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Arab students in mixed cities on average perform less well than Jewish students

Arab students in Jaffa drop out of school more, attend college less and ultimately earn lower salaries. However, unlike other mixed cities in Israel, the biggest problem is not a lack of investment but the language barrier.

Most people would probably agree that the main reason for differing education standards comes down to lack of budget in some communities, and the way to improve students’ achievements is to invest more in them. But the Tel Aviv-Jaffa school system shows that although budget increases may sound like a magic bullet, the problems are actually far more profound and complex.

In the Israeli mixed cities where Jews and Arabs live side by side, there are huge gaps between the budget invested in Jewish students and their Arab peers. In Lod, Acre and Ramle, the average budget for a Jewish student is tens of percentage points higher than for an Arab student from a similar background. The gaps are smaller in Haifa, and in some instances there is even a small bias in favor of the Arab students there. But as a result of the funding imbalance, Arab students in mixed cities on average perform less well than Jewish students.

In Tel Aviv-Jaffa, however, equal amounts are spent on Arab students as their Jewish counterparts. In fact, according to figures for the 2019-2020 school year, the average budget per student in Arab education in elementary and high school was about 2,500 shekels ($730) higher than for a Jewish student.

Yet in spite of that, egalitarian funding does not always succeed in bridging that gap in student achievement. A study conducted recently by the Israel Democracy Institute, focusing on the mixed cities, pointed to profound gaps that continue throughout students’ lives. These gaps will affect their ability to study at university and their earning potential later in life. For instance, only 40 percent of Arab boys and 53 percent of Arab girls graduate from high school, compared to 74 percent of Jewish boys and 82 percent of Jewish girls.

The gap is even wider if we take into account that the numbers refer only to students who reached 12th grade, and that the dropout rate in Arab society is significantly higher than among Jews. According to the study, conducted by Dr. Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, Oded Ron and Ben Fargeon, 14 percent of Arab boys aged 14 to 17 in Jaffa are not in any educational facility.

These low figures stem from prolonged budgetary discrimination that was amended only in recent years. “We’re still at the stage of closing gaps: maybe 10 years from now we’ll see the effect of the processes currently taking place,” says Ayat Abou Shmeiss, a Jaffa resident whose son Mahmoud finished his school studies last week.

Parents who seek a better future for their children don’t sign them up for the local state Arab schools, but for Hebrew state schools or private education in church schools. Residents also note that parents who seek a better future for their children don’t sign them up for the local state Arab schools, but for Hebrew state schools or private education in church schools. “The best students in the grade finish elementary school and attend [the predominantly Christian] Terra Sancta or a Jewish school,” says a local educator. “Their parents aren’t stupid. They invest, pay for private lessons and send them to private schools because they believe that by doing so, they’ll guarantee a better future for their children.”

As a result, only about two-thirds of the city’s Arab students study in Arab state schools. The rest are divided among the private church schools and the Hebrew state school Ironi Zayin, about half of whose students are Arab – although studies there are conducted in Hebrew. Several dozen students study outside of Jaffa, in central and north Tel Aviv.

This trend continues despite an increase in the number of students graduating from Arab state schools. In the Yod Bet high school, whose graduation rates stagnated for years at around 20 to 30 percent, it increased to 40 percent about two years ago, and last year soared to 70 percent, which is comparable to the national average.

Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality puts this down mainly to the veteran principal being replaced by a new head, Osama Arar, and a significant financial investment in order to reduce class sizes and establish a study center that operates into the evening hours.

“Studying in small groups is the most important parameter,” says Shirley Rimon Bracha, head of the education department at City Hall. “When you invest in that properly, you see results.” “The Arab children arrive at the kindergarten without knowing the Hebrew. Furthermore, their Arabic doesn’t develop at this stage either. The structure of the language remains broken.” Shirley Rimon Bracha, head of the education department at Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality

The language barrier

Many of those involved in the matter identify a significant barrier preventing academic success: the student’s mother tongue. Or, to be more precise, its absence. “The answer is not in the schools but in preschool,” says Councilman Abed Abu Shehadeh. “For years we’ve been arguing that, but only now does the education department understand it.”

Studies have long pointed to the advantages of sending children to high-quality educational centers at preschool age, with an emphasis on their contribution to the development of social, cognitive and linguistic skills. However, a survey conducted recently by the municipality discovered that over half of Jaffa’s Arab toddlers stay home until the age of 3 and are not registered for any preschool, mainly for financial reasons. This only increases the gap between them and Hebrew-speaking children.

The municipality is trying to improve matters by starting groups facilitating encounters between mothers, toddlers and professionals, but that is only a partial solution that addresses a relatively small population.

In kindergarten, the language situation becomes even more complicated. Many Arab parents choose to send their children to Hebrew-speaking centers, in the hope that they will acquire the language and based on the understanding that the educational staff in these places will be better.

In recent years, Jaffa’s Arab kindergartens have remained almost empty. But the choice of Hebrew-language kindergartens exacts a price. “The staff and the other children speak Hebrew, while the Arab children arrive at the kindergarten without knowing the language. Furthermore, their Arabic doesn’t develop at this stage either,” says Rimon Bracha. “The structure of the language remains broken.”

