At one of Israel’s elite high schools, there are no cutting-edge science labs. No periodic tables or anatomy posters hang from classroom walls. Forget Shakespeare. English, a key skill for a modern economy, is absent from the school curriculum.
At Jerusalem’s Hebron Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious seminaries for ultra-Orthodox Jews, teenage boys spend most of their time boning up on a single subject: the Talmud, the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law. In a high-ceilinged room lined with bookshelves stacked with ancient Jewish texts, boys sit in pairs, burying their faces in the Baba Batra, one of the Talmud’s tractates.
“Unlike in Western society, in our community, we believe the purpose of education is not to make a person productive, but to build their character and make them good,” said Moti Katz, 35, who lectures on Jewish identity at the seminary, which his father runs.
Just how the illuminations of the Talmud will help these young men support future families has become part of a broader national debate, joined by Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug and Education Minister Shai Piron, over the state of Israeli schools and the implications for the country’s economic future.
While countries the world over bemoan that their schools are falling short, Israel’s education system is distinct because almost half of its elementary school pupils study in ultra-Orthodox schools that often don’t equip boys with academic skills needed to enter the workforce, or in underfunded schools serving the country’s 20-percent Arab minority, according to the Taub Center for Social Studies in Tel Aviv.
“If almost half of today’s pupils don’t receive an education befitting the needs of a modern economy, then when these kids grow up, our economy will be in trouble,” said Nachum Blass, a senior researcher specializing in education at the center.
Poor relations with neighbors and until recently, a dearth of marketable natural resources, have encouraged Israel’s leaders to put a premium on intellectual property that can be sold outside the region. The country of 8 million boasts 12 Nobel laureates and ranked second among 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the percentage of adults with higher education, according to a 2013 OECD report. High technology drives economic growth that has outdone the U.S. and Europe in each of the past four years.
The nation’s schools, though, are underachieving.
Fifteen-year-old Israeli math students ranked 41 of 64 in international tests in 2012, and performed below the mean score in reading and science, too. What’s more, the results on the Program for International Student Assessment were skewed because most ultra-Orthodox boys weren’t tested.
Israeli classrooms are among the most crowded in the OECD, and its teachers are among its worst paid, according to the 2013 report. A 2012 University of Maryland study also noted a curriculum “crowded” with as many as nine subjects, relatively short hours devoted to math and science, and union rules that “make it difficult to fire poorly performing teachers.”
“Israel is a high-tech nation, but that’s got little to do with its schools,” said Arie Kizel, who lectures on education at the University of Haifa. “When I speak to students, they are not in high tech because of the schools. They are in high tech because they overcome the obstacles of schooling.”
While the education budget grew about 32 percent in current prices in the four years through 2012 -- primarily to boost salaries and teaching hours -- Israel still has the largest gap in student achievement in the OECD. Students in Jewish schools in the country’s metropolitan Tel Aviv heartland outperform youngsters in both Arab schools and schools catering largely to Sephardi Jews of Middle East and North African descent, according to an Education Ministry analysis.
“Weak outcomes in the OECD’s PISA tests indicate the challenges in improving educational standards and earning capacities,” the organization said in a December 2013 report. It called on the government to implement “targeted policies, particularly those to improve education for Arab Israelis” and “more forcefully encourage the teaching of core secular subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools.”
Some counter that while Israel’s schools are floundering, the country’s innovative edge doesn’t depend entirely on the overall quality of schools. The country will continue to have high achievers, said Don Futterman, director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, based in Kfar Saba, which works to improve education in underachieving elementary schools.
The military is also “a major influence on innovation,” Futterman added. “Cultural orientation toward improvization and innovation is very strong in Israel, specifically in the army.”
Israel’s schools are as fragmented as Israeli society itself, with four distinct systems: secular, state-funded Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Arab. As of 2011, 56 percent of Israeli Jews attended secular schools, 25 percent went to ultra-Orthodox schools and 19 percent studied in state-sponsored religious schools, according to government data. About a quarter of the pupils are Arab Israelis.
The state fully funds all but the ultra-Orthodox schools, which receive state money in proportion to how much of the core curriculum they teach. While most ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools have adopted the secular core curriculum, which includes math, Hebrew and English, most boys’ schools haven’t.
With the ultra-Orthodox excluded from the current governing coalition for the first time in more than a decade, Education Minister Piron, a modern Orthodox rabbi in Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid party, set out to change the status quo. Piron, who declined to be interviewed for this article, cut budgets for schools that don’t teach the full core curriculum and is encouraging ultra-Orthodox elementary schools to put themselves under state supervision.
