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Israel - Secondary Education

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceIsrael - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


Prior to Israel's independence and in the first years of its existence as a country, secondary education was funded by tuition and was not mandatory. Following the educational reforms of 1968, all students were required to attend school through grade 10 and there were no tuition charges. These changes came about as a result of a perceived failure of the schools to provide equal opportunity, especially for disadvantaged students, and as a result of the failure of the schools to assist with the integration of the various immigrant groups into Israeli society. Another aspect of the educational reform of 1968 was to abolish a previously used screening test that identified students who qualified for the academic high school. Primary school students were then able to move to one of the three forms of secondary education without any selection process.

The academic high school consists of a three or four year program of study that prepares students to take the Bagrut exam (which translates from Hebrew as matriculation); passing this examination is required for admission to any university in Israel. The curriculum of the academic high schools is highly structured and focused on the subjects and skills needed to perform well on the matriculation examination. The examination system has been revised a number of times and in a number of ways, including changes to the numbers of subjects on which students are examined, the use of term papers in some subjects in place of formal written tests, and the use of varied levels of achievement on the exams instead of a simple pass-fail system. Despite its disadvantages and problems, the system remains in place and is considered to be the highest standard for academic educational achievement. Students who succeed in the academic high school are those most likely to go on to a university and be successful members of Israeli society.

A second type of high school program is vocational in nature. Like the academic high school, students complete a three or four year program of study that prepares them for semiprofessional careers in electronics, other technological areas, practical engineering, data processing, and so on. Because of changes in technology resulting from the development of computers, a special committee recommended substantive changes to vocational education to the Ministry of Education and Culture in 1992 (Iram and Schmida). The proposals include a broader preparation in science, a more academic curriculum to prepare for the matriculation examination, and a general focus on technology for all students.

The third type of high school program is centered in the comprehensive high schools. These schools have developed over time and through a series of reforms and modifications to their structure and curriculum. The present configuration consists of a six-year program of study, including both junior high and high school, and is most commonly found in the new towns and settlements rather than in the major cities of Israel. In these schools, both academic and vocational programs of study are offered, and they are considered to be equal in value. The student population is more heterogeneous, supporting the integrative function of the schools in Israeli society more generally. The comprehensive schools make a concerted effort to prepare all students to pass matriculation exams successfully, regardless of their chosen curricula.

Language & Literacy Issues: Israel's educational system has taken a unique approach to language and literacy learning that arises at least partly from the history of the country and from the history of Hebrew as a language. The development of modern Hebrew results from the efforts of one man to transform the language of rabbis and scholars from a language of prayer and sacred text to a living language suitable for a growing country. Eliezer Perlman, who adopted Ben-Yehuda as his last name, a Russian Jewish immigrant and philologist, took it upon himself to revive Hebrew. In 1881, Ben-Yehuda and his wife emigrated to Palestine; Ben-Yehuda felt that the absence of a national language there was an important problem pertinent to the development of a national sense of identity. Arabic, Turkish, French, Russian, and other languages were used by various groups within the region of Palestine, but no one language was widely used. Ben-Yehuda thus resolved to help develop Hebrew as the national language.

Besides the absence of a national language in Palestine, there were two other problems that contributed to Ben-Yehuda's work. In the developing Jewish community within Palestine, Hebrew was used as the common language among Jewish immigrants from a variety of countries. It was apparently not used in a reduced, pidgin form, because these speakers could use the full form of the language, but it was not yet exactly a common language because it was not being used as the language of government, business, and education. In addition, Hebrew was the ancient language of the region and so had a kind of authority enjoyed by no other language spoken in the region.

Linguistically, the problem with Hebrew was not in the syntax or sentence structure, but in the vocabulary. The syntax did change some as the language was revived, with Ben-Yehuda changing the basic structure of simple sentences so that they began with a verb rather than the subject, following the syntactic pattern of Arabic. The phonology and orthography were also acceptable, though there were some irregularities in the spelling system that Ben-Yehuda tried to address with mixed success. The major need, though, was for a greatly expanded vocabulary that would allow speakers to discuss contemporary issues and various aspects of modern life. By the end of World War I, Hebrew had become the predominant language in Palestine and it would be important in the founding of the independent state as well, including a specific role in the educational system.

