According to a new study based on the results of international math and science tests, Israel is in the top five of the countries where the academic gap between the students from rich and poor parents is the largest. The analysis of the results shows that rich students perform as if they had an additional two years of schooling compared to their poorer peers.
The study which was published by the Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment looks at the 2009 results of the Trends in Intentional Education Mathematics and Science Study exam. When the results were originally published, Israeli education and government officials touted them as validation that the country's schools were some of the best in the world.
Its conclusion is that on average, pupils from well-off socioeconomic backgrounds did 88 points better than their classmates who came from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds – a gap comparable to two years of study. Israel has the dubious honor of being one of the countries in which the gap is more than 100 points, alongside Argentina, the United States, Hungary and Dubai.
However, the study also offers hope that closing the economic education gaps doesn't have to mean compromising on academic quality – at least as measured by TIMMS. In the words of Professor Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director of the OECD, said that contrary to the beliefs held decades ago, equality and academic success are not goals that are in contradiction to each other.
"Equality and educational success can be combined. At one time, these two concepts were regarded as contradictory, but today the approach is very different. Inequality can no longer be tolerated. Without basic abilities, the pupil will remain on the fringe of society. These abilities have become the leading indicator not only of financial success, but also of involvement in society in general. They are not luxuries, but necessities."
In an interview he gave before the Jerusalem Convention for Education, he said that countries need to invest in efforts to bridge academic gaps and those that don't, do so at their own future economic peril. Furthermore, if Israel wants to take the problem seriously, it has plenty of models to emulate. Both Canada and Poland – two countries that have applied serious efforts to bridging economic inequality in education – have showed tremendous results. Poland managed to bridge its own achievement gap by nearly 50%.
Some critics have argued that performance on the TIMSS test is overemphasized and should not be the basis for determining national educational success anyway. But Schleicher says the test is an important measuring stick.