The everyday threats to life and limb in Israel make it hard for Israeli policymakers and citizens alike to focus on much more than the immediate security situation. The abysmal performance of Israeli students on international educational exams, however, should be no less a source of concern about the country’s future.
Jews in Israel, it would seem, are fast becoming a glaring exception to the title ``the people of the Book." Last year’s international exams in math and reading comprehension found Jewish students in Israel lagging far behind their contemporaries in other industrialized nations.
In an international literacy test, Israeli students floundered in the bottom third of of 35 industrial states, next to such centers of learning as Slovenia and Moldava. Approximately 30% of eighth-graders in Hebrew-language schools failed the last Education Ministry reading comprehension exam, and the average grade of Jewish pupils in written expression was 56.
Over half of the eighth graders tested failed the international math exam, receiving grades from 0-45. Israel was the only country to rank in the bottom third of industrialized nations for the last three years running.
A comparison of the results of standardized international tests over the last five years shows that the gap between low achievement schools and high achievement schools has widened dramatically despite the Education Ministry’s focus on improving the performance of pupils from low achievement schools. Over that period, the gap has grown from 11 points to nearly 18.
Unfortunately the source of that increased gap has not been improved performance in schools in more affluent areas. Scores are declining across the board. Overall there has been a 10-point drop in mathematics scores, and a similar decline in reading comprehension. In 1997, the average grade of Jewish eighth-graders on international math exams was 60. Last year, the comparable figure was 50. In reading comprehension, the average score dropped from 69 to around 60.
A number of studies correlate scores of pupils in mathematics to overall national wealth. And that correlation can only be expected to grow in coming decades as human resources, rather than natural ones, play an increasingly large role in wealth creation.
To be sure, Israel is still producing its share of geniuses. Israel has been a world leader in the high-tech revolution, and Israeli science continues to be responsible for an astounding number of breakthroughs in medical research. Nevertheless, in a world in which knowledge is increasingly correlated to the ability to earn a decent living, it is not enough for a country to produce a disproportionate share of geniuses. A country where technical knowledge is not dispersed over a wide swath of the population will have difficulty attracting international investment in non-labor intensive fields, and income gaps will continue to grow.
THERE ARE NO EASY answers to the educational failure of the Israeli school system. Yet some clues as to how the overall performance of Israeli Jewish students could be improved might be garnered from the success of SHUVU, a network of independent religious schools for children from Russian-speaking homes. On the face of it, the SHUVU system would seem to have few factors operating in its favor. In general, immigrant students do even worse than the national average on mathematical exams. The average score for new immigrants on the most recent international exam was 42.
The general economic level of the students’ homes is low. Nearly half the students come from single-parent homes. Contrary to a common myth, SHUVU is not an elite system – approximately 40% of the families are from the Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union. Finally, many of the teachers in the SHUVU system are products of Bais Yaakov seminaries and lack a B.A. (The success of these teachers should perhaps force a reconsideration of the government’s refusal to recognize a Bais Yaakov teaching degree.)
Despite these negative factors, the level of math instruction in SHUVU schools is way above the national average. Using the Ministry of Education guidelines as a base, SHUVU adds another 20-25% more material each year. Dov Kaplan, a doctoral researcher in science education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has headed the math departments in both secular and SHUVU schools, attests that the level in the SHUVU schools is significantly higher.
When the new curriculum was instituted five years ago, teachers insisted that the goals set were impossible, but experience has shown otherwise. On a visit to a SHUVU school in Ashdod last year, Education Ministry Director-General Ronit Tirosh was shocked to find second-graders at the beginning of the school year multiplying single-digit numbers in their heads. She remarked that the SHUVU curriculum should become a model for all Israeli schools.
From the beginning of first grade, SHUVU schools work on mathematical thinking, not just rote memorization. The recent Education Ministry survey found that Israeli junior high schools are particularly weak in developing independent cognitive mathematical thinking.
Three times a year, the students are tested on all the material learned. In the lower grades, the average scores are well over 90%, and even with the addition of much more difficult material in fourth-grade, the average scores remain consistently above 85%, and never dipped below 75%. Of the 130 SHUVU students in Nahariya who participated last year in the Orange Math Olympiad for grades 6-10, 90 reached the first level of the competition, 30 made it to the semifinals, and two were finalists.
To some extent, the success of the SHUVU schools in math instruction needs no explanation. More hours are devoted to math instruction than in state schools, teachers receive classroom supervision two or three times a year, all teachers have thrice yearly training seminars, and every teacher has a hot-line to SHUVU’s methodological center in Jerusalem if problems arise in teaching the material
But Dr. Shmuel Lazinkin, head of the methodological center, attributes much of SHUVU’s success to intangible factors. Chief among these he lists the dedication of the teachers. Strikes are unknown in SHUVU schools, despite the fact that salaries are often late. Though teacher salaries are lower than in the general school system, teachers contribute many teaching hours without pay to private instruction of weaker students and those transferring from other school systems.
Equally important is the learning environment in the schools. Israeli schools have among the highest rates of violence in the Western world. Only in the United States do more students carry weapons to school. Fifteen percent of Israeli students age 11-16 come armed for ``self-protection" at least once a month. Nearly half the male students and over a third of the female students in that age group experience physical harm in a violent episode in the course of the school year.
In such a Blackboard Jungle of rampant violence and poor discipline learning becomes impossible. No wonder that in a recent study of 28 Western nations, Israeli students reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction with school.
Over the last three years, I have personally visited at least 10 SHUVU schools and the contrast to these grim statistics could not be more stark. The enthusiasm of the students is palpable. And that impression is borne out by a survey of SHUVU parents. Eighty-four per cent of the parents feel that there is less violence in the SHUVU system; nearly 80% that the cultural level is higher; and 70% that the decorum is superior. (Virtually all the rest thought the two systems were equal.) Not surprisingly, 84% of the parents report that their children enjoy school quite a lot or very much.
While the SHUVU model cannot be automatically exported to all Israeli schools, much could clearly be learned from its successes.