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How does Dubai Measure up in Standards of Education?

Published on: January 2009​
Genre: Dubai Model​ Category: Op eds​

The 2007-2008 school year marked Dubai's first participation in the international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), a global comparative test assessing student achievement in mathematics and science hosted by the Lynch School of Education at Boston College every four years. The test assesses students at the fourth and eighth grade levels, two educational milestones considered to signify the end of primary schooling and the end of lower-secondary school. To better inform education policy, TIMSS also poses an array of background questions to students. By participating in the test and interpreting results in light of the included contextual information, Dubai now has internationally comparable data about the progress of local education that will inform future educational policy decisions and allow policymakers to improve the quality of education.

The results of the 2007 TIMMS, released on December 9, 2008, show Dubai to have a strong standing amongst GCC countries and nations within the Middle East in general. In fact, public and private students in Dubai achieved the highest marks in mathematics and science of any included Arab country. However, room for improvement exists when compared to the rest of the world. Neither grade 4 nor grade 8 students met the international average in science or mathematics, and both fell nearly 100 points below world leaders Singapore and Hong Kong. In the fourth grade, only 2% of students managed to achieve the advanced international benchmark, compared to 41% of Singaporean students, 10% of students in the United States and an international average of 5%. A slightly brighter picture emerges from grade 8, where 3% of all students surpassed the advanced international benchmark compared to 40% of Singaporean students, 6% of American ones and a global mean of 2%.

In the context of these findings, it is clear that education reforms are necessary in order to increase the percentage of students achieving higher international benchmarks. If Dubai aspires to become an educational hub leading today’s knowledge economy, where should policymakers start?

A closer look at the TIMSS data finds schools in Dubai to be particularly hindered by a short school year. The Ministry of Education estimates that public schools in Dubai have an academic year of 175 days. At least 20 of these days are dedicated to testing, leaving approximately 155 school days for teaching and learning. Countries such as Japan and Singapore maintain academic years of around 220 days, while the United States and Australia teach for around 190 days a year. Furthermore, the school day in Dubai consists of just 4.5 hours of instructional time (22.5 hours per week). This is a grave gauge, as it falls well below the 27 hours per week averaged internationally. If Dubai were to maintain its average of 22.5 hours per week of real learning, the emirate would effectively fall one full day behind international counterparts every week. Extending the length of time spent by students in Dubai schools would unravel time constraints faced by teachers, allowing for broadened learning that encompasses critical thinking and real world problem solving skills.

TIMSS questionnaires also reveal a low rate of teachers with education qualifications in Dubai schools. Most teachers in Dubai enter the profession with only a nominal understanding of the intricacies of effective pedagogy. This ultimately results in student disengagement and lower achievement. Requiring teachers to have a background that specifically includes teaching credentials would see classes being taught by teachers who assist students in exploring, discovering and creating knowledge.

At the same time, the professional development of existing teachers in Dubai was found to rank highly when compared to the rest of the world. However, much of this training focuses on content. Mathematics teachers, in particular, spend a disproportionate amount of their time on content training. A more productive way of structuring professional development would be to take advantage of the strength in content that these teachers already have and invest it in pedagogy training. Teachers in Dubai should also be assisted in learning how to use ICT for educational purposes, an area that remains weak in Dubai.

Dubai schools were found to have the lowest rates of parent participation in children’s education worldwide. There are no policies stipulated by education councils or ministries mandating the existence of parent committees in Dubai. This contrasts with other countries which use such committees as a vehicle for quality control. Opening the channels of communication with parents will ultimately assist in raising standards at any institution.

Finally, it is imperative that every school is equipped with the resources it needs for teaching and learning. The background questions identify the most needed resources in Dubai’s school as science laboratories, sufficient reading resources and ICT facilities. By drawing schools into the policy circle and giving individual schools an active role in policy formation, policymakers would be better able to identify such needs.

Dubai is lauded around the world for its prolific growth, and the time has come for it to lead the world in knowledge development. The state of education around Dubai should be lifted through data-driven reform to meet and transcend international thresholds. International standardized tests such as TIMSS can assist policymakers at the Ministry of Education and Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority to juxtapose local procedures with international best practice. This is especially vital in light of the UAE’s impending employment needs, with the forecasted entry of 250,000 more jobseekers into the workforce by 2020. With the world embracing knowledge as a coveted commodity, the issue of adequately educating this imminently large workforce becomes paramount.

Mike Helal is a visiting researcher at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in Gulf News. It can be accessed here.

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