Why Yoni and Yael can’t do math

Israeli math scores are among the lowest in the developed world. The culprit, says one economist, is a society-wide lack of discipline and disdain for rules

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A first grader raises his hand in a classroom in Nitzan, southern Israel. (Edi Israel/Flash90/File)
A first grader raises his hand in a classroom in Nitzan, southern Israel. (Edi Israel/Flash90/File)

Within Israel’s startup culture the conventional wisdom is that certain Israeli character traits — our impatience, ability to improvise, and a tendency to defy rules and challenge authority — have contributed to the country’s impressive high-tech success.

Israel is booming in terms of entrepreneurship because “you don’t follow the rules,” Google’s Eric Schmidt once told an audience at the Weizmann Institute in 2015.

Not so fast, says Noam Gruber, an economist and senior researcher at Israel’s Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. In his recently published study, “Why are Israel’s PISA Achievements So Low?” [Hebrew link], Gruber analyzes the factors that lead to relatively poor Israeli performance on international math tests and concludes that students’ lack of discipline — the very quality praised by Eric Schmidt and other startup Nation enthusiasts — is a significant factor behind the lackluster PISA scores.

“Israel has an advantage compared to other developed countries,” Gruber told The Times of Israel, noting a relatively high percentage of kids whose parents are educated and whose parents understand the importance of education.

But much of this great potential is wasted, he lamented, when Israeli students enter an education system that is of poor quality and suffers from a pathological lack of discipline. Gruber cites high levels of truancy and tardiness as well as classrooms abuzz with background noise and student disruptions as indicators of a lack of discipline.

“Discipline in Israeli schools is far below what is normative in the West,” he said. “If we don’t address this problem it will be hard for the Israeli workforce to remain competitive.”

The importance of global math scores

PISA is an acronym for the Program for International Student Assessment, a global test administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measuring 15-year-olds’ performance in mathematics, science and reading.

Noam Gruber (Photo courtesy of the Shoresh Institute)
Noam Gruber (Courtesy Shoresh Institute)

“PISA is a unified test and it’s a way to assess the achievements of our education system compared to those of other countries,” said Gruber. “Mathematical ability is proven to be a major predictor of students’ future success in the labor market.”

PISA math scores are also highly correlated with PISA reading scores, explained Gruber, so they’re a good stand-in for overall student achievement.

Gruber surveyed all 34 OECD countries along with Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. He found that Israel’s math PISA scores (in 2012) were the fifth lowest in this group, worse than every country except for Mexico, Chile, Turkey and Greece. The original PISA test was scaled so that the OECD average score would be 500 and the standard deviation 100. In 2012, the 5,000 Israeli students who took the PISA math exam scored an average of 466. If you break this result down still further, those Israelis who took the test in Arabic scored 388 on average while those who took it in Hebrew scored 489.

PISA math scores by country (Shoresh Institution)

Why are these results worrying? First, because they point to a drastic inequality of outcomes between Jewish and Arab students. Even within the cohort of Jewish students, scores on the PISA test are highly unequal, with students from poorer, less educated families obtaining much lower scores than those from more advantaged backgrounds. In fact, of all 37 countries surveyed, the inequality of test scores in Israel was highest.

What this means, said Gruber, is that Israel’s school system is so mediocre it fails to contribute to social mobility. Students in Israel who have educated parents will have a PISA score that is close to the OECD average, because what they don’t get in school their parents will often give them at home. But if a child’s parents did not finish high school, the school system here is unlikely to give the student the tools needed to succeed, said Gruber.

Perhaps counterintuitively, this inequality is not just bad for students at the bottom of PISA achievement, but for students at the top as well. Looking at the 10 highest-scoring countries in his sample — such as Estonia, Canada, Japan and Finland — Gruber observed that these countries’ education systems have a relatively low level of inequality as well. In other words, those countries where the gap between the top and bottom scorers was smallest tended to be the countries with the best PISA achievements overall.

