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The Media Line: Crisis in the Classroom: Israeli Students Dip in Literacy Levels

Crisis in the Classroom: Israeli Students Dip in Literacy Levels

A 2021 study reveals a significant decline in Israeli fourth graders’ literacy levels, indicating a crisis in the education system and prompting calls for a balanced approach to assessment and an emphasis on literacy in all subjects

By Keren Setton/The Media Line

A recent international study reveals a significant decline in the literacy levels of Israeli fourth graders over the past few years.

The 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released on Tuesday shows that both Hebrew and Arabic native speakers are lagging in their language abilities. The decline among Hebrew speakers is more pronounced, while Arabic students started from a lower baseline.

More than 60 countries participated in the study. Israel’s decline is among the most significant measured in the latest survey, with similar figures observed in Norway and Slovenia. Conversely, Singapore and Hong Kong demonstrated the highest literacy rates among young students.

The previous study, conducted in 2016, shows that Israel has regressed to its literacy level in 2001, marking a 20-point dip. This follows a steady improvement after the 2001 decline until the latest survey.

According to a statement from Israeli Education Minister Yoav Kisch, these results indicate a “crisis in the education system.”

In reality, the Israeli education system has already been falling behind on many Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) metrics. The study merely underscores issues that were already known but often overlooked.

“This is a warning sign that could foretell a future decline in other areas and indicators,” warned Professor Anat Zohar, a professor of education at the School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a faculty member at the Mandel Leadership Institute. “It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

The implications of these findings are extensive and long-lasting.

“Language is like a muscle; to develop it, it needs to be exercised,” stated Dr. Sarit Silverman, a senior researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. “Reading needs practice.”

The reading skills acquired during the early school years have a direct impact on the future. The years when children can more easily acquire skills pass quickly and need to be capitalized on.

“Literacy is a prerequisite for success in all other subjects and is needed for understanding any knowledge,” Zohar said. “Language skills are a basic condition for the ability to develop thinking and understanding of any text, even digital texts online.”

Silverman pointed out that studies have found that children with various learning deficiencies have higher drop-out rates, higher unemployment, and fewer chances of being accepted into university.

This challenge is not unique to Israel.

“Children are spending more time on screens and reading much less,” Zohar noted. However, she believes that teachers of other subjects often absolve themselves of the responsibility to promote literacy and language skills.

“Such efforts, not only during specific language lessons, could be the antidote to the substantial literacy gap that exists,” added Zohar.

As a university instructor, Zohar has observed a decline in her students’ reading and writing skills in recent years, so the results did not surprise her.

The study found an 11% drop in students who previously demonstrated high-level reading skills, while an 8% increase was observed among students with reduced reading skills. The average drop was 20 points on the exam. The study tested 5000 Israeli students, comparing literacy rates globally. It’s crucial to note that Israel is still considered above average in literacy among countries. However, the findings serve as a wake-up call, prompting the country to take action to avoid a downgrade.

When Israel achieved higher scores in 2011, it was a result of significant investment in the test itself.

“Those were years when linguistic education was prioritized,” Zohar explained.

One criticism of the Israeli education system is its focus on grades and tests. Students are often encouraged to memorize material, frequently forgetting it immediately after the test.

“Participating in these tests is important, but there is a middle ground,” said Silverman. “It gives us a sense of where we are at, but we need to take it with a grain of salt.”

Recently, the education ministry decided to halt the publication of scores from its national standardized tests for schools. Although this move has drawn criticism for a perceived lack of transparency, it appears that the ministry is attempting to alleviate the pressure associated with these assessments and rankings.

According to Israel’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, these tests are “a means, not an end … and should be part of a continuous process.”

However, the grades hint at a more profound issue.

“Language skills extend beyond mere grades. The absence of these skills hinders personal development,” Zohar further commented.

The present findings occur alongside the COVID pandemic, which caused significant disruptions in education systems worldwide. In terms of school closure days, Israeli elementary schools fell somewhere in the middle compared to other countries. OECD findings indicate a correlation between the duration of school closures and a decrease in performance on international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

The fourth graders who participated in the PIRLS exam last year were in the midst of developing their reading skills in the second grade when the pandemic struck. Silverman notes that many children do not achieve fluid reading skills at this stage, even under regular circumstances.

“The pandemic undoubtedly contributed to the results and disrupted the learning process for many,” Silverman admitted. “Thus, it’s reasonable to see them progressing to the fourth grade with certain gaps.”

However, attributing the decline solely to COVID would overlook other contributing factors.

“The downturn started before the pandemic,” she continued. “The ubiquity of smartphones also plays a part.”

The study reveals a common pattern across many countries, but the trend is more pronounced in Israel.

“It is much easier to play on the phone and much more challenging nowadays to get kids to read; the temptations are many. It’s not a fair fight,” said Silverman, arguing that parents share the responsibility of promoting literacy with the education system and teachers.

The study noted a significant decline among Hebrew-speaking students, while Arabic speakers remained at their already low 2016 level. The study indicates that nearly 60% of Arabic speakers struggle with reading, a rate that’s twice the international average.

“This disparity is a defining characteristic of the Israeli education system; the gap is immense,” Silverman observed.

Israeli Arabs, who constitute approximately 20% of Israel’s population, face widespread, often institutionalized, discrimination. This disparity is also reflected in the education system.

Arab towns and villages are notably underserved, with subpar infrastructure and dilapidated schools. Arab Israelis have a lower workforce participation rate and earn less than their Jewish counterparts. The pandemic further exacerbated these gaps. Many Arab villages and population centers lack the necessary internet infrastructure, a critical component of remote learning.

The study provides insight into some of the root causes of these issues.

However, it also highlights improvements in some countries. Given Israel’s past success in enhancing its scores, there is cause for optimism.

“Our mission is to steer the system back on course,” Minister Kisch declared in a press release. “We face a formidable challenge and a significant responsibility.”


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