Will Israel’s achievement gap stall the start-up nation?

On a foggy hilltop in Israel’s far north, near the Sea of Galilee, around 130 Orthodox Jewish boys sleep in rows of bungalows at the Kfar Zeitim farm-turned-yeshiva. The campus is run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools — the country’s largest non-governmental schools network — but it was built in large part by the boys. They’ve converted old farmhouses into classrooms, woodshops and computer and electronics labs. Between lessons, boarding-school students take therapeutic rides on one of a dozen resident horses whose corral has a lush view of Mount Arbel. These days, a litter of Siamese kittens calls the rural campus home, too.

The Orthodox students at Kfar Zeitim carry themselves a little differently than the “black hats” down in Jerusalem — they wear their pants low, their white button-ups untucked and their kippot askew. But one thing, above all others, sets the Kfar Zeitim yeshiva apart from its Torah-only counterparts in the country’s most observant neighborhoods: Throughout a 12-hour school day, Kfar Zeitim’s students take vocational classes and core curriculum subjects, like math and English, alongside religious studies.

For fear of angering Israel’s head rabbis, Israel Sci-Tech Schools at first kept somewhat secret the hilltop yeshiva, which it adopted into its network five years ago; the school didn’t even have an entrance sign. When a reporter for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz visited the school in 2013, staffers were skittish and “reluctant to reveal,” as reporter Meirav Arlosoroff wrote, “the fact that these [Charedi] boys study — hold your breath — civics.”

But if a recent tour of the Kfar Zeitim yeshiva for a minibus full of American donors and journalists is any indication, this liberal Orthodox education movement is daring, more and more, to share its success with the public. “When these guys come here … they see themselves as total failures,” the school’s head rabbi, David Bloch, told the group at a tour stop in the school’s dining hall. He explained how Israel Sci-Tech Schools has helped gather Orthodox dropouts, rebels and street kids — essentially, the only Orthodox youth whose families are desperate enough to allow them to forgo a traditional education — and integrated them into this hidden life-skills training ground.

“They come from communities, from families, where if you’re not going to be the next Rosh Yeshiva … you’re a problem,” Bloch said. “In every one of them, we try to find some talent that he has. And from this place, he starts growing also in the academic field.”

Only half of all of Israel’s children graduate high school. More specifically, only half of all Israeli children pass their bagrut tests — exit exams — with high enough scores to win them a matriculation certificate.

Israel Sci-Tech Schools now runs five such boarding schools across Israel for around 430 Orthodox youth unable to conform to traditional schooling. Many graduates have entered the workforce. They’ve also become favorites of the Israel Defense Forces — a big taboo in the eyes of most Charedi parents — for their discipline and teamwork skills. “We can’t count the times that the army tries to grab these boys,” said school spokesman Itamar Posen. “We — as a Charedi yeshiva and as messengers of the Charedi community — we don’t educate them to go to the army at all. [But] most of them do choose to go” into the army’s all-Charedi units.

And slowly, painfully, another trend has emerged: Orthodox boys in the Israel Sci-Tech Schools network have begun earning their matriculation certificates — the Israeli equivalent of receiving a high-school diploma, necessary to move on to higher education.

Last year, nine boys at Kfar Zeitim matriculated, three more than the year before. 

Charedi students currently make up about 15 percent of Israel’s high-school population, a proportion that is continually expanding. And the Ministry of Education’s most recent statistics show that, overall, only about 22 percent of today’s Charedi students — whose Orthodox yeshivot largely ignore core subjects — even bother to take matriculation exams. About 8 percent pass

“More and more Israeli students don’t have any foundation of knowledge, any basics — not in math, not in English, not in general. Especially boys and men. They don’t join the working force; they don’t join the army,” said Miriam Ben-Peretz, professor emeritus of education at the University of Haifa. “I think everyone agrees, including some parts of the Charedi sectors, that things have to change.”

This stunted Charedi minority speaks to a greater, troubling statistic in Israel, one that’s common knowledge among locals but that rarely reaches the outside world: Only half of all of Israel’s children graduate high school.

More specifically, only half of all Israeli children pass their bagrut tests — exit exams — with high enough scores to win them a matriculation certificate.

Israel is one of 34 nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a global organization that promotes development in already advanced countries as well as a few emerging ones, like Mexico, Chile and Turkey. They all have different ways of marking high-school graduation, so by comparison, Israel usually places well above average in the OECD index for its graduation rate. These rankings, however, do not reflect reality at home. They mask a crisis in which Israel’s large and fast-growing minority populations — especially Orthodox Jews and Arab-Israelis — lag further behind the academic elite than in any other OECD country.