Unfortunately, even Israel’s best students are not that stellar compared to top students in other developed countries, the study showed.

“Some people may think that Israel’s average PISA scores are low because of certain weaker groups in the population, like Arab Israelis and Haredim,” explained Gruber. “They think that certainly our top-performing students must be equal to their counterparts in the West.”

But this is not the case. If you look at students who took the PISA exam in Hebrew and scored in the 91st percentile, their score is 13 points lower than the average OECD score for the 91st percentile. If you look at Israel’s 99th percentile, the top 1 percent of scorers in the country, their scores are 39 points behind the top 1 percent of scorers of the OECD.

Mothers and math

If Israeli schools are not doing much to boost students’ PISA scores, what do those Israeli students who do perform relatively well have in common?

Educated mothers, said Gruber.

Parents’ education is a very strong indicator of a child’s academic success, but the mother’s level of education is an even stronger indicator. This is true worldwide and particularly true among Israeli Jews, said Gruber. Among Israeli Arabs, the mother’s education level also correlates with her child’s test score but less strongly than among Israeli Jews. Thus an Israeli child whose mother has a bachelor’s degree or higher does not score that far below the children of educated parents in other OECD countries.

Illustrative photo of mother and child (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Illustrative photo of mother and child (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Asked why the mother’s education is an indicator of academic success, Gruber said he can only speculate.

“It may be because mothers spend more time with their kids. Also, if a mother is educated, the chances are the father is as well. If a father is educated, it’s not certain the mother is. So a family with an educated mother often has two educated parents as opposed to one. Also, if the mother has an academic degree, perhaps the family places a higher value on educating girls.”

Within schools, classrooms where a high percentage of parents are educated raise the level of all pupils. Parents are intuitively aware of this, and that’s why you see well-off parents seeking out “good schools” in wealthier cities and neighborhoods where the other parents are like themselves.

“This is good for individual children,” Gruber said, “but not good for the society. It creates a concentration of strong students on the one hand and weak ones on the other. What you want to see is a school system that raises everyone up, that raises the weak to the level of the strong.”

Other aspects of family life that correlate with high math PISA scores, in Israel and elsewhere, are the emphasis the family places on the importance of math, and the amount of after-school math tutoring the family provides, said Gruber.

Students in Hartman secondary school in Jerusalem taking their matriculation exams in mathematics. May 25, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Students in Hartman secondary school in Jerusalem taking their matriculation exams in mathematics. May 25, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)


Surprisingly, Israel meets all these conditions. It has a very high percentage of mothers with post-high school education. At 55.7%, it is right behind Canada and Finland in terms of women’s education. Meanwhile, 18% of Israeli-Arab moms and 46.1% of Israeli-Jewish moms have academic degrees. Similarly, when the administrators of the PISA test asked students whether their parents think it is very important for them to study math, over 60% of Israeli students agreed, the highest percentage in the developed world.

And this isn’t just lip service. Israeli parents provide close to 1.5 hours a week on average of extracurricular tutoring in math, with Israeli Arab parents far surpassing their Jewish counterparts, providing more extracurricular math help than in all developed countries except for Singapore and South Korea.

Why do Israeli students perform poorly?

If Israeli mothers are more educated than the OECD average and parents here are among the most motivated to see their children succeed, why do Israeli teenagers nevertheless perform so poorly?

The answer, said Gruber, is the sorry state of formal education in Israel. And the central cause of poor schools, according to his study, is their lack of discipline.

“In an estimate based on tardiness and truancy statistics, Israel is in the third to last place in the developed world in terms of discipline, with the problem made even worse by large classroom sizes,” Gruber wrote in his study.

Illustrative photo of a school classroom. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a school classroom. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Gruber goes on to quote the Ethics of the Fathers: “There is no Torah without good manners. Teaching kids to come to class on time, teaching them to pay attention and not disrupt, is good manners. It’s the foundation on which the learning process is built. When this foundation is shaky, no wonder that the ‘Torah,’ — the learning, the achievements, are poor.”