Ben-Yehuda was not an educator, but a writer and editor of small newspapers and other publications. His major strategy for enhancing and updating the vocabulary of Hebrew was to research the Semitic roots of words and use those roots to create contemporary forms. In 1904, Ben-Yehuda published the first volume of what would ultimately be a 17-volume comprehensive dictionary of Hebrew (Sachar 83). In order to spread the newly created language, though, Ben-Yehuda needed the help of the educational system in Israel. With intensive efforts he achieved ultimate success.

The various waves of immigration brought speakers of many different languages. The schools they established or attended used the native language of the local immigrant group, German, Russian, and so on. Many of the immigrants spoke Yiddish and it, too, was used in the schools in some places. By 1903, there was a Hebrew Teachers' Association, supporting teachers across the country who wanted to use Hebrew as the language of instruction in the schools. Zionist settlers began using Hebrew exclusively in their schools.

A crisis over the language issue was prompted by the development of the first institution of higher education, the Technion, in Haifa. The Technion's origin was supported by donations from Russian and German sources prior to its official founding, and overseen by German administrators who wanted, naturally, to use German as the language of instruction. Moreover, German had a full vocabulary for dealing with technical subjects, whereas Hebrew's vocabulary was still quite limited. Zionist settlers were dissatisfied, and Ben-Yehuda was infuriated by this move. The Hebrew Teachers' Association went on strike over the issue, and ultimately, the directors of the Technion agreed in 1914 that all courses would be taught in Hebrew (Sachar). By the time of the 1916 census, 40 percent of the population spoke modern Hebrew as their first language (Sachar). The schools and the teachers played a key role in establishing Hebrew as the national language and language of instruction in the schools of Israel.

In modern Israel, Hebrew is the language of instruction and English or French is the required second language in all schools, beginning in the primary years (grade 5 or 6). Literacy rates are very high in Israel; the World Almanac estimates the literacy rate at about 96 percent as of 2001. There are large numbers of publications of all kinds, including more than 24 daily newspapers and many periodicals, mostly in Hebrew (Sachar). Book publishers and libraries abound in the country.

For the purposes of supporting new immigrants and fostering their integration into Israeli culture and society, there are a number of ulpanim or intensive Hebrew language schools. Although there are fewer such schools now than in the late 1970s when immigration to Israel was very high, these programs still offer intensive study of Hebrew, either for six months in a day program or for a year in a less intensive evening program. An ulpan may also be offered on a kibbutz, in combination with a work program or as part of an overall longer residential resettlement program for new immigrants.

Vocational Education: The picture of vocational education in Israel is quite complex, both in terms of the development of the system and its position in the overall educational system. In general, the goal of vocational education is like the goal of the education system overall: to offer equality of opportunity while addressing diverse needs in the population, and in the economy. The complexity of the situation is further reflected in a general trend toward more academic education for all students and a trend away from vocational training of any kind in the schools.

The vocational schools have a mixed sponsorship and an assortment of different configurations in their programming. Some schools are sponsored by voluntary organizations such as the Organization of Labor and Vocation (ORT) or the Women's Organization for Israel and Torah (Amit). Others are sponsored by the cities or by the government. Although the curriculum is under the control of the Ministry of Education and Culture, some programs are overseen by the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. There are also the comprehensive high schools within the state system, which offer vocational programs in combination with more traditional academic programs.

There are four different arrangements of vocational programs. The first of these leads to the matriculation exams and certificate described above, with qualifications in technological subjects. Students who successfully complete the matriculation exams of this kind are eligible for higher education. A second arrangement leads to a final certificate and trade diploma. Students who complete this course are then qualified to work in their specialized field. A practical vocational course comprises the third plan; this type of study leads to certification by the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. The last possibility is a "guidance" course for the least able student population. The most sophisticated technological training is available only to the students in the higher levels of the system. Increasing numbers of students have been enrolling at this higher level of study and very few students now enroll at the lower levels.

In addition to these varied arrangements within the regular secondary education program, there are part-time vocational schools. These are closer to an in-service kind of program, offering practical occupational training without the academic preparation. A different approach is offered by the industrial schools, jointly run by the government and individual industries. The courses of study in the industrial schools provide a form of on-the-job training but lead to certificates at three levels: technical, regular, and practical tracks.

