Leaning tower of PISA: Growing gaps in Israel's scholastic performance

The tests revealed a growing gap in scholastic performance between Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking pupils in Israel.

A CLASSROOM (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A robust and effective education system is vital for the success of any country. Education fuels a society and is the engine of its economy. It provides children with knowledge, the ability to read, to communicate and to identify their strengths which will come in handy when they need to grapple with future decisions about jobs and careers.
Unfortunately, though, Israel showed once again this week that it simply doesn’t get it. The PISA test, or Program for International Student Assessment, held once every three years by the OECD, showed that Israeli school students are consistently performing below the developed world average in core subjects like reading, mathematics and science.
The tests also revealed a growing gap in scholastic performance between Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking pupils in Israel.
Israeli students, for example, recorded a mean score of 470 points in reading examinations, below the OECD average of 487 points. While Hebrew speakers maintained their previous score of 506 points in the latest examinations, the performance of Arabic-speaking pupils slipped by 29 points to 362, bringing down the national average.
The same happened in mathematics. The Israeli average stood at 463 points, below the OECD average of 489. Hebrew speakers scored 490 points, just above the average, while Arabic speakers recorded a total of just 379 points, bringing down Israel’s score. Just to understand, Israel ranked below Belarus, Croatia, Hungary, Russia and Latvia.
You don’t need to score high on the PISA test to understand what is happening. Israel has a polarized education system. If you are Jewish and speak Hebrew and come from the center of the country, your chance to succeed is higher. If you are Arab, don’t speak Hebrew and live in the periphery, your chance to succeed is lower.
This has got to change. After receiving the new scores, Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced that he would establish a working team to see what can be done to bridge the gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors.
“When I took office, I declared that narrowing gaps is the key challenge today in the State of Israel,” said Peretz, who only took up his role in June. “The reality that gaps have widened between students from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds is unacceptable.... A democratic and vibrant society must grant equal opportunity to every boy and girl, and enable them to reach the forefront of sciences, academia and technology. This is our mission.”
Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz rightly said that education is just as important as Israel’s defense and security.
“As prime minister, I intend to meet with the education minister and the director-general of Israel’s Education Ministry as frequently as with the defense minister and the director-general of the Defense Ministry,” said Gantz. “The PISA survey results, which point to decline on most indexes – and worse, to widening achievement gaps – demand all of us to pause, change course, and define a nationwide program to ensure equal educational opportunity for all.”
Israel takes pride in being known as the Start-Up Nation and for having established a culture that fosters and promotes innovation. While this may be true – largely due to the leadership skills youth receive during their compulsory military service in the IDF – this will be in jeopardy if the education system does not quickly work to improve.
The number of Arabs working in tech, for example, has jumped 20-fold in the last decade, from just a few hundred in 2008 to over 6,000 today. While that is impressive, it is still only a drop in the bucket, constituting a mere 4.5% of hi-tech engineers.
Now imagine that Israel succeeds in bridging the gap between Hebrew and Arabic speakers, that it raises the quality of its education system and brings the country up to par with the rest of the developed world.
Imagine what the injection of a new pool of talent – Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox – would do for the Start-Up Nation, augmenting Israel as a culture and economy that fosters innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.
The next PISA tests will be in three years. Now is the time to make the changes needed for Israel to not only climb in the ranking but, more importantly, to ensure the continued economic growth this country desperately needs.