Educational Inequality in Israel: From Research to Policy
Author: Hanna Ayalon, Nachum Blass, Yariv Feniger, Yossi Shavit Policy Research

For the full book in Hebrew click here

Despite pervasive differences of opinion and ideological battles within Israeli society, there is one subject where there is complete agreement and that is the need to narrow educational gaps. Most agree that education is one of the keys to success in life, and that we should ensure equity in terms of educational opportunities for all children in Israel.

Many believe that narrowing educational inequalities can also contribute to narrowing economic inequality that is so prevalent. Nevertheless, educational disparities between socioeconomic groups, sectors, and ethnic groups abound. These gaps seem intransigent despite the efforts of government and the education system.

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel has published a new book Educational Inequality in Israel: From Research to Policy, which gathers the current knowledge on a variety of issues relating to educational inequality, and discusses education policy and steps that can be taken towards change. Leading educational authorities in Israel collaborated on this book including Professor Hanna Ayalon, Nachum Blass, Dr. Yariv Feniger, and Professor Yossi Shavit.

This book examines the issues of educational inequality in Israel. Children’s academic achievements are determined to a large extent by the economic and educational resources that their parents have available.

There are tremendous inequalities among families in Israel in terms of these resources, and this contributes to a large extent to the differences in educational opportunities for the younger generation. These inequalities do not just stem from differences in family resources but also from the structure of the education system and its processes.

For example, separation of weaker and stronger students contributes to a strengthening of the inequality between these groups in terms of their achievements.  Similarly, privatization of the education system is likely to increase the achievements of students from well-off families since they can afford the expenses of private education while students from poorer families often attend schools with fewer resources providing education of a lower quality.

This all contributes to a widening of educational gaps. This book documents educational inequality in Israel and discusses the possible contribution of education policy to the narrowing of these disparities among young people. It appears that despite the advantages that stronger social status groups hold, there is hope that focused education policy can narrow the disparities, even if they cannot be eliminated. Knowing the centrality of family resources in creating educational disparities should not weaken the drive of policy makers to work towards narrowing these gaps.

If anything, it should strengthen their resolve to develop directed policies to this end. The book’s chapters discuss a variety of ways that education policy can further educational opportunities among weaker social groups in Israel.

A policy of differential allocation of student resources should be implemented

There are differences in resource allocation between socioeconomic groups, and affirmative action policies enacted by the Ministry of Education have not, as yet, brought about substantial changes. It does, however, appear that gaps in resources – especially between the Hebrew and Arab education sectors – are narrowing.

Only about 10% of the Ministry of Education budget is set aside to advance weaker population groups. The Taub Center researchers suggest changing the budgeting system by implementing a differential basket of student resources from preschool through to high school, recognizing that this is a valuable tool for advancing equity in the education system.

Allocating in this way allows the services to be concentrated in the hands of the Ministry of Education and gives them the ability to change the current situation where municipalities with different resources and needs are required to contribute the same percentage of their resources to education funding.

Differential budgeting allows the Ministry to set a separate system of compensation and incentives for teachers in schools serving weaker population groups. It is based on the school’s Nurture Index, giving priority to those institutions that are socially integrated with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Investment in early childhood brings returns both to the individual and to society

The first years of life – early childhood – are a critical period in child development. The family’s socioeconomic background is likely to impact the supply of positive and negative stimuli in the young child’s experience with long-term developmental impact including on future academic achievements. Research shows that socioeconomic gaps in early childhood tend to intensify over the child’s lifetime.

Taub Center researchers explain that inequalities in academic achievement in Israel are linked to economic inequalities for families of young children. Interventions during this critical period, while the infant’s brain is still malleable, bring greater returns than later interventions, and are also likely to narrow academic achievement gaps among children from different socioeconomic groups.

The researchers suggest several steps, including increasing accessibility and improving the quality of early childcare in day care centers and family-run daycare and increasing participation in programs of this nature; keeping child to staff ratios low in early childhood frameworks; and investing in training high-quality staff for these facilities.

In addition, the researchers recommend increasing Income Support, increasing and differentially distributing Child Allowances, and raising the work grants for those parents of young children who are low wage earners. Early intervention brings returns to the child and to society in a plethora of areas.