So far, only 18 have volunteered, according to ministry officials. Most ultra-Orthodox all-male high schools, such as Hebron Yeshiva, teach no core curriculum at all.
“We only bow before God, and God wants us to study Torah, not secular studies,” said 17-year-old Yonatan. He asked to withhold his last name for fear his discussion of the debate might reflect poorly on him when his parents try to arrange his marriage.
Trying to force ultra-Orthodox institutions to adopt a core curriculum raises difficult questions for a country still puzzling over what makes a Jewish state, according to Yael Kafri, a specialist in education law at Tel Aviv University.
“Since we don’t separate religion from the state, the state is impaired in its ability to impose secular education in religious communities,” Kafri said. “If we’re a Jewish state, then why shouldn’t Jewish institutions have it their way? The outcome is that the ultra-Orthodox can enjoy state funding to have their purely religious studies.”
After high school, many ultra-Orthodox men continue pursuing religious studies and don’t work, even after marrying and having an average of 6.5 children. Their families subsist on their wives’ often-modest salaries and state stipends, and 60 percent live under the poverty line, according to the OECD.
With just 46 percent of the community’s men working, versus 78 percent for all Jewish males, they are among the most thinly represented groups in the labor force, along with Arab Israeli women, who at 25 percent, have been culturally restrained from working outside the home.
The decision not to work runs counter to the writings of the 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides, who wrote that anyone who forsakes work for religious study “profanes the name of God.” Ultra-Orthodox say modernity threatens serious religious commitment, making it necessary to create “a large community of full-time scholars to maintain traditional observance,” said Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield, a lecturer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Immediately upon taking office in November, Flug said the education of ultra-Orthodox men must change to make them more employable. She called the under-representation of ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women in the labor force “a strategic threat for the Israeli economy and Israeli society.”
Some ultra-Orthodox men have begun to think twice about remaining lifelong students of religion. Deepening poverty is one reason; another is the government’s move to end widespread draft exemptions for the community and get its men more heavily into the labor force.
A 21 percent poverty rate and the cloistered nature of an ultra-Orthodox community struggling to fend off secular influences create additional disparities that go deeper than school curricula and budgets, said Yuli Tamir, education minister from 2006 to 2009 and now president of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan.
“How can you have a core curriculum when you can’t agree on what exactly is the core,” Tamir said. “It’s easy to say we should impose our values through the education system, but it’s difficult to maneuver this.”
The school system is also shot through with a historical legacy of discrimination, according to Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Adva Center, a policy analysis institute based in Tel Aviv. Schools in Arab areas and Sephardi Jewish communities were neglected by the European-descended elite that ran the country in its first three decades, and they still do a poor job of getting students into college, according to Swirski.
“We are a small country, so we could use every college graduate,” Swirski said. “If you look at the high-tech industry, which is our pride and joy, they employ only 10 percent of the workforce. If you want to expand that, you need to break down taboos about who gets to be a construction worker and who gets to be an engineer.”
While the government built more than 3,000 classrooms in Arab schools between 2007 and 2011, as part of a five-year plan to reduce disparities, that system still suffered from a shortage of more than 6,000 classrooms and 4,000 teachers, according to the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education, an advocacy group.
“It’s quite simple: The Ministry of Education discriminates between Arab and Jewish students by allocating less money to Arab schools,” said Atef Moaddi, director of the Nazareth-based committee. “Unless new funds are allocated, Arab children will continue to suffer from underfunded schools.”
A ministry official, declining to be identified because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said the ministry is working on a plan to allocate more funds to Arab communities.
While Israel has a reputation as an innovative developer of technology, critics say its schools are outmoded. Students spend too much time on rote memorization and preparing for tests, including international ones, and not enough on problem-solving and team-oriented skills, says Amnon Rabinovitch, a founder of the New Israeli Teachers Movement, a group dedicated to improving schools.
The system also struggles to attract quality teachers and is plagued by low morale, issues a 2009 overhaul sought to improve by boosting pay, according to the OECD.
The education minister, Piron, is trying to address those problems by giving teachers more autonomy in charting the curriculum and paring the number of matriculation exams high school students must take.
“The revolution they are trying to do in the schools is just not broad enough,” said Futterman, of the education innovation center in Kfar Saba. “They need to work harder to attract the best teachers. The idea that a classroom still looks like it did in 1850 just blows my mind.”
To contact the reporter on this story: David Wainer in Tel Aviv at firstname.lastname@example.org