Israel’s Lost Youth: Manifest and Latent School Dropout

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The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased school dropout rates due to its exacerbation of the already emotional, social, and academic crises affecting multiple age and population groups.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, how many boys and girls dropped out of school last year (2020–2021)? In the course of a recent debate at the Knesset Education and Culture Committee, representatives of the public on the Committee discovered that, despite the amount of time that has passed since the onset of the pandemic, and despite existing knowledge in this field, Ministry of Education officials responsible for addressing the issue are unable to provide comprehensive data on the extent of dropout from specific educational frameworks—including on which youths are officially defined as having dropped out, and whether the State (and particularly the Ministry of Education) are providing appropriate responses to the needs of young people who are disconnected from the education system.

Clearly, the pandemic, which hasn’t yet gone away, has significantly increased school dropout, due to its exacerbation of emotional, social, and academic crises affecting multiple age and population groups. The problem is most severe among Israeli society’s most vulnerable—groups with low socioeconomic status. in which many youths (both boys and girls) are forced to go out to work in order to support their families. How can the necessary tools and assistance be provided to these young people in crisis, without access to reliable and professional data on the issue?

One of the most serious failings uncovered at the Knesset Committee session relates to the fact that school dropout falls into two categories: "official" dropout which is recorded by the system -youth who were registered as attending school during a specific academic year, and then did not attend any educational framework in the following year. According to reports from Education Ministry representatives, the extent of "official" dropout during 2020–2021 was-on the average- around just one-half a percent. With regard to youth in this category, there are defined regulations, protocols and budgets, as well as professional staff (headed by Ministry truancy officers) who are charged with caring for them and addressing their personal, family, and pedagogical needs.

The second category relates to a similar, and yet- different- phenomenon: “hidden dropout.” There does not yet seem to be a precise definition for this category, but the number of "hidden dropouts" is undoubtedly many times larger than that of "official" dropouts. "Hidden dropouts" refers to the large numbers of students who do not attend school regularly, have low achievements, and suffer from severe academic, emotional, personal, and social problems that make it difficult for them to keep up with their studies and succeed at school. The characteristics and the numbers of these students- who are "present but absent" in the school system, have yet to be defined by the Ministry of Education’s foremost experts and professionals. The lack of data on hidden dropout poses a significant obstacle to the formulation of a multidisciplinary strategic plan relating to education, welfare, and health, in order to effectively address this social-educational challenge, for which sufficient and appropriate educational tools and responses are not yet available. It is important to realize that this serious social phenomenon affects many different sectors of Israeli society, some of which suffer greatly from crime, violence, and institutional neglect. It is also clear that the current number of truancy officers (around 760) is insufficient. Moreover, their terms of employment do not reflect the intensive individual investment required in each young person who is struggling to “survive” in the education system, in order to effectively address the huge challenge of hidden dropout.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and the protracted periods of distance learning have blurred the formal distinctions between open and hidden dropout, since many of those studying from home—and especially those suffering from severe attention deficit disorders—were not truly “present” in lessons for long periods of time, and became increasingly alienated from their studies. And as in other crises, it is the more vulnerable populations in Israel, including students from the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, who have been dealt the most severe blow.

The Knesset Education and Culture Committee has done the right thing in requiring the Ministry of Education to provide clear and reliable data on the extent of hidden dropout as soon as possible. But in and of itself, this step is not sufficient to effectively address the severe difficulties that have been experienced over the last two years by thousands of Israeli youths. In the current situation, it is absolutely essential to establish an inter-ministerial task force dedicated to this issue in order to arrive at viable long-term solutions.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.