Most glaringly, Jewish Israeli students scored 133 points higher than Arab Israeli students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2012. And even within the Hebrew-speaking group, students from strong socioeconomic backgrounds scored 100 points higher than those from weak backgrounds.

In short: The achievement gap between ethnicities, religions and social classes in Israel is wider than anywhere else in the developed world. And, depending on whom you ask, this gap could be reaching a point of no return.

“Together, Charedi and Arabs are half the children in Israel,” said Dan Ben-David, until recently the executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel — a mustachioed, bespectacled Israeli economist with a jolly demeanor tempered by a rough and urgent tone. “Half the kids in Israel are receiving a Third World education.”

Ben-David is known to wax apocalyptic when speaking about the future of Israel. In a lecture at the Israeli Institute of Technology (more commonly called Technion) last summer, he compared Israel to the sinking Titanic. “This country — which has some of the best universities in the world, is cutting-edge in so many fields — is falling further and further behind,” he told his audience at Technion. “This will end in tears.”

Each year, the Taub Center releases a State of the Nation Report to grade Israeli society’s come-ups and downfalls. The report for 2014, which was released in December, included some especially grim predictions for Israel’s education system.

Israel will only be able to maintain its respected academic and tech sectors, the report said, “if, and when, it will be able to channel the knowledge that it already possesses towards a much larger share of its population.

“Israel’s rapidly changing demographic landscape,” the report said, “still provides a window of opportunity, albeit a steadily narrowing one, for harnessing the country’s unique resources before it crosses a point beyond which it will be unable to adopt policies that are already challenging to implement today.”

During his six years as director of the Taub Center, Ben-David became one of Israel’s most respected big thinkers. He stepped down in January — a move he insists was nonpolitical. (“It was a great run there, and time to open up a new chapter.”) But now that he’s not with Taub, he’s free to say it: He believes Israel’s achievement gap among its students is doing even more damage than the Taub report lets on.

“With all due respect, I think he’s kind of misleading himself,” Ben-David said of Taub senior researcher Nachum Blass, who wrote the report’s section on education.

In the report, Blass highlighted Israel’s existing efforts toward narrowing achievement gaps and recommended more of the same in the future. 

Ben-David, on the other hand, believes that without “massive, comprehensive education reform in Israel,” the country’s severe income inequality and low productivity — which also ranked abysmally on the OECD index — will continue to snowball.

“There are two Israels in one,” Ben-David told the crowd at Technion. “There is the ‘start-up nation’ Israel, which is phenomenal. But there’s another Israel. And that other Israel is not getting either the tools or the conditions to work in a modern economy.”

Ben-David is not alone in his call for a complete overhaul. Gidi Grinstein, president of the influential Reut Institute think tank, believes Israel’s current model for its start-up nation, in which kids from the same slice of society rise into top tech positions, won’t stay relevant within a changing global tech industry.

“The base is too narrow without the Arabs and the Charedim,” Grinstein said in a recent interview. “The start-up nation phenomena right now is not inclusive — it’s basically exclusive. You have a small group of people in an upwardly mobile elevator, and then you have a very large group in a downwardly mobile elevator, with less access to education and technology — and therefore less prosperity.”

To keep Israel at the forefront of 21st-century innovation and industry, he said, it will be “essential to close these gaps.” 

Price per head

Toward this goal, Grinstein and the Reut Institute have set up a series of 3-D printing labs across the country, many of them housed inside existing school buildings in low-income areas. The labs are open to Israelis of all ages and backgrounds in an attempt to democratize high-tech training for the 21st century labor market. “The idea here is, there is an opportunity to educate people not in a traditional way, not in a classroom, but by doing projects,” Grinstein said. “When you do a technology project, when you build a robot, you need to master and understand multiple disciplines just to execute the project — math, electronics, chemistry.”

Electronics classrooms at an Israel Sci-Tech Schools campus in the small Bedouin village of Al-Saied draw their energy from on-campus generators, as the village is not hooked up to Israel’s electricity grid.

But Reut’s reach — at six labs and a few hundred participants — is still small. On a greater systemic level, in Grinstein’s opinion, funding inequalities between Israel’s public schools are making it near impossible to close the achievement gap.

