Druze education success story threatened by Israel’s political crisis

Israeli Druze high-schoolers have excelled in matriculation exams since 2013. What’s their secret?

al-monitor In this handout provided by GPO, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with Israeli students of the Magshimim program on Dec. 31, 2012, in Ashkelon, Israel. The program is designed to develop expertise among pupils in the Negev in the fields of technology.  Photo by Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images.

Aug 31, 2020

Four of the 10 local or regional authorities with the highest percentage of students passing the high school matriculation exam are Druze municipalities. In all of them, the percentage of students qualifying is greater than 90%, with Peqiin at the top of all districts in Israel, even the wealthiest, with 98.7% of students passing the exam. Hurfesh is fourth, with 98.7% qualifying.

In all, there are only about 20 municipalities of the Druze religious minority in Israel, whose students are only 2% of all Israeli students. Most of these towns are at a low socio-economic level, no different from the neighboring Muslim and Christian Arab towns, but they succeed in reaching high academic attainment. The average of Druze students qualifying for matriculation is 80%, compared to a national average of a little less than 70%.

Matriculation is not the only measure that attests to the high educational level of schools in Druze towns. Israel’s Druze students have accomplished higher achievements in the Meiztav exams (measuring “growth and effectiveness measures for schools”) given in 2019, and in most exams, their results were higher than the average among Jewish students.

In addition, in some of the exams, the average for Druze students who live in socio-economically weaker towns was similar or higher than the achievements of Jewish students from wealthier towns. For instance, in the mathematics test for fifth-graders, the Druze students’ marks were higher than the average marks of Jewish students (268 points compared to 253 among Jewish students and 243 among Arab students) and even 10 points higher than the marks of Jewish students from the highest economic level (258).

Seven years ago, the rate of qualification for matriculation among Druze students rose higher than those from all over the country. Five years ago, it overtook the rate of matriculation among the Jewish population. Thus, the Druze community has proven that students can succeed academically without connection to their economic status.

So what is the secret of the Druze? Hashem Hussein, director of the administration for the socio-economic development of Druze and Circassian municipalities, says the turning point was in 2005 when a study of the Brookfield Institute showed that Druze schools came second to last on all measures, ahead just of Bedouin schools. This demoralizing data led to a decision to devote most of the upcoming five-year development plan’s budget to education rather than to infrastructure.

“Instead of more asphalt and more useless buildings, we decided to invest in human resources from an early age,” said Hussein. The investment over the years came to hundreds of millions of Israeli shekels. This money was invested mostly in teacher training and hiring quality teachers, unique curricula that include partnership with academic institutions to bring high school students to learn once a week at a university, opening high-quality preschools with advanced materials and more.

Another change was that Mohana Fares was appointed to lead the Druze educational system. Fares ended the practice of appointing school principals by virtue of personal relations of family ties, replacing all educational supervisors with new and more qualified personnel.

Another change was in diverting budgets to the most problematic students. In 2005, in the entire Israeli Druze population, there was no assessment of learning differences, and many of these students dropped out of the educational system entirely. In a decade a revolution has taken place and a system to identify learning differences transfers them to special classrooms where their challenges can be addressed.

Schools with an orientation to science have received special attention; thus, the Druze High School for Science and Leadership at Yarka received big budgets to build laboratories and aids, especially in training excellent faculty. The Darca Druze High School for Science and Leadership at Yarka has boasted 100% matriculation for several consecutive years, including five points in English and math (the highest level).

Kamil Shela, the school’s principal, explains that the staff meets the highest standard, and any teacher who wants to teach at the school must have a master’s degree or higher, undergo an internship, and watch lessons delivered by the teacher and subject head. They must teach a sample lesson and receive feedback from the teaching staff and students. If there’s a consensus that the teacher is right for the school, they're hired.

In numbers, the big investment has lowered the number of students in a class below the national average, and the average sum invested per Druze student is higher than the national average. According to the Knesset Research Institute, in 2015, 24,000 Israeli shekels ($7,000) were invested in a Druze high school student per year, compared to the national average of 19,000 Israeli shekels ($5,600). In 2016-2020, the investment in the educational system in Druze municipalities reached 225 million Israeli shekels ($67 million).

Hussein says that in the next five-year development plan there will be an investment of half a billion Israeli shekels ($148 million) only in education but with a special emphasis on the next academic stage; that is, to help in continued success at universities, in guiding students to professional careers and in help overcoming barriers like language, as well as merit scholarships.

But the new five-year plan that was supposed to be implemented at the beginning of the year didn’t happen because of the political crisis in Israel and the lack of a stable government. The government decision in November allocated 200 million Israeli shekels ($59 million) to continue the education plans, but the coronavirus crisis has disrupted everything and some of the plans were stalled. Heads of Druze local authorities went on strike, and the big protest led to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised that the five-year plan would be included in the government’s budget.

But the political crisis hasn’t been solved, the budget won’t be submitted soon and the five-year plan has been delayed again. Heads of Druze local authorities restarted their protest, which includes strikes and blocking roads, but in the meantime, no solution has been found. This crisis could put a stop to the Druze educational success story and even turn the clock back.

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