“Mathematics, English, and computer studies.” These are the three most popular rzesponses from parents and students over the last decade to the question, “Which school subjects are most important for the future?” You can agree with the answers, or argue with them vehemently, but the message from the public to those in charge of education is very clear: The Israeli public understands that the world into which our children are growing is computational, international and digital.
This insight is reinforced by a comprehensive study from the Aaron Institute for Economic Policy at Reichman University, which will be presented at the Israel Democracy Institute’s 2022 Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society in a session dedicated to the roles of the education system from the perspective of the labor market.
In the study, datasets from the Central Bureau of Statistics were analyzed to find which subjects Israel’s hi-tech workers studied when they were in school. The unequivocal answer is hardly surprising: They took five-unit matriculation in mathematics, English and computer studies and/or physics.
Furthermore, the hi-tech workers were asked in a survey about the skills they consider most important for their success at work. Their clear response? The ability to solve complex, unfamiliar problems under conditions of uncertainty; to use the knowledge they have learned in order to cope with real-world challenges; to learn independently, with a high level of personal discipline and without fear; and to communicate and collaborate with others, including people who are different from them.
How many of the graduates of our education system leave high school with a first-rate “hi-tech matriculation” that contains this five-unit package, and who are they? How many students gain the tools and the skills described above, as measured by the international PISA tests, and who are they?
The answer is 9%.
Only 9% of our children are ready for this new world, and they are mainly boys from well-off Jewish families in the center of the country.
But all this is now set to change. The change has already begun, as 15% of students are now taking five-unit mathematics, half of them girls, and including more students from Israel’s periphery and from Arab society. The share of students entering engineering studies at university has consequently risen to 12%, thanks to a targeted policy implemented by the Council for Higher Education.
Israel’s hi-tech sector has also expanded over the last four years from 9% to 12% of the workforce, and among young adults around one in five now works in hi-tech. This represents a major economic and social change in Israel, one which is challenging perspectives and ways of thinking.
It goes way beyond the huge billboards on the Ayalon highway advertising for workers, or the popular skits about hi-tech workers on TV comedy shows. In fact, a new Israeli dream is taking shape before our eyes.
THE GOVERNMENT got the message immediately. As soon as it was formed last year, it set an ambitious target: 15% of Israelis will work in hi-tech, and a million of us will use hi-tech skills in our work.
The need for digital skills is growing in all areas of life. Bank branches are closing and being replaced by apps, pizzas are delivered to our door at the touch of a screen, and all kinds of services are improving and becoming more efficient.
The message to parents is also clear. What do we want for our children? That they have a good life, and that they fulfill their dreams and realize their full potential. For this to happen, they need excellent teachers, enrichment activities at elementary school age, and classes for outstanding students from middle school onward. We aim to get them on track for the five-unit “hi-tech matriculation,” a solid foundation for future success.
The quantum leap is now set to come from the Education Ministry. The next stage involves adapting school curricula to skills related to real-world problem solving, independent learning, teamwork, and interpersonal communication. These skills are very much in demand in hi-tech, but in fact, they are essential for all of us in the 21st century.
Productivity data and results of the international PIAAC and PISA tests indicate that relatively few Israelis possess the necessary work skills for the modern world of work in the 21st century. Other countries are taking steps to ensure that workers obtain the necessary skills, and Israel has huge potential to execute them well.
These skills will be built into an upgraded “package” of studies of applied mathematics, communicative English, programming, and computer networks. We must work together to make the “hi-tech matriculation” accessible to anyone willing to take on the challenge of excellence, beginning in middle school – and not only Jewish boys from the center of Israel.
When we open up this path for all students, not only will Israel’s economy become stronger, but Israel’s society will become fairer.
The writer is the executive director of the Eddie and Jules Trump Family Foundation.