The Israeli education system in general and the special education system in particular face very complex challenges. Israel is a highly complex society, fractured into different sectors where each sector unabashedly pushes its own agenda and dictates government policy. Israel is also an immigrant country with a large indigenous population and is engaged in an ongoing political, national, and military conflict with enemies without and competing national narratives within. It would be inconceivable that these monumental stresses would not impact on society’s greatest instrument of socialization, social control, and homogenization: the educational system. The provision of special services to children with special educational needs is a civil and human rights issue, and so these fractures in Israeli society are amplified in the special educational system.
All national educational systems, Israel included, develop through the interplay between larger socio-historical, national, demographic, and bureaucratic requirements. Of course, this is also true if we examine challenges, the structure and future trajectories of special education in Israel. This small country faces a series of challenges which are unique to the Israeli context, as well as other challenges which are common to other ethnically diverse nations. As a country facing both real and perceived existential threats, while simultaneously occupying the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli educational system faces additional challenges. Some of these issues relate to professional and bureaucratic aspects of the system; however, other challenges stem from the ongoing ethnic and national conflicts. As an example of the convergence of national, ethnic, and political considerations, and how they can influence both general and special educational policy, we can examine the special education system in Jerusalem, arguably, the most complicated city in the world.
Regardless of legal requirements to include children with special needs in general education classrooms, this has not occurred. Only a small percentage of children are actually included in the general educational system. Most children continue to be served in segregated schools or special day classes, and it appears that this is not changing. The only group consistently included in the general education system is students with diagnosed learning disabilities (LDs).
During the 2009-2010 school-year, the Israeli educational system included 3,652 schools (including schools for children with special needs) (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001; Zionit, Berman, & Ben-Arie, 2009) and 2,468,700 children (32.7% of the entire population). Of this population of children, 69.4% were Jewish, 24.1% were Muslim, 1.7% were Christian, and 1.9% were Druze; the only growing demographic group of these four was the group of Muslim children (which increased from 20.2% in 1995, Zionit et al., 2009). The state-run bureaucratic system is divided into two main sectors: The Jewish education division and the Non-Jewish system, each system is then subdivided once again (Jewish secular, Jewish religious, Jewish Ultra-Orthodox, Arab, Druze) (Gumpel & Nir, 2005; Gumpel & Sharoni, 2007). The system faces constant growth; the number of pupils enrolled in the educational system increased by more than 16.5 fold over a period of 50 years, from 108,131 pupils in 1948 to close to 2.5 million pupils in 2010. The number of immigrant pupils is also increasing (about 1.5% in 1991 to approximately 11% in 1996) (Ministry of Education – Culture and Sport, 1996), as is the number of immigrant teachers (1,950 teachers in 1992 to 5,150 in 1996). The annual dropout rates for pupils in upper secondary education is about 4.8% in Jewish education and 11.8% in Arab education (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001). Israel boasts a high literacy rate of 91.8% among those over the age of 15 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2008). National expenditure on education places Israel among the highest investing countries in public education in comparison with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the educational system is how to deal with the disparity between educational achievement and enfranchisement for different sectors of Israeli society. Since achieving independence, the country’s leaders have repeatedly declared that a primary goal of the educational system has been to reduce the socioeconomic gaps between different segments of the population on an inter-ethnic level (i.e., Jewish vs. Arab allocations in education) and an intra-ethnic (Ashkenizim vs. Mizrachim, religious vs. secular) level. These “gaps” exist on a myriad of economical, cultural, and legal levels.
Disparity in educational performance exists between the primary Jewish groups (Gumpel & Nir, 2005) and between Jews and Arabs (OECD, 2009). These gaps are visible between different socio-economic groups, between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, between old-timers and new-immigrants, and between different towns, cities, and villages (National Taskforce for the Advancement of Education in Israel, 2004). In 2009, 68% of all Jewish high schools students were eligible for their high school matriculation diploma, as compared to a 49.2% rate for Arab high school students; 46.6% of Muslims and approximately 60% of Christian and Druze youth. These numbers have remained fairly stable since 1995.
The Special Education System
In the 2008 – 2009 academic year, 109,511 children (5.76%) were identified as having special educational needs, 16.97% studied in segregated schools, and 22.42% studied in general education schools with 56.99% of these studying for the majority of the school day in special day classes (50.90%) (Zionit et al., 2009).
All of the problems and challenges facing the general education system in Israel confront the special education system as well. Indeed, we can make that claim that as the special education system tries to integrate itself into in the general education system (as in a time of increased inclusion); it will become more vulnerable to the inadequacies of the larger system. Despite the fact that discussion of integration and inclusion began during the 1950s, it only began to gain momentum following legislation of the Special Education Law (SEL) and the implementation of the law in the early 1990s, as many children who previously received services in segregated settings began to receive services within the general education framework (Avishar & Layser, 2000; Comptroller’s Office, 2001; Margalit, 1999).
Despite much legal and legislative movement over the last two decades, the question remains as to how much the policy of inclusion has trickled down from the decision makers in Parliament and the courts to the school system and the actual inclusion of children with special educational needs. Figure 1 presents a breakdown of the current state (2008-2009 academic year) regarding the placement of children with special educational needs for both elementary and secondary school children. These two figures show that inclusionary practices may be available to different groups of children; however, in reality general education placements are implemented primarily among children with learning disabilities (LDs) (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2010).
Note: Disability categories represented are mandated by the Ministry of Education for data collection purposes.
Regardless of legal requirements to include children with special needs in general education classrooms, this has not occurred. Only a small percentage of children are actually included in the general educational system. Most children continue to be served in segregated schools or special day classes, and it appears that this is not changing. The only group consistently included in the general education system is students with diagnosed LDs.
However, despite the increase in the number of children being identified as having learning disabilities, in order to better understand the two decade official push for inclusion, an examination of the trends over the last decade show a different picture (see Figure 2). If we examine these trends, we can clearly see that not only are inclusionary placements not increasing since the passage of the correction to the SEL, they appear to be decreasing. Inclusive education in Israel is on the decline, whereas placement in special day classes in the general education system and placement in segregated special education schools both remain stable over time. We can see that the Israeli school system reflects Israeli society as a whole along with its historical and cultural legacies.
Changes in inclusionary practices over time.