Decreasing class sizes is not a “cure-all,” although it can help students from weaker populations

Classrooms in Israel are the most crowded of the OECD countries and Israeli student achievements are middling to low relative to their peers in other countries. Does class size explain the low level of achievements?

Those who favor smaller classes claim that they allow teachers to give more individual attention to students, make teacher’s work easier, and lessen teacher burn-out, among other benefits. However, decreasing the number of students per class is an expensive proposition, and it involves enlisting many more teachers who may be less well qualified.

In the Hebrew education system, students from wealthier socioeconomic groups tend to learn in relatively large classes, and those from weaker backgrounds are in smaller classes. Thus, decreasing class sizes in this sector is most likely to benefit the wealthier students. Despite this, there is evidence that small classes can bring about an improvement in academic achievements at the primary school level and in classes for students from weaker backgrounds.

It is important to also emphasize that decreasing class size must go hand in hand with modified pedagogical methods. Thus, it is advisable to do this in schools serving weaker populations (including in the Arab education sector), primarily in primary education, and this step should be accompanied by the development of new pedagogical tools and teacher training programs.

Privatization and parental choice within the education system increases inequalities

There are those who see parental choice, competition, and privatization of schools as an efficient means of improving the education system, however, current research does not bear this out. The majority of studies find no clear advantages to opening registration areas or to private or independent schools that benefit from public funding in comparison to regular public education.

Studies show that choice and privatization do not contribute to improving the overall system, and are, in fact, likely to increase the level of inequality in the system. Taub Center researchers stress that we should ensure that existing choice mechanisms do not harm the public system, and that they encourage pedagogical approaches with a proven potential to improve both teaching and learning of weaker students.

The book’s researchers recommend that in cases where there is parental choice of schools, the state and the local authority should ensure that schools do not charge entrance fees (since payments of this sort are a deterrent to those students with more limited resources) and that, in cases of excess demand, students are accepted on the basis of a lottery system rather than on the basis of tests or interviews. In addition, there should be transportation available to every child in the area to make the school of choice accessible regardless of parental ability to pay.

The price of student testing and the potential for developing measurement and evaluation tools

The Meitzav exams (the Hebrew acronym for School Growth and Efficiency Measures) are intended to provide the public and decision makers with information on academic achievements and gaps. As in other countries that have adopted such exams, though, it seems that their disadvantages outweigh their advantages.

Instead of the exams serving as a tool for developing policy and directing policy for narrowing educational gaps, many schools intensively prepare their students for the exams, and in some cases, there have even been reports of altering test results.

In light of this, the researchers recommend changing the Meitzav exams to tests based on a representative sample of schools that will give a picture of achievements and educational perspectives and will also enable testing over multiple years.

Data collection of this sort will lessen pressures on schools following the publication of results and will allow them to focus on real improvements. In addition, existing information sources – in the Ministry of Education, in the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, and others – should be used to improve teaching methods in schools.

Heterogeneous student populations

The Israeli education system is divided into “four tribes,” as the President of Israel said: Hebrew State, State-religious, Haredi, and the Arab education system. Despite various attempts, it is hard to imagine much integration of these four tribes. Within each tribe, there is also considerable segregation between various groups.

Schools in the Israeli education system differ in the socioeconomic composition of their student bodies. These differences contribute to perpetuating intergenerational inequality because the composition of the student body has an impact on student achievements.

For this reason, researchers are of the opinion that integration within the schools between students from the different tribes and different socioeconomic backgrounds should be encouraged, for instance through economic incentives.

Improving teacher recruitment and training for those serving the periphery

 In the past two decades, teacher’s colleges have raised their entrance requirements somewhat, but they still draw mostly students with weak academic performance.

In the past decade, there have been programs aimed at encouraging candidates with high academic skills to work with weaker populations, including monetary incentives and retraining. Nevertheless, there is still an issue of teacher attrition rates, as well as teachers with high seniority and advanced degrees tending to teach in schools serving stronger populations. One of the Ministry of Education’s programs mentors new teachers, although its efficacy has not yet been fully evaluated.

The Taub Center researchers believe that teachers from strong backgrounds should be encouraged to teach students with relatively weak backgrounds, and should be mentored during their first years of work to give them broad professional support.