The parents also realize this. A mother of three testified that her son “was in a kindergarten where they speak Hebrew, and that causes language problems – he ended up without Hebrew and without Arabic.”

The picture changes again in elementary school. About half of Jaffa’s Arab parents send their children to Hebrew-speaking schools. The other half, which includes parents who sent their children to a Hebrew-speaking kindergarten, turn to Arabic-speaking schools. These children reach elementary schools with very poor Arabic, “and then the child has to learn in first grade what he could have learned in kindergarten,” says Abu Shehadeh.

That’s particularly difficult, because at this point Arab school students are required to study literary Arabic as well. “The combination of spoken Arabic, Hebrew and literary Arabic in first grade, and then English in third grade, is impossible when it comes to an underprivileged population,” Rimon Bracha says.

In this case too, the municipality is trying to bridge the gap by lengthening the school day and offering various enrichment programs, but concedes that it doesn’t always succeed – often due to a lack of a response from the students’ parents. However, in recent years, there has been a major decline in the percentage of Arabic-speaking children demonstrating significant difficulties in reading comprehension in seventh grade.

In high school, about 40 percent of the Arab students attend church schools or Hebrew-language schools. “We wanted to transfer Mahmoud to an Arabic-speaking state school, but at this stage we realized that his Arabic wasn’t good enough because he studied in a Hebrew-speaking framework in elementary school,” says Abou Shmeiss. For that reason, he signed up for Ironi Zayin – a Hebrew school in which about 40 percent of the students are Arabic speakers.

Abou Shmeiss has plenty of good things to say about the school and its staff, but at the same time her pain over the price her son paid in terms of language and identity is evident. “So many of the children in the school are Palestinians, but there are almost no Arabic-speaking faculty members, and the graduation ceremony that just took place was in Hebrew only,” she says. “In the price between the personal and the political, I chose the personal – the well-being of my son. I closed my eyes to everything else.”

It’s during high school that one of the most painful problems arises: the dropout rate, especially among Arab boys (the dropout rate for girls is significantly lower). According to the study, only 84.5 percent of Jaffa’s Arab boys are still in an educational framework at age 17, a far lower rate than among Jewish students – and even lower than Arab boys in other mixed cities such as Lod and Acre.

“Nobody is willing to say anything about that, to own up regarding this dropout rate,” says a source in the municipal school system. “With proper handling by the welfare and educational authorities, that shouldn’t be happening any more. A child who doesn’t want to attend school – we have to put pressure on him and actively bring him back. But that’s not happening.”

‘Failing grade’

Sources who work with at-risk youth explain that many of the dropouts turn to crime. The statistics confirm the problem: 20 percent of those with criminal records in Tel Aviv-Jaffa are Arabs, even though they represent only 4.5 percent of the city’s population.

Dr. Haj-Yahya says the dropout rate casts a shadow over any academic improvements in Jaffa’s high schools. “When you measure the graduation eligibility rate of all students in the age group, including those who dropped out of school, the municipality receives a failing grade,” she says.

“But it’s not fair to talk only about the municipality’s education department. In order for these children to graduate from school with a high-quality grade, we have to provide holistic treatment that will offer a broader solution – in welfare and housing, and in education too.”

According to the Israel Democracy Institute study, the number of those turning to the welfare system is higher by a third on average than in the other mixed cities and the national average in the Arab community.

Even someone who overcomes all of the social challenges, studies hard and graduates from high school may still find it hard to attend college. Although the number of Arab high school graduates in Jaffa has grown in recent years, the gap is still wide and is reflected in the rates of those entering higher education.

Only 8.9 percent of male and 13.6 percent of female members of Jaffa’s Arab community receive a college education, compared to 40 percent of the men and about half of the women in Tel Aviv’s Jewish community. Of those Arabs who pursue higher education, many choose to study in universities in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Here, too, Arab high school graduates encounter the obstacle of their mother tongue. Prof. Youssef Masharawi, chairman of the Arab Integration Steering Committee at Tel Aviv University and himself a Jaffa resident, says the lack of language competency is the main source of frustration in the effort to increase the number of Jaffa students studying for bachelor’s degrees.

The gaps are evident in the psychometric exam [the Israeli equivalent of the SAT]: While the average score of Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s Jewish residents is higher than the national average among Jews – 616 points for men and 599 for women (out of 800) – the average score of Jaffa’s Arabs is significantly lower than in any other mixed city: 454 for men and 421 for women.

“My daughter is an outstanding student, she did the [maximum] five-point exam in five subjects. But I know she’ll have a problem with the psychometric exam,” Masharawi says. “In the psychometric exam, you need instant, quick thinking. But you aren’t capable of that when you don’t have a mother tongue.”

The consequences are depressing, he says. “You don’t realize how many minds of students from Jaffa we’re losing – minds that are suited to higher education,” Masharawi says. “When someone lacks fluency in their mother tongue, they lack the confidence to express themselves. That’s true not only for students, but for the teachers themselves as well.”

Ran Shimoni and Shira Kadari-Ovadia