The Arab education system in Israel: Are the gaps closing?
Author: Taub Center Staff Bulletin Articles

For many years, the Arab Israeli (Arab) education system suffered neglect and discrimination reflected in large disparities relative to the Jewish (Hebrew) sector system — both in terms of resources allocated and in terms of academic achievements. Although these disparities continue to exist, Principal Researcher Nachum Blass finds evidence that there has been significant improvement in the achievements of Arab Israeli students in recent years and that the gaps are narrowing.

In particular, when comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, the achievements of students in the Arab education system have not only improved considerably over the years, but are approaching those of students in the Hebrew education system – and even surpassing them in some areas. 

Resource allocation: budgets, teachers’ qualifications, and smaller classes

Despite disparities in budget per student and per class, the gaps in teacher quality and number of students per class have nearly closed between the two education streams.

The budget per student in the Arab education system remains much lower than in the Hebrew education system. While NIS 20,000 was allocated per primary school student in the Hebrew stream in 2015, only about NIS 16,000 was allocated in the Arab education stream. Nonetheless, the per-student budget has increased more rapidly over time in the Arab stream than in the Hebrew stream.

On the other hand, there has been improvement in the Arab stream in teacher qualifications, which in educational research are often indicated by teachers’ levels of education. The share of teachers with an academic degree in the Arab education system actually exceeds the share in the Hebrew education system at every level of schooling.

In addition, the share of teachers with a Master’s degree in the Arab system is growing and approaching that of teachers in Hebrew education, though notable gaps remain among teachers in post-primary education.

In a similar vein, though the Ministry of Education’s efforts to reduce the size of classes did not bring about considerable change in the Hebrew education system, the results were more impressive in Arab education. By 2015, the number of students per class in Arab primary and middle schools was lower than in the Hebrew education system, and only in high school was it higher.

Educational outcomes: enrollment, scholastic achievements, and international exams

More Arab Israeli students are enrolled in school and in higher education than in the past, and their scholastic achievements have risen in a number of subjects. However, large scholastic achievement gaps remain between the streams, both on national and international exam scores.

Enrollment rates in Arab primary and middle schools rose considerably between 1990 and 2015. Particularly striking is the rise in enrollment among girls in the Arab education system: from 59% to 94% during this period. In addition, there was an increase in the percentage of Arab Israelis admitted to higher education institutions within Israel and in the share of all degree holders in Israel who are Arab Israeli.

Despite this progress, it is important to note that in 2015 a much smaller percentage of young Arab Israelis (25-34) had more than 13 years of schooling than of Jews: only 36% as compared with 72%.

In terms of achievements on the fifth grade Meitzav exams, there was a substantial increase in math scores and a moderate increase in English scores among Arabic speakers between 2007 and 2016, which narrowed the gaps between the two education streams in these subjects.

On the eighth grade Meitzav exams during the same period, the gap in scores narrowed in science and technology, but the gap in math scores increased, and the gap in English remained unchanged. Classifying students into three socioeconomic groups, and comparing between students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, cuts the gap in English scores between Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students in about half. These gaps might be even smaller if students’ achievements were analyzed after dividing the socioeconomic groups more finely.

The share of those taking the matriculation exams in the Arab education stream is similar to that in the Hebrew stream, and the gap between the percentage of Jewish and Arab Israeli students who qualify for a matriculation certificate has narrowed from 17% in 2000 to 12% in 2015.

While there have been some improvements on the math, chemistry, and biology matriculation exams for Arab Israeli students, the success gaps are still large on the 5-unit level of the English matriculation exams: in the Hebrew education stream 58% pass the exams, and in the Arab education stream – 14%.

In contrast to the achievements mentioned above, the gaps between students in the two education streams have narrowed to a lesser degree on international exams, and in some cases have remained unchanged – even among students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

Gaps remained on the 2011 PIRLS exam (primary school) and on the 2015 PISA exam (high school), and did not narrow even when students were classified by socioeconomic background. However, the gap in math scores on the 2015 TIMSS exam (middle school) did become much smaller when taking socioeconomic background into account, which may show that at least some of the gap is rooted in the students’ socioeconomic profiles.

What can be done?

The fact that, for the most part, the gaps between the Arab and Hebrew education system appear to be smaller when comparing students of similar socioeconomic standing, shows that disparities in achievement between Jewish students and Arab Israeli students can be explained to a great extent by their socioeconomic backgrounds. To reduce this gap, it is important to focus more generally on addressing socioeconomic issues between the two sectors.


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