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OECD: Israeli education system is 'average at best'

Israel’s advanced economy is not matched by its “average at best” education system, with Israeli schools performing “well below their potential,” a senior official from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said Thursday.

School pupils are strong at “reproducing subject matter content” but lack the problem-solving skills and ability to creatively apply knowledge, which are “so important in the advanced part of the Israeli economy,” Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, told The Jerusalem Post.

Schleicher, who also serves as a special adviser on education policy to the OECD secretary-general, was on a 24-hour visit to Eilat to address a conference of municipal education department directors and a meeting of the public education cabinet. His visit also aimed to assist the public education cabinet with the formulation of five-and 10-year plans for the future of Israeli education, which are expected to be presented to the next education minister.

Schleicher encouraged Israeli authorities to make teaching “more intellectually attractive,” enabling talented teachers to work as “true professionals rather than teaching established textbooks.” He praised recent measures to improve salaries but cited the need for greater career prospects and improved support and mentoring. The results of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) examinations, published in December 2019, showed that Israeli pupils underperformed in reading, mathematics and science compared with the OECD average.

The results also revealed a growing gap in scholastic performance between Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking pupils in Israel, with the latter trailing far behind their Jewish counterparts.The PISA examinations, carried out every three years, evaluate education systems worldwide by measuring basic skills and knowledge of 15-year-old pupils and their readiness for the challenges of adult life.

In response, Education Minister Rafi Peretz tasked Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav with developing a comprehensive program to strengthen the education system in Arab society. “There is a lot of inequality between the Jewish and Arab sectors but also significant performance variability within the sectors,” Schleicher said. “There is a lot that the system needs to do to attract talented teachers to disadvantaged schools – not with financial incentives but in order to build a career.

”To reduce disparities between and within sectors, Schleicher said there must be greater “belief in the profession than the societies themselves.” Just as doctors are not trained differently according to the society in which they work, he said, teachers must follow a similar path. Adopting a Japanese approach to education, in which teachers change schools every three years, could reduce inequalities and build a united teaching profession.Schleicher cited Israel’s advanced economy but highlighted its reliance on “very few people.”

Despite positive trends, Arabs still only represent approximately 2% of all employees in Israel’s hi-tech sector, which is dominated by non-Orthodox Jewish men. “How long is that sustainable? If you want to share the productivity around the country, you need a broader skill base,” he said. “If you want to build a more inclusive economy, you need a more inclusive education system.”Meeting the challenges of the future job market, including the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace, poses a dilemma for education systems, Schleicher said.

Schools must shift from teaching subject matter content to developing ways of thinking and values, including leadership and courage, he said.“We still need to work a lot harder on it, otherwise we will prepare our children for our past and not their future. It is easy to talk about, but it requires a different set of learning practices and learning spaces where students are active learners, not passive participants. Schools have been designed like an industrial farm and need to be more like a zoo, full of people with different perspectives,” Schleicher said.

Eytan Halon