An urgent need for reform

The latest, pitiful, showing in the PISA rankings highlights the need to overhaul the education system.

December 8, 2016 22:03
4 minute read.
EDUCATION MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks at the OECD global summit in Jerusalem yesterday as Presid

EDUCATION MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks at the OECD global summit in Jerusalem yesterday as President Reuven Rivlin looks on.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When Benjamin Netanyahu was leader of the opposition before the 2009 elections, he came up with the slogan “A good teacher in every classroom,” and vowed to restore Israel’s place among the top 10 countries in math and science.

The prime minister has been in power ever since, but Israel continues to lag behind.

In the 2015 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), released every four years and published this week, Israel ranked 40th in science, 39th in math and 37th in reading. It performed well below the OECD average in all three subjects in the tests which are conducted among 540,000 pupils in 72 countries or regions and then crunched into a standardized scale.

At the top of the tier too, Israel under-performed with only 13.9% of Israeli students receiving highest level scores in at least one subject, compared to the OECD average of 15.3%. It also had the highest number of “low achievers” among OECD countries in all three subjects – 20.2% – compared to an average of 13%. And the situation is in fact worse as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) boys are not taught core subjects and therefore do not sit the exams.

I spoke to Prof. Ben David, a Tel Aviv University economist and founder of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, to try and understand what these figures mean for Israel’s economy and future growth.

The picture he paints is not pretty.

“This is existential,” he tells me, “this is changing the paradigm of what is national security, because this is national security. If half the children in Israel are receiving a third world education we will have a third world economy that won’t be able to support a first-world army. In this neighborhood that’s existential.

“Already today, as the result of the education system, half of society does not pay income tax; they don’t even make it to the bottom rung of the income tax ladder.

Ninety percent of income tax comes from the top two deciles. That’s today, what’s going to happen in 20-30 years’ time? We can’t afford it. Who is going to pay for everything? This is something that we have to deal with right now!” Pretty depressing stuff, especially considering that between the PISA tests conducted in 2011 and the 2015 version, Israel increased its education spending by a massive 35%.

So what is Israel doing wrong? “Throwing money at a problem won’t solve it,” says Ben David. “You have to focus not on quantity, but on quality. When you look at the education system, one of the problems has to do with how we train teachers and how we compensate them.

Nearly all the teachers in Israel come from teacher training colleges or colleges and only 6% come from universities. How could those teachers possibly get your kids up to university level if they themselves can’t get accepted [to universities]. This has huge ramifications for the future and we seem to be going nowhere with this.”

Ben David points out that while the average psychometric grade of university students in 2014-15 was 617, over three-quarters (79%) of all first year education students studied in teaching colleges and their average grade was only 494, and among the remaining 15% of first year education students studying at colleges the average grade dropped to just 439.

Is this the best way to educate the future teachers of Israel, he asks. Obviously not.

Ben David recommends that teachers study first for undergraduate degrees in disciplines like math and English and only later should those interested in pursuing a teaching career gain a teaching certificate.

“If you want to teach math then study math, don’t study teaching,” he says. “That way, the universities would do the initial filtering. Then if you know math, you don’t have to be a teacher, and if we want you to be a teacher we have to pay you, which means we can also require you to work competitive hours.”

While Ben David makes favorable mention of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts to increase the number of students doing the top-level five-unit matriculation in math, he points out that a study published recently by the Shoresh Institute found that focusing on the weaker students who lack the core competencies to participate in a modern competitive economy would lead to a cumulative increase of 300% GDP beyond Israel’s current trajectory over an eight-decade period.

He explains that if every current pupil were to acquire a minimum score of 420 in the PISA exams – the cutoff point the OECD has determined is the minimum required to achieve those core competencies, compared with a 490 point average among its 35 member nations then Israel would see a huge increase in per capita growth.

“We have the largest share of kids below that minimum so if all of the G7 countries were to focus on the lowest achievers we would obviously be the biggest beneficiaries and we would start closing the gap on these countries in a big way,” says Ben David. “That means a whole different future for Israel.”

Seven years after coming back into power, it’s time for Netanyahu to do the math and fulfill his promise to make Israel’s once admired education system great again.

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