Learning how to reduce inequalities: early childhood education in Israel
Author: Taub Center Staff Bulletin Articles

Early childhood is a particularly critical age for cognitive, social, and emotional development. What’s more, studies show that investing in early childhood education yields high returns in terms of educational, economic, social, and health outcomes later in life and can potentially reduce inequalities among children from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is particularly critical to address issues related to early childhood in Israel because of a number of characteristics unique to Israeli society: Israel’s fertility is the highest among the developed countries, standing at 3.1 (compared to 1.6 on average in the OECD), the share of children ages 0-4 in the population is nearly double that of the OECD average, and levels of inequality and childhood poverty in Israel are both relatively high in comparison to other OECD countries.

On a positive note, young children in Israel spend more time in early childhood education frameworks than children in other developed countries. This could have important implications given that the academic literature shows that the number of years children spend in early childhood education frameworks is a strong predictor of their later academic achievement.

Over half of children in Israel ages 0-2 are enrolled in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) compared to 35% on average in the OECD. In fact, when it comes to children below the age of one, Israel leads developed countries in the share of children participating in education frameworks: 31% compared to 9% on average in the OECD. Even the participation rate of children ages 3-5 is particularly high in Israel, and is nearly universal (99%), compared to an OECD average of 87%.

There are a number of possible reasons behind the high ECEC enrollment rate of Israeli children. Firstly, the matter is related to high employment rates among mothers of young children in Israel. Unlike in other developed countries where the employment rate of mothers of 0-2-year-olds is lower than that of mothers of 3-5-year-olds, employment rates in Israel for mothers of young children are quite similar to one another, standing at 70% and 75%, respectively.

Another factor is maternity leave policies. While Israel’s maternity leave allowance is relatively generous, with a new mother receiving a benefit equal to her full salary, paid maternity leave is shorter in Israel than in other OECD countries, which could lead parents to put their children into education frameworks at earlier ages.

Not only do more Israeli children participate in these frameworks, but they also spend more time in them per week than do children in other developed countries. Researchers from the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality estimate that Israeli children spend 30-40 hours a week in early childhood frameworks, while other estimates reach 50 hours. Any of these estimates show a particularly high number of hours per week spent in ECEC frameworks in Israel compared to other OECD countries.

However, despite these high numbers, Israel’s performance on quality indices for early childhood frameworks is not very encouraging. The quality of early childhood frameworks is generally evaluated by examining the child-staff ratio, the educational and training level of the staff, and the quality of the educational processes that take place in the frameworks. An analysis of the 2018 TALIS survey (Teaching and Learning International Survey) shows that Israel’s performance on these indices relative to other countries that participated in the survey is concerning.

The number of children per staff in Israeli kindergartens – both Hebrew and Arabic-speaking – is particularly high compared to other developed countries. In fact, Israel has 50% more children and 23% less staff than the average in the comparison countries. Additionally, while an impressive 95% of kindergarten teachers in Israel are graduates of higher education, nearly 70% of kindergarten aides have a high school education or lower.

This finding is particularly worrying in light of the fact that Israel has the highest share of kindergarten aides out of the total staff and the lowest share of kindergarten teachers of any of the comparison countries. Furthermore, public spending on early childhood frameworks provides an indication of the quality of the education provided in these frameworks, and public investment on early childcare in Israel is among the lowest in the developed countries.

These findings are important because research shows that academic achievement later in life is affected not only by the number of years spent in early childhood frameworks, but also by the quality of these frameworks. Furthermore, early childhood education can be a mechanism for narrowing achievement gaps between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is supported by studies indicating that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds may benefit more in terms of cognitive development from participating in early childhood education frameworks, even while they are less likely to be in such frameworks for over two years. Thus, while Israel already leads the developed countries in participation in early childhood frameworks, improving the quality of these frameworks could contribute to reducing future inequalities in Israeli society.

The paper described in this article was published as 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.