Gruber added that a strong education system would be able to instill discipline in children whose behavior is unruly. But the opposite often occurs. An unruly child will often set the tone for other children. The fact that the Israeli education system has a much higher tardiness and truancy rate than the rest of the developed world, said Gruber, demonstrates that the education system is weak.

“We have a culture here in Israel that is really informal, and there’s an unhealthy imbalance of power between the parent, the student and the schools. When students misbehave, parents often back them up. The schools are weak and they’re just trying to preserve the status quo, not to upset anyone.”

Gruber says that discipline (as measured by tardiness and truancy) is better in Israeli Arab schools than in Jewish ones, but still poor compared to the OECD average. Lack of discipline is not just a problem in schools.

“It starts at a young age. If you send your kid to a municipal preschool, they tend to be understaffed, they’re a bit of a jungle. Kids learn to look out for themselves. They don’t learn how to stand in line or wait for their turn or be quiet when someone else is speaking. Children take that with them to first grade and then to 10th grade and then to the army and then to the university. And that’s how Israeli adults behave on the street and on the roads and in politics.”

What’s interesting is that this disinclination to follow the rules is often a point of pride for Israelis, the “secret sauce,” many believe, that accounts for Israel’s status as the startup nation.

“There is some truth to this notion,” said Gruber, “because the world of elite high tech is all about disruption, you need people who are willing to destroy what exists and replace it with something better, so there’s an advantage to not being too disciplined and to being a bit of a wild person with a big ego.”

Still, said Gruber, when you look at Israel’s high-tech entrepreneurs they tend to come from relatively advantaged backgrounds and good schools.

“Besides,” he said, “Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan [countries leading in PISA math scores] have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to technological achievements.”

Making life better for teachers

There is still another reason why the level of Israel’s schools is so poor, according to Gruber, and that is the poor academic achievements of those who choose teaching as a profession.

In many of the countries where students have high PISA scores, said Gruber, teaching is a highly sought-after profession. In Finland, elementary education departments in teacher colleges accept only 10% of applicants. In Japan, the figure is 14% and only 30-40% of graduates get jobs in public schools.

In Israel, on the other hand, teaching is one of the easiest tracks to get into, and psychometric test scores of students studying education are among the lowest among college and university students. Gruber believes that raising the salaries of entry-level teachers in Israel, as well as raising the level of discipline in schools so that teachers can focus on teaching instead of policing students, will go a long way toward attracting those who want to be teachers out of a sense of mission, and not as a last resort.

Israeli teachers protest in front of the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv on October 19, 2016, as they demand better pay and working conditions. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli teachers protest in front of the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv on October 19, 2016, as they demand better pay and working conditions. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Asked if there is any subgroup in Israeli society whose PISA scores are significantly higher than the rest, Gruber points to the children of North American immigrants to Israel whose average score is above 520, compared to the average for Israelis as a whole, which is 466. Other subgroups, like children of Russians or French immigrants, or national religious students, do not have scores that differ from the Israeli average.

Asked to explain this, Gruber could once again only speculate.

“North Americans in Israel tend to be better educated, have a better socioeconomic situation and live in well-off cities like Ra’anana, Modiin or Jerusalem.” Gruber also speculated that the fact that many Americans in Israel live near each other and socialize with one another creates an alternative subculture that is characterized by higher educational attainment among other things.

As for Israeli society as a whole, Gruber said that raising the discipline level in schools (as measured by tardiness and truancy) to the OECD average would likely raise Israeli PISA scores by at least 20 points.

“If we started today, then in 20 years Israeli society would be different. Better discipline would also attract better teachers to the profession. The world is competitive. If we continue on the current path, it will restrict the Israeli economy because not enough people will have the skills to be successful in high-tech or science.”

Gruber acknowledged it will be challenging to persuade the Israeli public of the urgency of this matter.

“When the public itself has a short attention span and its own issues with discipline, then explaining to them that this very behavior is the root of the problem will not be easy.”

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