Policies to narrow gaps in higher education

Opening up the higher education system has brought about a substantial rise in the share of those seeking higher degrees among Jews and Arab Israelis, and for both women and men, though female rates of higher education are higher in both sectors, and particularly among Arabs. Nevertheless, the rise did not narrow gaps a great deal between Jewish and Arab Israeli students.

About 70% of those Jews with a bagrut (matriculation) qualification continue on to higher education compared to about 50% of Arab Israelis.  A look at Jews by ethnic origin shows that about 75% of Ashkenazim, about 65% from the former Soviet Union, about 61% of Mizrahiim, and only about 51% of Ethiopian descent continue onto academic studies.

Children whose parents have an academic education are far more likely to continue on to higher education than are children whose parents do not have an academic education (76% versus 61%, respectively). There are also differences in the choice of institutions of higher learning: Muslims and Druze tend to study in colleges, while Jews (primarily Ashkenazim and those from the former Soviet Union) and Christians tend to study in the university system.

The likelihood of Arab Israelis dropping out from their degree studies is twice that of Jews. With regard to completing a degree, those of Ethiopian descent have the lowest completion rates – less than half of them complete their studies within the defined period of time. In teacher colleges, only 60% complete their studies on time while about 18% drop out.

“The study’s findings show that high school gaps have repercussions that extend to higher education, and interventions should begin early in the education system, primarily among groups with weaker socioeconomic backgrounds and among Arab Israelis,” say the researchers.

They add, “Gaps in accessibility to higher education between Jews and Arab Israeli students are deep, and Arab Israelis need to be encouraged to obtain higher education and to develop their employment possibilities. In addition, preparatory courses for Arab Israeli candidates who meet entrance requirements for higher education should be increased.”

The negative implications of tracking students

Tracking students is done so that they can learn according to their abilities and interests. Tracking, though, increases inequalities since students from weaker backgrounds are often directed into tracks where their educational opportunities are limited.

Students are placed in different educational tracks in middle and high school. Following a substantial decline over the years in the extent of vocational-technological education, the Ministry of Education set a goal to once again increase attendance in those tracks.

The claims were that doing so would narrow gaps between the Center and the periphery and between wealthy and poorer population groups, would ultimately help the Israeli market place which has been hurt by a shortage of workers with vocational-technological skills, and would also strengthen the work ethic in education. Those against the Ministry move claim that vocational-technological education perpetuates inequalities, despite the changes that it has undergone, since the weakest students are directed to those vocations that give their graduates the fewest opportunities.

The researchers recommend working to limit tracking in middle school, for instance by having a more heterogeneous mix of students in classes, and encouraging even those students with difficulties to take academic track high school classes that lead to a bagrut qualification.

Gender gaps in education

A good deal of the discussion about gender gaps in education is concerned with girls’ inferior performance in mathematics and science, despite the fact that in all subjects and at all levels of study their achievements are no worse and even better than those of their male peers.

This is true in all population groups and particularly so in the Arab education system. Nevertheless, policy planners and education researchers show little interest in how boys are consistently outperformed in language skills.

Gender gaps in mathematics and sciences are seen in both high school and higher education, and are expressed in the low share of women who study physics and computer science. Gender gaps in these fields reflect on gender-based gaps in wages in the labor market, since studying engineering and computer science at the academic level increase the chances of attaining lucrative employment. Recent studies show that encouraging women to study technology related fields can help narrow the gender wage gap, and might even eliminate it.

Pedagogical interventions to narrow gaps in the classroom and school

Cooperative learning in small groups and individual tutoring for students with difficulties are two approaches that are found to be effective in advancing equity between students, and yet require little economic investment. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education has yet to develop a clear framework for their efficient implementation in a manner that will target those students who need it the most.

Cooperative learning in small, heterogeneous groups can substitute for tracking students by academic level, and can thereby narrow inequalities inherent in tracking. This approach requires training and mentoring teachers, and organizational flexibility in teaching hours and study materials.

Its implementation requires a change in the mindset among school principals and those in the Ministry of Education. Researchers suggest that the hours of individual tutoring required by teachers should be focused on advancing low-performing students, and additional tutoring hours should be budgeted for those schools serving socioeconomically weak populations.