Israel's unique education challenge - analysis

The country faces an almost unique demographic challenge and it's a challenge that Israel's next government, and those that follow it, must tackle head on.

HOW MANY new students will be entering Jerusalem’s education system? 18,393. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HOW MANY new students will be entering Jerusalem’s education system? 18,393.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The OECD’s latest report paints a familiar picture.
Israel dedicates an impressive 6% of its GDP to education, but its children remain worse off than the average pupil in the developed world. At first glance, the numbers ought to not add up.
The country, however, faces an almost unique demographic challenge, and it’s a challenge that Israel’s next government – and those that follow it – must tackle head-on.
As of Israel’s 71st Independence Day in May, the country’s population stood at 9.02 million, an increase of 177,000, or approximately 2% since the country celebrated its 70th birthday. Similar to trends recorded in previous years, the population is growing at more than three times the pace of the average OECD country – growth which stood at just 0.6% in 2018.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 2.4 million Israeli children aged 0-14 years old in 2015. The bureau predicts that there will be 3.7m. children by the end of 2040 and 5.5 million by 2065, when the total population is expected to reach 20m. citizens. By 2065, the share of ultra-Orthodox Jews among Israel’s children is predicted to soar from 19% to 49%.
To put it succinctly, there will be a lot of children for future governments to educate. For Israel to stand any chance of catching up with its OECD counterparts, governments will need to dedicate an unprecedented share of its GDP to the education system.
It is always necessary, of course, to look for the story beyond the figures. Economically speaking, Israel has significant cause for celebration as it enjoys exceptional GDP growth, one of the world’s most durable economies, and negligible unemployment.
Not everyone, however, is celebrating those successes, as Israel faces higher income distribution inequality than most advanced economies. As expected, it is the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations that enjoy fewer of Israel’s economic fruits. Indeed, the gap in GDP per capita between Israel and the upper-half of OECD countries has remained at approximately 30% for almost a decade.
As future generations seek to educate the nation’s children – almost half of whom will belong to ultra-Orthodox communities and will subsequently dominate Israel’s working population – ensuring their equality at a later age means increased investment and extra effort for all of Israel’s children.
Where there’s intent and long-term planning, education reform is possible, and the solution isn’t always about funneling billions of extra shekels into the country’s schools. Just look at the number of high school students taking the highest level, five-unit mathematics matriculation examination today.
According to Education Ministry figures published last year, more than 18,000 grade 12 students studied for the five-unit examinations, almost double the 9,100 students taking the same examination in 2013. The welcome and critically important increase was largely due to clear policies, increased resources, fixed deadlines, and bringing all relevant stakeholders together.
The work is incomplete. The latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test in 2016 showed that Israeli students continue to lag behind OECD counterparts in literacy, mathematics and science, with standardized test results indicating that gaps between pupils begin to widen after entering middle school.
To catch up with the OECD average, unprecedented resources will need to be directed toward schools. As demonstrated in recent years and the latest statistics published by the OECD, funding alone will be insufficient. Catching up will also require long-term planning by all stakeholders and clear policies, both for future generations of Israeli children and the State of Israel.