve educational achievement in Israel – and which, despite its name, has no connection with US President Donald Trump – examined mathematics studies in nine countries recording higher achievements than Israel in the PISA test.
“Some are very similar to Israel and some very different, but we wanted to evaluate what they are doing,” executive director Eli Hurvitz told The Jerusalem Post.
The foundation evaluated countries, included PISA test leaders Singapore, Canada, Finland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Israel was ranked 39th out of 72 countries in the mathematics index. The structure of post-primary education, curriculum, testing, scope of studies, encouraging excellence and teacher training were all taken into account.
“Naturally, there were similarities and differences between the systems, but we found three key differences that were relevant for Israeli education: firstly, how they organize their schools; secondly, conducting a readiness or diagnostic test at the end of middle school; and thirdly, the level of curriculum and learning materials,” Hurvitz said.
In terms of school structuring, Hurvitz said there is no clear policy in Israeli middle schools to deal with diversity of ability. This is different to Switzerland and Singapore, for example, where pupils are separated according to ability levels, or Canada and Finland where students benefit from individualized learning plans.
“In Israeli middle school science classes, pupils are studying four subject matters combined, and studying all together. When everyone is in the same classroom, teachers have to teach according to the lowest common denominator,” Hurvitz said.
Another key finding was the comparative lack of standardized testing in Israeli middle schools. While elementary school teaches basic subjects and high schools prepare students for matriculation examinations, middle schools are lacking direction. Standardized “Meitzav” examinations are only administered every three years to fifth and eighth graders.
“Middle school has no target and nobody knows exactly what the purpose of these three years ought to be,” said Hurvitz. “Many students and teachers simply say this a redundant period and a difficult age for everyone.”
The final difference concerned the nature of the Israeli mathematics curriculum in comparison to other countries, with Israeli pupils largely being taught mathematics and science separately.
“In the other nine countries, they use high-level learning materials that combine advanced mathematics applied in real-life contexts of science and technology,” Hurvitz said. “Here, mathematics is mostly theoretical, solving equations on paper.”
The next government and the next minister of education will have a great opportunity, Hurvitz believes, to significantly improve Israeli education should they choose to focus on middle schools, and by drawing inspiration from other countries.
“They have a great opportunity to learn from the success of the previous government in terms of the number of high school students now studying five units of mathematics,” said Hurvitz, adding that this provides considerable room for optimism.
Incumbent Education Minister Naftali Bennett placed a great deal of emphasis on reversing the downward trend of students taking the highest level, five-unit mathematics matriculation examination when he entered office.
According to Education Ministry figures published in June 2018, more than 18,000 12th grade students studied for the five-unit examinations last year, almost double the 9,100 students taking the same examination in 2013.
“The government focused on a target, with a clear policy, invested resources, supported teachers, and marshaled every partner and stakeholders to come together around one table and get significant results in a timely manner,” said Hurvitz.
“If the next government focuses on middle schools and widening the foundations of excellence, I’m almost certain they will get very good results and Israel will be able to significantly improve in the near future.”
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