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Education Inequality in Israel: from Cradle to University

The Taub Center’s annual conference brought together leaders in the social sciences and policy-makers on Monday for lectures and panel discussions centered around this year’s theme of education inequality. Titled “Education Inequality in Israel: from Cradle to University,” the all-day conference delved deeply into how to handle inequality from even the prenatal stage all the way up to adulthood.

Lecturers from both Israel and the United States presented their most recent data that could eventually be used to affect policy. Guests included policy-makers, educators, academics and researchers. According to Prof. Yossi Shavit, education policy program chair at the Taub Center, “We invited the education minister, and he turned us down, so we invited the director-general, and he turned us down. None of the other guests who were invited turned us down.”

Prof. Dalton Conley of Princeton University spoke of how genetics determines education inequality. By comparing genetic factors with external factors, his research shows that genetics plays a very small role in determining one’s successes or failures in the classroom. Although Conley’s data were relevant mostly for the United States, Shavit told The Jerusalem Post why the center chose him as a keynote lecturer: “to alleviate the concern that inequality is significantly determined by genetics; and although genetics has something to do with it, its effects should not be overstated in the exclusion of policy alternatives.”

The next discussion centered around vocational education. It was chaired by MK Yossi Yonah and featured speakers Elad Demalach from the Bank of Israel, Shirin Natour-Hafi, principal of ORT Vocational High School in Lod, and Shavit. Yonah introduced the panel by addressing the “provocative” connotation vocational schools have in terms of class and race, showing higher enrollment rates in vocational schools among the Arab, Ethiopian, Mizrachi and Russian populations.

Natour-Hafi shared her experience working in the Arab sector and spoke of successes in breaking into fields of medicine and biology. However, she explained that on an institutional level, the Arab students do not have the “clean slate” Israeli Jews have with the army. “An Israeli Jew who did not perform strongly in high school has a second chance when he reaches the army. [By contrast] we do not have this in our infrastructure,” she said. Natour-Hafi also touched on external factors that hinder Arab students’ chances for social mobility. “When we speak of change and progress, it’s a physical change; don’t just change the curriculum, change the physical structure of the classroom.”

Addressing the Education Ministry, she added: “If you want reform, if you want more pupils to enroll at five matriculation points, don’t send us an email, go to the schools yourself, don’t continue to widen the gap between what is done in theory and what is done in practice.” In keeping with the theme of the day, Prof. James Heckman of the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate gave a keynote lecture on the value of quality preschool education. Using the adage that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, Heckman explained the value (both economic and social) of investing more in quality preschools.

Going further, he asserted that what is vital is not just preschool but even prenatal care: “Encouraging young mothers not to drink or smoke can offer long-term advantages.” Heckman also explained that all the reforms in ensuring quality education and pre-education can help, but his results show that children who come from loving and attentive families end up performing better than those who don’t. “The schools can be all the same, but there’s the family lurking in the background,” he concluded.

Sarah Levi