A surprising school survey
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 6, 2003
The Israeli educational system remains a fecund source of headlines – almost all of them negative. The high rates of school violence are a hardy perennial. Six months ago, Education Minister Limor Livnat had to explain why a battery of international tests showed Israeli high school students ranking at the very bottom of the industrialized world in their ability to comprehend texts and do math.
Two weeks ago, secular Israelis received yet another blow, as the headlines blared the news that state religious students outscored their secular counterparts in math, reading comprehension, and science knowledge. More humiliating yet, even the notoriously backward charedim scored better on math than students in the state system and virtually the same on reading comprehension. Only in science, did the secular students do significantly better than chareidim.
Not exactly the news that parents in the state school system wanted to hear. Predictably a session of the Knesset Education Committee was devoted the next day to discussion of these embarrassing results.
As gratifying as the headlines were to chareidi parents, we should be careful about attaching too much significance to the findings. First, it is not altogether clear how many schools from each sector were being compared and how representative they are of their respective sectors. (In the chareidi sector, for instance, primarily girls schools were tested.) How representative the schools tested are is highly relevant because within each of the three systems – state, state religious, and chareidi – there are differences in quality between schools that may be as pronounced as those between the different sectors (at least as far as the test results are concerned).
The scores hardly show that the chareidi schools are filled exclusively with geniuses – the results in all the school systems still remain woefully behind the rest of the industrialized world. And one wonders how chareidi girls, who spend much more time reading than their secular counterparts and whose education stresses the close analysis of texts, could have done no better than secular students in reading comprehension. (The lower science scores are easily explained in terms of the slighting of this area in chareidi education.)
But if the study does not exactly show that the chareidi system has magically found a way to provide students with all relevant secular education while devoting almost no time to these subjects, it does, at least, demonstrate that chareidi education is not nearly the disadvantage that would be reformers of the chareidi educational system often claim.
There is plenty of evidence to buttress this last point. A 1994 study by Israeli and American researchers in cognitive development found that chareidi students in both the 12-14 and 16-18 age groups outperformed secular students in their ability to solve certain problems in geometry and avoid common misconceptions, despite the fact that they had less knowledge of the formal concepts of geometry. Only those secular students studying for the highest level of matriculation exam in mathematics outperformed the chareidi students.
And a great deal of anecdotal evidence of chareidim with little formal education jumping to the top of the computer field supports the claim that the analytical skills learned through Gemara study are readily transferred to other areas. Recently, for instance, a 30-year-old Gerrer kollel scholar from Ashdod, who had not even finished his course in computer programming at Chareidi Center for Vocational Training, customized the operating systems for a leading defense contractor involving 400 databases, a task no one at the company thought possible.
As a consequence, reports that formerly took weeks to prepare can be done in a day. This hasid's supervisor found that in just three months working with this extremely complicated program he had become one of the world’s leading experts in the program. The supervisor, an officer in reserves, wrote the IDF pleading that his new employee be exempted from army training because of his vital importance to the defense industry.
One finding that clearly emerges from the recently completed comparative study is that there is no clear correlation between the amount of time devoted to a particular subject and the results. Other factors, such as the learning environment, may be just as important. And it is in this area that the greatest differences are found between the different school systems.
Chareidi students are far less likely than their secular counterparts to view school as an adversarial environment. Almost a third of the chareidi students described their relations with their teachers as good, as opposed to only 10% of the students in national religious system and 3% in the regular system. While one could wish that more than 31% of chareidi students had a positive attitude towards their teachers, the gap between the attitude of chareidi students and others is enormous. This vastly more positive attitude towards teachers, coupled with the negligible incidence of the violence that plagues the secular system, makes the chareidi system far more conducive to learning.
The finding that hours of learning do not correlate to test results has important policy implications. The fondest dream of secular educational reformers has always been to impose of the chareidi system the requirement of devoting a certain number of hours to particular subjects as a condition of government funding. And the Israel Supreme Court has delivered several hints that such a result is not altogether impossible.
Clearly the chareidi world will never agree to a curriculum imposed upon it, especially one that would comprise three-quarters of the average school day. At the same time, the financial blow that would be caused by any further decrease in the state funding for chareidi education might make the impact of the current round of decrees pale by comparison.
The results of the most recent study at least suggest the direction of a chareidi counterproposal to an imposed curriculum. There are certain subjects that most chareidim agree should be studied, at least at the elementary school level, such as mathematics and Hebrew language skills. If the criteria for state funding were based on test results in these areas – i.e., the average scores in a school would have to fall within a certain range of the national average – rather than the hours of study devoted to a particular subject, there is little doubt that almost all chareidi schools could meet the challenge, without devoting any more hours to these subjects than at present.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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