This Normal Life: Parallel education

If Israel’s schools are so terrible, why are we so smart?

Israeli education (illustrative) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli education (illustrative)
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Naftali Bennett. But a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal by Israel’s education minister put into words something I’ve been trying to figure out for years: How is that our K-12 school system is so terrible and yet Israel is such a leader in hi-tech innovation?
It’s no secret that Israel’s schools are a mess. Unless you’re willing to pay extra, class sizes can reach 40 pupils to a single teacher. Discipline is a rare commodity, with teachers forced to spend much of their time cajoling their charges to simply sit down and be quiet. Pupils learn a considerable amount of material by rote, memorizing facts mainly for matriculation exams.
It’s no surprise, then, that test scores have been steadily falling. As reported in The Jerusalem Post in December, Israeli 15-year-olds ranked 40th compared to other OECD nations in science on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam. They did only slightly better in math, coming in 39th. And some 20 percent of Israeli students failed the science, math and reading tests, compared to the OECD average of 13 percent.
For someone like me, raised with the idea that Jews value education, it’s hard to comprehend that the People of the Book has built such lousy public schools. It’s even harder to grasp where the revolutionary spirit and out-of-thebox thinking that characterizes the Start-up Nation comes from. It’s certainly not from high school.
Bennett has an answer. “Our secret weapon is a parallel education system that operates alongside the formal one,” he writes. “This is where our children learn to become entrepreneurs.”
There are three components to this shadow system, Bennett says. The first is the way Jews have studied Talmud over the years – in noisy classrooms, arguing with a hevruta partner rather than the teacher-led frontal learning traditional in the West.
While secular Israeli classrooms don’t draw directly on the yeshiva world for inspiration, there’s no denying that we have stoked a culture of casual insubordination, where students can challenge their teachers without threat of punishment.
That continues throughout life in Israel – from the army to the startup conference room.
The second big difference, writes Bennett, is the level of responsibility we give our children in Israeli youth groups. The 17-year-old daughter of friends of ours is a counselor in Sayarut, which is like the scouts but with an emphasis on hiking.
She leads kids just a few years younger through grueling desert treks and, if anything goes wrong, the buck stops with her. All the youth movements are similarly peer-led.
Israel’s mandatory military service is the third differentiator between Israel and most other Western countries.
Bennett points out that “young Israeli adults must literally make life-or-death decisions every day.” Whether that’s an 18-year-old analyzing aerial imagery to watch for drones or missiles, deciphering intercepted communications that could prevent a terrorist attack, or leading a team patrolling the Egyptian border, that’s a ton of responsibility for one so young.
But the army affects Israelis in a less direct but no less important way, one that Bennett doesn’t refer to in his article.
By the time the average Israeli enters university, he or she is much older than a similar college freshman in the West.
It’s not just the two years for girls or three years for boys in the army. Increasing numbers of high-school graduates are taking a year off before going into the IDF to attend a mechina – a pre-army leadership training program.
On the other side of their service, newly released soldiers need to let off steam, and often do that by traveling the world for half a year.
Upon their return, they need to prepare for and take the psychometric exam – Israel’s equivalent to the American SATs – which most Israelis do after the army rather than during high school.
All this can take up to five years. So an Israeli entering college is likely to be older than most Western college students when they graduate.
Not surprisingly, a 23-year-old new Israeli college student is anxious to get going. He or she is more mature, both physically and emotionally, and more motivated than an 18-year-old in the West, for whom the first years of college are in many ways a party-fueled extension of high school (although gap-year programs are becoming more common).
And because they’re older, there are more married students in the Israeli population. Some even start having children before finishing university.
A bachelor’s degree in Israel is generally completed in three years. Students also declare their majors up front, rather than a couple of years in. It’s not as much fun as going to fraternity keggers and sorority balls, but by the time they’re done with college, the combination of army and age has effectively erased any disadvantage the Israeli K-12 system has instilled and puts our young people on a faster track for success.
Of course, not everyone gains the same level of maturity in the army, nor does every 20-something go off to college or become an entrepreneur. But understanding the role of Israel’s unique “extracurricular system” helps explain the cognitive disconnect between the chaos of a 10th-grade classroom and the remarkable achievements that Israeli society as a whole, and the Start-up Nation in particular, has attained.
■ The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them.