Israel should cherish the feeling of producing Nobel Prize winners, because in the future they will be even harder to come by. The education system is failing today's children and tomorrow's society, according to research conducted by Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
In its forthcoming annual report on the state of Israel's society and economy, the Jerusalem-based Taub Center will present a first-of-its-kind comparison between Israel and 25 advanced economies in every exam given over the past decade. On Sunday, the center released a preview of the section of the report dealing with education, which showed Israel consistently ranking at the end of the list of Western countries and presenting a growing trend of severe gaps between top and bottom performers.
"Over the past decade or so, each couple of years, we get hit by different exam results, each time its with a different number of countries and each time the rankings change, so it's hard to get any idea of where we are," Ben-David said. "We decided to put some order in all of this. What we did was take the same 25 OECD countries that serve as a benchmark for us and compare Israel to them in a consistent way. When we did that, we found some pretty interesting things."
Ben-David and his team crunched the numbers from the results of two international scholastic evaluation mechanisms that are taken by students around the world every four years - the Programme for International Student Assessment tests, which were taken in 2002 and 2006, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, which were taken in 1999, 2003 and 2007. The results showed that the average level in Israel was consistently lower than every one of the 25 countries they compared it with.
The study also showed increasing inequalities among Israeli students.
"Our educational inequality within Israel is simply the highest in the Western world, bar none," said Ben-David. "There are smaller gaps between Beverly Hills and Harlem students in the United States than there are between our best and worst achievers here in Israel."
"By creating the largest education gaps in the Western world," he said, Israel is "sowing the seeds today of high income gaps tomorrow."
The "frosting on the cake," as Ben-David referred to it, was the performance of Israel's top achievers.
According to the study, even they consistently fall behind the rest of the Western world. From the 25 countries examined, only Italy's top performers performed more poorly than Israel's.
Ben-David said that the truth was actually even worse than the tests indicated, because the sample of the Israeli students taking the tests were skewed upwards. "None of the results include Haredim. In light of the fact that they do not study core curriculum in any meaningful manner, you can expect that all of these problems would be much worse," said Ben-David. "We exclude more kids out of these samples than any other country."
"For a country whose entire population is barely greater than that of metropolitan Philadelphia, which is sitting in the heart of one of the world's most inhospitable neighborhoods [the Middle East], these findings indicate existential problems in the next generation - unless a comprehensive reform of the educational system is adopted, and soon," he said.
"This is really all about national priorities. What do we really care about? What is most important for this country? I think that most people would agree that education should be at the top of the list," he said.
The problems, according to Ben-David, are threefold and perhaps surprisingly, budgeting isn't one of them. The same results that exist today after the education budget was cut, existed when the budget was relatively higher than in many of the other countries. Ben-David blames the situation on other things.
First, he said, Israeli kids study the wrong things. Israelis pay for more instructional hours than many of the other countries, but those hours aren't spent on core curriculum subjects that will serve the students in their competition with OECD students, Ben-David said. He gave examples of Tel Aviv high schools luring students in by offering courses in law, medicine and biotechnology, when they should focus on mathematics and reading and writing skills. He also pointed to the religious schools that, because of their focus on the religious studies, can't offer what's necessary in terms of core subjects.
The second element Ben-David pointed to was the overall quality of the teachers. "We have some excellent teachers. We have teachers who would do well in any occupation that they chose. However, we also have roughly two dozen teaching colleges in Israel and they produce the mass of our teachers. Their entrance requirements are below the entrance requirements of nearly every university department in Israel.
"So how could we possibly expect the caliber of teachers that go to these places to be on a level that could bring our kids to the universities that they themselves couldn't be accepted to?" Ben-David asked.
Finally, he said, the education system does not give principals enough power to shape their faculty. "Principals do not have the authority to reward their best teachers or fire the poor performers. As a result, teachers who should probably not carry on teaching, continue to do so despite the good of the children."
The study shows a trend that should concern anybody who cares about Israel's future, Ben-David said. "The past and the future are diverging," he said. "During the same decade in which Israel garnered more Nobel Prizes per capita in the sciences than any other country, the achievements of its top high school students were near the bottom of the Western barrel," he said.
"Within another decade or so, these same children in these same countries will be competing for real in other arenas that will determine their livelihood. The level of the basic toolbox that Israel is providing its children will put them at a severe disadvantage that many will be unable to extricate themselves from," Ben-David said.
"One of the primary goals of a public education system must be the reduction of gaps in opportunities, and this is accomplished by providing as equal an educational toolbox as possible. But Israel's education system is doing just the opposite.
"By creating the largest education gaps in the Western world, it is sowing the seeds today of high income gaps tomorrow," he said.
When asked about the study's preliminary findings, the Ministry of Education spokeswoman said that the ministry will be happy to respond upon receiving and studying the material.