JERUSALEM — About one-quarter of Israel's first graders study in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools that give short shrift to subjects like reading, science and math. Another quarter study in underfunded classes in the Arab sector. Israeli high school students rank below average among developed countries on international tests.
A growing chorus of critics is warning that this is a toxic educational mix that will compromise Israel's ability to continue generating dazzling technology, an enviably long list of Nobel laureates and an economy that has outperformed key Western markets for years.
"A generation is growing up in Israel that does not know how to count," cautioned Daniel Schechtman, who last month collected the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He became the 10th Israeli, a country of just 7.6 million, to receive a Nobel.
Parents, educators and politicians the world over bemoan the state of their school systems. But few countries have such an overwhelming number of first graders liable to go through school without cultivating solid basic skills.
In 2010, Israel joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an exclusive club of the world's 34 strongest economies. At a time when most nations were posting sluggish growth, Israel's economy — which boasts strong human capital but few natural resources — expanded a strong 4.8 percent. Its technology remained a hot commodity, and living standards are relatively high.
But when it comes to educational achievements, considered by many as an important indicator for future economic health, Israel has had less to be proud about. Israeli teenagers scored below average in reading on the latest OECD-sponsored scholastic tests in 2009 and sharply below average in math and science. Even high achievers underperformed OECD peers.
In recent years, the Israeli government has invested more heavily in education and drafted reforms including higher salaries and additional teaching hours. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would ask his Cabinet to approve free compulsory schooling from age 3, rather than kindergarten.
"Ultimately, we will be judged on our knowledge economy," he said.
The government has also revamped curricula to cover material that appears on international tests and focused heavily on narrowing large gaps between affluent and lower-income Jewish students, improving scores in the Arab sector, and bringing up high achievers' results, said the just-retired director of the Education Ministry, Shimshon Shoshani.
Shoshani is confident Israeli students will perform significantly better on the next round of international tests.
"Generally speaking, Israeli students are more creative," Shoshani said. "What tarnished our image was the lack of success on international tests. We will show that with investments in education, you can be creative and succeed on international tests."
In its economic survey of Israel released last month, the OECD applauded the planned school reforms but cautioned that "much remains to be done, particularly as regards Arab-Israeli and ultra-Orthodox education."
Shortfalls in education contribute to Israel's high rate of poverty and "compromise the development of the economy's skill base," it warned.
Israel's 20 percent poverty rate is the second-highest in the OECD and is centered largely in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, both of which have higher-than-average birth rates.
The government, historically dependent on ultra-Orthodox kingmakers in parliament, gives generous welfare payments to thousands of ultra-Orthodox men so they can spend their days in religious studies instead of working. It has also allowed the community to establish a separate, state-funded school system where secular studies take a distant back seat.
Boys study secular subjects fewer hours than their non-Orthodox peers, and only through seventh grade. Girls spend more time on secular studies, but aren't schooled to achieve academically or learn professions, Shoshani said.
A highly influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, recently reiterated the call to shun secular college programs, saying their purpose "is to change our way of life."
Shechtman, the Nobel laureate, proposed that state funding be withheld from schools that don't offer a strong curriculum of basics.
"You can pray for God's providence, but it won't put bread on the table," he said.
While the religious are accorded special privileges, Israel's Arab minority, making up about one-fifth of the population, has long complained of widespread discrimination. This has included chronic underfunding of their separate school system.
Arab officials, citing Education Ministry data, say there is a shortage of 6,000 classrooms in the Arab sector even after more than 3,000 were built since 2007. They also say Arab schools are budgeted fewer teaching hours than Jewish schools.
The OECD acknowledged efforts to rectify problems with class size but noted Israeli Arabs performed worse on math and science tests in 2009 than on previous tests.
Shoshani says he expects to see that turn around in the next round of tests "because of the large investments and special interest paid to the Arab sector," including more teaching hours.
While agreeing Israeli schools need to raise their standards, technology entrepreneur Jon Medved doesn't think Israel's test scores tell the whole story. He says informal education, through the military, youth movements, and extracurricular activities, builds skills. He also praised programs for gifted children.
Consequently, Medved says he isn't worried that Israel's tech-driven economy will slide because of deficiencies in the school system.
"While I think it's important to sound alarm signals, I haven't heard from tech companies ... 'the employees we're getting are not educated,'" Medved said.