Early Childhood Education in Israel and Academic Achievement
Author: Noam Zontag, Yael Navon, Dana Vaknin, Liora Bowers, Carmel Blank, Yossi Shavit Policy Research

Executive Summary

Early childhood is a critical period for human development, and gaps developed during these years tend to persevere into adulthood. Therefore, educational intervention and investment in early childhood yields great returns, primarily among children from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds. Participation in high quality early education programs can contribute to the development of abilities and skills that serve to improve later achievements – educational, economic, and health. Quality education for young children from weaker population groups can break intergenerational cycles of poverty and narrow inequalities in achievements between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

In Israel, enrollment rates in early education frameworks are very high, but the quality within these programs is low. This study analyzes three databases – data from the 2004 CBS Social Survey, which include scores on the Meitzav exams in math and science for children in Grades 5 and 8, scores from the PIRLS exam for reading literacy in 2016, and scores from the PISA exam in reading in 2018 – to examine whether participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) frameworks is related to later scholastic achievements and the relationship between children’s socioeconomic background and their participation in such programs.

Preschool education in Israel: quantity and quality

In Israel, there is particularly high participation in ECEC, yet there are also a number of worrying indications about their quality.

  • In 2017, the share of children between the ages of 3 and 6 who were in an ECEC framework stood at 99%, and among very young children (from birth to 3), the enrollment rate was 56% (versus 35% in the OECD).
  • Israeli children spend a great deal of time in preschool – about 30 to 40 weekly hours – and the share of working mothers in Israel is high relative to the OECD average as well (70% versus 54%), with a strong association between the two.
  • Nonetheless, Israel’s public expenditure per child on ECEC frameworks is among the lowest in the OECD and the ratio of children to staff is very high.
  • The preschool staff’s level of formal education is relatively low in Israel – 39% of staff have a high school education or less (versus 19% on average in the other countries that took part in a comparative study), and only 46% have an academic education.

The Social Survey (2004) and the Meitzav exams

The Meitzav exams are a series of tests administered in Grades 5 and 8 throughout Israel.

This database, consisting of the Meitzav exam scores and the CBS social survey data for 2004, is used to examine the effect of enrollment in preschool education on academic achievement on the Meitzav exams.

  • Enrollment rates and length of tenure in ECEC are higher in higher socioeconomic groups, and among Jews than among Arab Israelis.
  • Children between the ages of 2 and 4 who were in preschool or public daycare got substantially better grades on the Meitzav exams than those children who stayed at home at these ages.
  • Spending time in home daycare settings (mishpahton), nurseries (peuton), or in the care of a nanny (rather than supervised frameworks) during these years was found to be no different than care from a family member in terms of children’s future achievements.

The PIRLS 2016 exam

PIRLS is an international exam in reading literacy taken in the fourth grade. An analysis of this database indicates that participating in early childhood frameworks is associated with future achievement in reading literacy among children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • Most of the children (63%) were in ECEC frameworks for 4 years or more; about 13% for 2 years or less.
  • The number of years enrolled in an ECEC framework was high among children whose mothers have an academic education, among children whose fathers have prestigious occupations, and among Jews relative to Arab Israelis.
  • Children of mothers without an academic education who were in ECEC for four years or more had significantly higher later achievements. In contrast, among children with mothers who have an academic education, four years in ECEC compared to less than four years does not have a significant impact on their later achievements.


The PISA 2018 exam

The OECD’s PISA exam is administered to 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science.

This database makes it possible to test the relationship between starting to attend early childhood frameworks at early ages and later achievement.

  • Among Jewish children with mothers with an academic education, entering ECEC before the age of 2 does not significantly contribute to later achievements.
  • Jewish children who entered into ECEC frameworks late (at ages 5-6) had lower reading scores compared to those who entered at ages 2-4.
  • Among Arab Israeli children and Jewish children whose mothers do not have higher education, enrollment in ECEC before the age of 2 seems to be negatively associated with later achievements. This finding may reflect the low quality of ECEC for children under the age of 3 in the Arab sector and among the poorer segments of the Jewish sector.

The study shows that participation in supervised ECEC frameworks in Israel contributes to the later academic achievements of children, especially among children from low socioeconomic backgrounds – who, to begin with, have lower participation in these frameworks. Therefore, it is important to increase the participation of these groups in early childhood frameworks, particularly from ages 2 and up, where the greatest impact was observed.

This study is part of the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, generously supported by the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv.