Four years ago, the cozy bubble that surrounded me, blurring my perception of the Israeli education system, burst unexpectedly.

The story was simple: although not the finest education system in the world, with its limited resources the Israeli education system is largely successful. The system produces some exceptional students while a few pockets of feebleness stem from historical reasons and a lack of ability to govern and enforce education policies effectively.

And then it happened.

Six years ago, I worked with a team of four exceptional young women, who were chosen to be part of a consulting project with a non-profit during their senior year.

As you can imagine these young women were the crème of the crème. Only 18% of high school graduates in Israel are admitted to Israel’s top universities, and these students were among the top 3% of the education system. Factoring in a sincere desire to make an impact, this small team was the closest one could get to the poster-child of the Israeli Tzabar.

One of them was a witty, tall, big eyed and opinionated girl. Like many Israelis, she worked to pay for her higher education. Her job, as a psychometric exam proctor took her to some of Israel’s rural areas (the psychometric exam is the Israeli equivalent of the SAT). One day, she arrived early to find students reviewing what appeared to be a fully-solved version of a high school exam. She decided to investigate further.

Her investigation was not unwarranted. Her students were in fact studying a valid, solved copy of an exam, an exam, which in this case accounted for 50% of the final grade in that subject. But this was just the beginning.

The students did not steal the exam. Rather, they received the exam from their teacher, as did several other students in their class. When she confronted the students, she learned the students believed this to be an ordinary occurrence at the area.

The story gets worse. Despite having a solved copy of the exam, these students still underperformed on the exam. Crippled by incompetency in core skills including language and critical thinking, most of the students received a C on the final exam. One can only imagine the troubling results had they not been given the solved exam to study beforehand.

These are kids from an average, predominantly Jewish school in Israel that chose to take the psychometric test and spend a few months to prepare for the test in addition to spending their family’s fiscal resources, while in school. This fact shows that they are motivated and see higher education as a valid path for them.

* * *

Fast forward, six years later. I’ve been working on a book on the Israeli education system. I’m sitting in a room with Nachum Blass, one of the world’s top education researchers and the leading expert on the Israeli education system with more than 45 years of experience.

We meet in his office in the Taub Center, a research facility in the heart of Jerusalem, a stocky building made of Jerusalem stone. After interviewing dozens of education experts in Israel, I asked him a basic question: what does he think about the Israeli education system?

“We should not judge the success of an education system only based on testing measurements such as the PISA test or domestic exams, we should judge it based on the yield of the people it trained and its intellectual and cultural impact on the world.”

“Israel’s education system is fantastic by any measure. For example, try comparing the Korean and Finnish Education systems, which are considered excellent education systems, to the Israeli one in terms of contribution to the world. In 2016, Israel was number one in total grants for young scientists from the European Union per capita. These are young scientists who grew up in the Israeli education system and represents the contemporary education system.”

“Almost every year, an Israeli film reaches the Oscar Academy Award, and Israeli authors are considered leading in the world (e.g., Professor Yuval Noah Harari, Etgar Keret, and Amos Oz – E.M). How does it compare to the Finns and Koreans?”

“In addition, when looking at the lower end of students’ achievements, 20 to 30 percent of the students who are in the lowest grade bracket at the PISA test graduate high-school and continue to college. This is a fact that can not be dismissed. That said, it does not mean the system is a paragon of virtue. The system has flaws, which include the achievement gap in the Israeli education system that are somewhat similar to ones in the United States.”

There is a fundamental truth in Blass’ point of view. Israel is an innovation powerhouse with the highest number of patents issued per capita. It is the largest start-up hub outside the U.S. In addition, with 12 Nobel laureates, Israel’s per capita rate of Nobel laureates is among the highest in the world.

* * *

Is the Israeli education system a mediocre one with pockets of excellence? Or is it an excellent education system that has some local flaws? Or is it perhaps neither, and we are missing the elusive secret sauce that makes some Israeli graduates so successful.

Trying to answer these questions launched my quest to unveil the pillars of the “Start-Up Nation Education System” and its true nature. You’re invited to buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Thanks to Kathryn Keen and Nachum Blass for reading early drafts of this post.