The net impact of the vocational system has been to separate the more academically talented students, who are generally of European/Ashkenazic background from the Oriental/Sephardic students who tend to be less talented academically and less capable as students, according to Daniel Elazar. At the same time, offering universal secondary education opened the door to greater equity of treatment of the two groups, giving rise to the expanded curricula that lead to the matriculation exams and opened the possibility of higher education to this segment of the population. Increasingly, students with vocational interests are enrolling in comprehensive high schools where vocational and academic preparation are combined; these programs enable more students to succeed in the matriculation examinations and then to proceed to higher education.

The vocational education offered in Israel continues to struggle with the various competing needs of students and society, attempting to offer a variety of kinds of programs and situations to respond to changing needs.

Arab Education/Multicultural Issues:

Arab Education: One of the key problems facing Israel's educational system is addressing the needs of its Arab students. On the whole, the schools that Arabs attend are not as good as those that Jewish students attend in Israel, resulting in fewer students in the preschool and kindergarten classes, lower overall attendance rates, and fewer graduates. According to Schramm, the enrollment of Arabs in the twelfth grade is 57.8 percent compared to an 87.5 percent enrollment among Jews. Arab education is one area where Israel has not met the needs of a diverse population very effectively. Although the government has made some effort to improve the Arab schools, they lack services considered routine in Jewish schools such as psychological counseling and routine medical services, extracurricular activities of various kinds, library facilities, and additional instruction in reading.

Part of the difficulty with Arab education lies in the teaching staff. The teachers in Arab schools are not nearly as well trained as those in Jewish schools. Their preparation was generally shorter than that of Jewish teachers. The teacher training institutions for Arab teachers did not have as high a level of expertise as the Jewish teachers' colleges. One result of these weaknesses has been that there has been a teacher shortage in the Arab schools. The weakness in teachers and their training plays out in the schools, in that the student/teacher ratio is higher than it is in Jewish schools and Arab schools are also larger in terms of total enrollment than Jewish schools.

Another aspect of the difficulty in Arab schools has to do with relationships within the school itself. Teachers have absolute authority, so that students seldom express views different from those of their teachers. The teachers are locked into an authoritarian hierarchical structure, supervised by inspectors who ultimately report of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Teachers have little incentive for creativity because of the controlled structure in which they work. Their relationship outside of school to a hamula (Arab kinship group) may affect their work. The tensions between or among different kinship groups of this kind also sometimes carry over into the schools and impinge on teachers' effectiveness.

The Arab schools underwent major curriculum review and reform from the mid-1970s to about 1990. Among the changes put into place were additional attention to Arabic language and literature along with Hebrew language and literature, study of the history of the state as well as its culture, and more focus on religious studies including the history of Islam and its key beliefs. However, Arab education still falls far behind Jewish education in Israel and requires additional reform and improvement.

Multicultural issues: The Arab group within Israel is not the only significant group in the total population. As a result of the various waves of immigration both before and after Israel's independence, its society is highly diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity, and national origins. The schools are the major resource for integration of these diverse groups into Israeli society, particularly through the teaching of Hebrew and through the mandatory curriculum followed in the primary schools. Since the early 1980s, the school system has taken a multicultural approach to fostering integration of diverse groups.

Presently, the schools focus on trying to find common ground between Jews of the Orient and Jews from the West, between religious and nonreligious Jews of various types, and between Arabs and Jews. Although promoting integration and unity, school programs also support individual preferences and recognition of each distinct group's contribution to the society. Parents have also been granted the right to choose schools for their children, and some distinctive schools that offer specific experimental or diverse curricula are available.

As with the Arab schools, some problems persist. The government has attempted to address some of the difficulties through additional funding, focused in part on bringing Oriental Jews' socioeconomic conditions closer to those of European and Ashkenazi Jews. Neighborhood renovation projects and additional funding for the schools have been only partly successful in addressing the persistent inequities between these groups. Efforts to address the differences between the religious, and notably the ultraorthodox groups and nonreligious Jews have also been problematic. One example of the kinds of problems that persist is reflected in the continuing use of ability grouping in the junior high school level; this strategy resegregates classes, a move contrary to the goal of building an equal and cohesive group of students. Thus, as in the Arab schools, much work remains to be done.

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