“The biggest problem [in education] today is the way government money, both local and national, is allocated,” he said. “The pure capital investment in children is different from one place to another.”

Israeli schools are divided into four categories: 1) state secular schools; 2) state religious schools, which supplement core subjects with Judaic studies; 3) religious schools run by Israel’s Orthodox, which generally shirk core subjects; and 4) schools for Arab-Israelis.

In late November, the Israeli journal The Marker, the economic arm of Haaretz, revealed troubling disparities in Ministry of Education funding among these four types of schools. A sweeping examination of 210 sample high schools found that those for Arab-Israelis received significantly less money than those for Jews. 

Almost all of the schools on The Marker’s top 10 most-funded list were in the state-religious category (schools that combine core curriculum with Judaic studies). Meanwhile, all of the schools in the bottom 10 were Arab or Bedouin.

Campuses where more kids matriculate, and ones that offer more high-level math and science classes, the investigation showed, receive more money per pupil than low-performing schools. The Shevah Mofet high school in Tel Aviv, for instance, reportedly receives nearly $100 more per pupil per month than the Al Ahali high school in the Muslim city of Umm al-Fahm.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement to the Journal that it funds schools according to the amount and level of services they offer to students. For example, a school with better-qualified teachers putting in longer hours would receive more funds.

This reward-based funding system is similar to the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States in that it grants extra money to high-performing schools — the same ones that perhaps need the least help. Marker reporter Lior Dattel wrote of the self-fulfilling cycle in Israel: “According to the Ministry of Education’s own measures of success, better schools get higher budgets — and the schools that receive low budgets find it difficult to improve, and therefore continue to have low budgets.”

Dattel noted in his Marker report that there are some separate, specialized funds for disadvantaged students outside the ministry’s main funding system. However, he said, “The budget for classroom teaching is the central budget and the largest, and most influential on pupils.”

With full funding and a driven staff, various schools across Israel have shown that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds can thrive.

The Ulpana Bnei Akiva in Pisgat Ze’ev is a tidy, stone-built girls’ school perched on a hill in a relatively new East Jerusalem settlement — a low-income immigrant suburb beyond the green line. The students here take twice as many bagrut tests as students in the state’s secular school system, as they also must pass Judaic subjects to matriculate.

“It’s about 50-50,” said Reut Sifroni, a 16-year-old junior dressed in long sleeves and an ankle-length skirt, of the split between core and religious studies in an average school day. She currently takes level-five biology (the highest level available in Israel) and level-four math (the second-highest level available) in hopes of becoming a forensics expert like the ones on TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

“I like biology, and I feel it will donate to my future,” she said.

More than 90 percent of the girls at Ulpana Bnei Akiva in Pisgat Ze’ev earn their matriculation certificates, well above the nationwide average of about 50 percent.

Sifroni has friends at the Ulpana who attended Charedi religious schools for their elementary years, but transferred to the state-religious system for high school, to open up choices for their future. “They felt out of place,” she said. “They were only learning religion. So they decided to move to a school where everybody can choose what they do.”

At the Pisgat Ze’ev girls’ school, more than 90 percent of students will matriculate, according to school officials.

The campus is run by the Bnei Akiva school operator — one of various independent networks in Israel, including Israel Sci-Tech Schools, which collects outside funds, many from American Jewish donors, to make up for fluctuations in funding from the Ministry of Education. Bnei Akiva also has deep ties to the Jewish Home party — so when former education minister Shai Piron, from the rival political party Yesh Atid, abruptly resigned in December, Bnei Akiva officials said they got a boost in the year’s funding from a member of Jewish Home who took over the books.

Stuck to one girl’s locker in Pisgat Ze’ev is a Jewish Home bumper sticker featuring a caricature of candidate Naftali Bennett, and the words: “Test didn’t go well? Bennett is your brother!”

The Bnei Akiva school network boasts an 82 percent matriculation rate across its 74 campuses (compared to the state average of about 50 percent). AMIT, another state-religious schools network — which brings in even more money from American donors —sees 80 percent of students matriculate. 

Privately run Christian schools, too, are some of the highest performing in the country. About 70 percent of Christian Israeli-Arabs matriculate — thanks in large part to extra funds from parents and tight-knit communities.

At the other end of the achievement spectrum are Arab schools in East Jerusalem, marked by extra-low matriculation rates because of their unique positioning: Many East Jerusalem students, considered “residents” but not citizens of Israel, study the Palestinian Authority curriculum instead of the Israeli one. And because they aren’t eligible to take Israeli matriculation exams, they’re also not eligible to attend Israeli universities.

