The recurring debate on vocational education in Israel showcases a deep ideological divide within the Israeli public. On the one hand, there are those who argue that vocational training directs weaker pupils away from preparation for the bagrut (Israel’s matriculation exam) and destines them to work in low paying jobs. On the other hand, some claim that vocational training equips its graduates with the skills needed to integrate into Israel’s workforce and earn a reasonable income. A new Taub Center study featured in the 2015 State of the Nation Report by Carmel Blank, Prof. Yossi Shavit (Principal Researcher and Chair of the Taub Center’s Educational Policy Program), and Prof. Meir Yaish explores the extent to which each of Israel’s four educational tracks ultimately affects drop-out rates and bagrut qualification rates.
Israel’s secondary education system consists of the following educational tracks: the academic track, intended to prepare pupils for academic studies; the engineering track, considered the “high” technological track, intended to prepare pupils for higher education in engineering, computer science or bio-technology; the technological track, which is designed to prepare pupils for technological fields of study or to be practical engineers or technicians; and the vocational track, considered the “low” technological track, designed to provide vocational training alongside academic courses. Each track prepares pupils for the bagrut exams, though the tracks have differing emphases and starkly different success rates.
Academic and engineering tracks tend to attract stronger pupils than the other two tracks. As shown in the series of figures below, more pupils in these tracks have educated parents, higher standardized test scores, and attend schools with higher socioeconomic statuses. In addition, the demographic profile of these tracks shows, most notably, that Arab Israelis are underrepresented in the academic and technological tracks, and girls are overrepresented in the vocational track.
These facts raise a very important question in gauging the extent to which track assignment is affected by pupils’ socioeconomic status – is it the socioeconomic factors themselves that affect the assignment to a certain educational track, or are other variables, such as prior scholastic achievement, responsible? That is, do pupils from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds show higher achievement in primary school, and on the basis of their higher achievements get assigned to more prestigious tracks? To address this question, Blank, Shavit and Yaish statistically controlled for prior scholastic achievement, along with a number of other potentially intervening variables and found little change in the results. Students in the academic and engineering tracks are more likely to come from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds while students from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be in the technological and vocational tracks. This suggests that socioeconomic background is indeed directly related to track assignment.
In addition to the results supporting the link between a pupil’s socioeconomic background and the course of his or her studies, the study finds that pupils in the technological tracks perform more poorly on the matriculation exams than their counterparts in the academic and engineering tracks. The figure below shows that 70% and 82% of pupils in academic and engineering tracks, respectively, qualify for their bagrut certificate, as compared to a rate of about 53% for pupils in the technological track and 40% for those in the vocational track. Even after controlling for prior scholastic achievements and socioeconomic factors, the data show that the academic and engineering tracks better prepare their pupils for the bagrut exams. In fact, high school dropout rates among students in technological (5.5%) and vocational (5.2%) tracks are substantially higher than those in the academic (2.9%) and engineering (1.4%) tracks, demonstrating another barrier to matriculation in the less prestigious tracks.
This study finds that pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to enter the less prestigious educational tracks. These tracks are associated with lower rates of bagrut matriculation even after controlling for socioeconomic factors and prior scholastic achievement. The authors note, though, that there has been progress on certain issues in this realm compared to what was found in past research on the subject. For example, most of the pupils who transition between tracks switch from technological tracks to the academic track (i.e., pupils are increasing their preparation for and chances of matriculation). Additionally, the prestigious engineering track has a considerably high portion of Arab Israeli students, who make up 29.9% of the track, (compared to the proportion of Arab Israeli students, which stands at 24%). Despite the progress, there is still a strong relationship between socioeconomic background and educational track. Due to the substantial effect that educational track has on one’s chances of completing high school and receiving a diploma, pupils from weak socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately affected.