The trauma and tragedy of Israel’s vocational education system

Across the board, the achievements of vocational school graduates are significantly lower than those of non-vocational high school graduates. What is needed is equality. Nothing more, nothing less.

By Yossi Dahan (Translated from Hebrew by Alan Horowitz)

Before surrendering to the vision of Stef Wertheimer, Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Education Shay Piron and the vocational education system, which calls for transforming the educational system into an indentured servant of the labor market and the Manufacturers Association of Israel (MAI), consider first some data on the vocational education system in Israel. The latest research on the topic was conducted by Noam Zussman and Shay Tzur from the Bank of Israel in 2011 [Hebrew]. Here are their conclusions:

The results of the study show that the educational achievements of vocational high school graduates was substantially lower than that of standard high school graduates. They acquired less of a post-secondary education, entered less prestigious occupations and, according to some of the results, earned less. This was true even for individuals with low cognitive abilities, who constitute the target population for vocational education. In contrast, the effect of a vocational high school education on employment rates was no different than that of an academic high school education, and some of the findings indicate that it helped reduce high school drop-out rates, which was one of its main objectives.

Moreover the results of this research point to “a large disparity in favor of academic over vocational education” in regard to education and success in the labor market. For instance, a vocational education student had a 42 percent chance of graduating with full matriculation, compared to 64 percent for an academic student. The rate of baccalaureate and higher graduate degrees stood at 12 percent for the vocational education student, compared to 27 percent for an academic student. The chance of getting a prestigious job was approximately 30 percent for a vocational education student, compared to 42 percent for an academic student. (All data refers to male students only; the rates for female students were lower, but with similar gaps.). These results apply to vocational school graduates of the 1970s; however the assumption is that the situation has not drastically changed since. For example, according to the latest data from the Adva Center, 43.8 percent of Jewish academic graduates enroll in universities, compared to 30.3 percent of vocational education graduates.

Given that the Jewish-Mizrahi student population in Israel’s geographical and sociological periphery was the main target population designated for vocational schools, there is a rational basis for the trauma and protest expressed by the three Mizrahi ministers from the south of Israel (Meir Cohen, Amir Peretz and Silvan Shalom), against expanding the vocational training education system (Hebrew). Data shows that students from countries with no vocational or other types of occupational education, such as Finland and Canada, achieve higher levels of achievement than students from countries with such tracking.

The public debate in Israel may give the impression that there are no vocational training schools here, but 39 percent of secondary school students in Israel are indeed part of the vocational system. Given that 16 percent of the labor force works in the Israeli industrial sector, Mr. Wertheimer and associates have a huge army of candidates to man their industrial plants. In addition, 54 percent of the secondary school budget is allocated to vocational training schools, while, as previously stated, vocational students represent 39 percent of high school students. According to an article by Professor Yossi Shavit, the vocational education budget has increased tenfold over the last several years.

The Harari committee, which explored vocational-technological education, concluded that most vocational education is redundant, and that the vocational training sector, which Prime Minister Netanyahu refers to as “auto body repair and welding,” should be eliminated. Furthermore, the committee concluded that academic and science education should be expanded. One of the committee’s central arguments was that, given the fact that technology evolves at a rapid rate, there is no point in specialized vocational training. Other experts propose to transfer vocational training to post-secondary education, where people can get relevant training within a shorter time frame.

The Adva Center’s Dr. Shlomo Swirski and Attorney Noga Dagan-Buzaglo propose eliminating the segregation between academic and vocational training schools, as well as all other forms of segregation and tracking. Instead they propose that all Israeli secondary schools teach a uniform core curriculum while offering parallel, elective technological courses. This approach is contingent upon putting in place a uniform educational program in all schools.

The debate around vocational education is distorted by the assumption that a child is a resource that must be exploited to advance economic development – for manning available positions in the labor market and other utilitarian aims. The aim of the education system in a democratic country need not be subjugated to these external goals. The aim of the education system is to ensure fair, equal opportunity and to raise and nurture students into becoming autonomous people who make their own life decisions. The aim is to train them to become democratic, critical thinkers who are full partners in formulating their collective life experiences. This vision, however, does not fit that of auto body repairers and welders.

Yossi Dahan is a law professor, the head of the Human Rights Division at the College of Law and Business and the co-founder of Haokets. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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