The Jerusalem municipality is currently on a very public mission to change that. During a hectic tour in December for dozens of foreign reporters, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat revealed a municipal “master plan that allows people to live peacefully, one next to the other.” His last stop was the picturesque Beit Hanina Girls’ School, located on the grassy edge of East Jerusalem and renovated earlier in the year to host advanced classes like physics, medicine, robotics and engineering. “We are working on a robot for a competition,” a Palestinian teacher told the reporters as students tinkered with the model. 

Barkat said he’d brought the press corps to the Beit Hanina school to “show you something that sometimes you don’t see — which is how we improve quality of life through the education system in Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s director of education, Moshe Tor-Paz, later told the Journal that if all goes as planned, within a few years every Arab school in East Jerusalem will offer its students the option of learning the Israeli curriculum — including potentially disputed subjects like history and culture. “We won’t convince anyone to do something he doesn’t want,” Tor-Paz said. “But if he asks for more opportunities, we can really help him do it.”

For Palestinian families, this choice — which many worry will eventually become a mandate — is steeped in symbolism. “[Israelis] don’t only want to occupy the land, they want to occupy the minds of the people — like a brainwashing,” the director of the East Jerusalem parents association told The New York Times for an extensive report on the issue last year. In the time since that article was written, the Jerusalem municipality has opened a new school in Beit Hanina — a boys’ elementary school that will be expanded to include a middle and high school, and that teaches the Israeli curriculum only.

“It’s in their best interest” to study Hebrew and other Israeli subjects, Barkat said on his tour, “and more and more parents understand that.”

The federal Ministry of Education has likewise tried in recent years to convince Charedi schools to include core studies by threatening to pull their funding if they didn’t. After one such attempt by then-Education Minister Piron, a member of United Torah Judaism, a Charedi political coalition, told the Jerusalem Post that Piron was “the most dangerous man in Israel for the Charedi community”

Ben-David, former head of the Taub Center, argues that these measures don’t go far enough. “We don’t like to think of Western countries as paternalistic, but they are,” he told the Journal. “In the U.S., you’re not allowed to prevent your kid from studying what the country believes they need to study. Israel is the only country which allows it. It’s unconscionable.”

Ben-Peretz, who received the Israel Prize for research in education and has served on many Knesset committees over the years, said that while she’s “not so optimistic” about convincing Charedis to educate their kids outside the synagogue, she’s come to be “very optimistic” about narrowing the gaps between Jews and Arabs.

However, she said, “schools in Israel have to be much more integrated” before a truly just system is possible.

That’s not a simple task: Giving Arab-Israeli students an equal education will mean desegregating a system that has been divided by race since the British Mandate era, before Israel was a state.

“When Ben-Gurion founded the State of Israel, I believe he should have made one unified school system,” Ben-Peretz said.

This would have been a logistical nightmare, as Jews and Arabs were grouped geographically with their own kind — and they’ve maintained this segregation into the 21st century. The latest Taub Center report on Israeli society found that because of severe segregation between communities, “it is no surprise that the separation in the education system is also severe.”

High-tech track

Eli Eisenberg, head of Israel Sci-Tech Schools’ research and development center on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, knows a lot about integration. He was previously tasked with overhauling South Africa’s post-apartheid education system under Nelson Mandela.

“Mandela told me, ‘If you want to be tolerant to the other, to understand the other, to work with the other, if you want to be inclusive, you have to be strong with your own identity,’ ” Eisenberg said. And in Israel, he said, this means strengthening each minority group’s own identity while at the same time integrating them into a national system.

This aim becomes trickier in practice. An Arab-Israeli student from an Israel Sci-Tech Schools campus in the north who accompanied a group of American donors for a tour of her neighboring Jewish school was confused when a Jewish student came out dressed as Theodor Herzl; she had never heard of the man. Construction-paper butterflies covering a classroom wall at the network’s campus in Um Batin, a Bedouin village in southern Israel, are scrawled with messages like “Love and Palestine.” Ameer Abu Kaf, a 16-year-old student at the school and resident of Um Batin, told the Journal: “I feel this is not my country. They give us this school, but then they destroy our homes. I don’t get it.”

