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Students in a classroom..(Photo by: REUTERS)
Teaching the startup nation
One of the central factors leading to substandard education in many Israeli schools is the low quality of teachers.
Israel is the startup nation that fosters a culture of innovation and creativity, particularly in the field of hi-tech.

For years now the number of Israeli hi-tech companies listed on the NASDAQ is surpassed only by the US and China. Israeli tech startups are transforming healthcare, finance, media and the Internet.

Israel has the largest share of early-stage venture capital funds as percentage of gross domestic product of any OECD country and attracts billions of dollars annually in tech investments.

Yet Israeli schoolchildren – the next generation of the startup nation – consistently rank horribly on international scholastic assessment tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Results from both the PISA and the TIMSS were released recently and, true to form, Israeli 15-year-olds (PISA) and eighth graders (TIMSS) performed terribly in comparison to other developed countries.

In the 2015 TIMSS, Israeli eighth graders fell to sixteenth place from seventh place in 2011 in mathematics and to nineteenth place from thirteenth place in 2011 in science.

Results from the PISA test emphasized the tremendous gaps between rich, Jewish Israelis and poor, Arab Israelis.

How can we reconcile these two very discordant realities? On one hand, Israel is a world leader in groundbreaking innovation and creativity in the field of hi-tech, but on the other hand Israel is home to some of the most underachieving school children in the Western world, particularly in math and science.

Part of the answer is that when Israel’s students are good, they are very good. These super-talented kids might represent just a fraction of the total number of students in our schools, but they make up for it with their truly superior abilities.

But many researchers are convinced that Israel cannot continue to rely on a few exceptional individuals. For instance, Prof. Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and an economist at Tel-Aviv University, recently published a study in which he argued that primary and secondary education in Israel is horrible.

One of the central factors leading to substandard education in many Israeli schools is the low quality of teachers.

According to figures provided by the Shoresh Institute, the average psychometric grade for students enrolled in teaching colleges was 494, compared to a 617 score for the average student enrolled in one of Israel’s universities.

How can teachers who lack the basic skills needed to get accepted to university be expected to prepare the next generation for academic excellence? The level of scholarship at colleges is much lower than at universities, which means that the weak students who opt to go into education because they are not accepted to any other faculty often end up receiving particularly bad education themselves.

The situation is even worse than reflected by the data.

The tens of thousands of children enrolled in haredi education who aren’t taught math and science in high school are not even included in the PISA and TIMSS tests.

So while it is true that approximately one-third of Israel’s children attained a score below 420 in the recent PISA exam – a score that reflects the absolute minimum basic level of knowledge needed for coping productively in a modern, competitive economy – the true number would be even higher if the haredi students were included.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett was right to react with alarm to the PISA and TIMSS results. As he noted in a Facebook post, we are indeed in an “emergency situation.”

A systematic reform in the education system is desperately needed, beginning with revamping the way we choose and train our teachers. Today according to data provided by Shoresh, 80% of students learning to become teachers are educated at teaching colleges that provide substandard preparation and have low acceptance requirements. Just 6% are trained in one of Israel’s universities.

This must change. We must raise the standard of teaching by making it more difficult to receive accreditation to teach. In parallel, the salaries of teachers must be raised.

Only with excellent, well-trained teachers can we hope to train the next generation of the startup nation.
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