“The biggest problem [in education] today is the way government money, both local and national, is allocated.”
— Gidi Grinstein, Israel’s Reut Institute president

Israel Sci-Tech Schools, which runs about 10 percent of all Israeli campuses, has made a strong push in the past few years to bring Bedouin kids, most of whom are destined for unemployment, into the fold by opening up more vocational tracks at their schools. At the network’s eight campuses in the Negev desert, Bedouin youth are training to be teachers, electricians, computer technicians and engineers.

But this career-track approach in low-income areas has reignited another debate that’s divided education reformers in Israel for years: whether vocational schooling may actually fuel the country’s devastating achievement gap.

On the evening of Dec. 2, the Israeli government was on the verge of collapse. A visibly flustered Piron, then the country’s education minister, rushed into the basement theater of Tel Aviv’s beachside Dan Hotel and stepped to a podium at the front of the room. “I have a feeling politicians forget they’re not the center [of the world],” he told the crowd.

Later that night, Piron and others from his Yesh Atid party officially announced their resignation from the 19th Israeli Knesset — a dramatic last step in a falling-out between political parties that eventually dissolved the government and that left the future unclear for many of Piron’s half-baked reforms.

But Piron had one last rant for the teachers, principals, administrators and supporters of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools network who had gathered at the Dan Hotel that night. He warned that it was not Israeli adults who would suffer most from the Knesset’s collapse, but their children. “We’re taking a large group of students in the State of Israel,” he said, with all the animation of his days as a rabbi, “and we’re sentencing them to frustration and missing out on developing their skills.”

(The approximate 2 1/2-year turnaround for education ministers is one of the “biggest barriers” to lasting reform, Piron’s fellow Yesh Atid member Ronen Hoffman later told the Journal. “It takes time to conduct reforms and implement them.”)

Before leaving the stage, Piron took a jab at the prime minister’s broken cabinet, which doubled as a promo for vocational schooling: “Too bad as part of a coalition, you couldn’t do better locksmith and welding work,” he said.

After the education minister rushed out, Uzi Tsuk, chairman of the board of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, which hosted the event, lamented: “Finally, there was someone in this education system that attributes importance to vocational education. We’ve never had that before, and now that we do, he has to leave.”

Two years earlier, Piron’s political party, Yesh Atid, had proposed that at least half of the country’s schools become “technological vocational schools.” But when Piron attempted to push this reform through, focusing on schools from lower-income areas, he was squarely blocked by fellow members of Knesset — specifically, those of Sephardic origin.

“You won’t bring back vocational education to the development towns,” politician Silvan Shalom reportedly replied. “If you want vocational education, by all means, but only if the ministers are ready to send their children and grandchildren to it. Only if vocational education is being returned everywhere will we agree: First North Tel Aviv, then Yeruham.”

Shalom was referring to a famous divide in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s between Ashkenazic Jews, who had access to comprehensive, liberal-arts educations, and Sephardic Jews, who were funneled into vocational schools — forcing them to take blue-collar jobs without the opportunity for upward mobility. That reputation still lingers: Multiple Israelis who spoke to the Journal said Israel Sci-Tech Schools are seen as a last option for troubled kids who can’t do well in a mainstream school. “I remember who went to [vocational schools],” said Gal Fisher, educational director for Yad Hanadiv, a philanthropic foundation in Israel. “You could say on what streets they were living.”

And since then, Fisher said, he hasn’t seen “a model that convinced me it won’t happen again. Why not aim for [matriculation] for every student, and then think about vocational schools? To think of vocational schools as a replacement is a problem. … The system should aim higher.”

These days, however, the line between vocational and high-tech schools is blurred. At one Israel Sci-Tech Schools campus, located within the Israel Aerospace Industries base in central Israel, high-schoolers work alongside professional engineers and army experts to build drones and other aircrafts for use in Gaza.

High-school students based at the Israel Aerospace Industries campus in central Israel learn air-force skills well before army age. “It’s my first year here, and I’m already taking apart drone engines,” said one freshman.

Israel Sci-Tech Schools is looking to reflect this change by rebranding vocational schools as elite tracks into the skyscrapers of start-up nation. “Some vocations offered today in vocational schools are very sophisticated,” said Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for Israel Sci-Tech Schools. “Today, if you’re talking about auto repair, you’re really talking about autotronics — because the cars today are computerized.”

The Reut Institute’s Grinstein, too, believes that vocational positions opened up by this second industrial revolution don’t, and shouldn’t, have the same stigma as the first. 

“In the coming revolution, all these distinctions are dead,” he said. “You’re talking about ancient views, and the world is changing.”

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