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The Search for Solutions: Education Reform in the Gulf

Published on: February 2009​
Author:
Genre: Education​ Category: Op eds​

In recent weeks, there has been much alarm raised about the state of education in the UAE, including the low achievement of students in examinations, substandard performance in the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test, and a lack of male Emirati teachers. The picture that has been presented of the UAE education sector looks less encouraging every day, in particular for the parents of children in government schools. But why is this the case? Typically when we see underperformance in a sector we think about resource constraints or, more particularly, a lack of money which prevents a government from reforming education in the ways it would like. In the UAE, and in many of the Gulf states, however, a lack of resources has not been the problem.

The UAE and Qatar both have been particularly active in investing in programs to improve the quality of public education. They have embraced innovation in the form of programs such as the Madares Al Ghad (Schools of Tomorrow), model schools and public-private partnerships (PPP). The UAE Ministry of Education (MOE), Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) have each brought in expatriate advisors to train teachers and to work with local counterparts. They have introduced Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), standardized testing in math and English, and are currently working on a full-scale curriculum revision to shift away from rote learning. In Qatar, the Rand Corporation was hired to overhaul Qatari schools; it also introduced similar reforms involving public-private partnerships, model schools, teacher training and curriculum development. Yet despite these extensive investments in the education sector, educational quality and achievement remain stagnant in the UAE, Qatar and throughout the Gulf. Of the bottom five worst performing countries in the TIMSS 2007 test of grade 8 math, three were from the Gulf: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. In the 2006 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, Qatar — which was the only Gulf state to participate — was again in the bottom five countries.

The question that needs to be asked is: what is it about existing reform efforts that have caused them to fail? Studies on raising student achievement point to a number of external and internal factors, including parents’ level of education, socioeconomic status, leadership, teacher quality, resources and school ethos. Within each of these broad categories, however, lie a myriad of smaller factors that are sometimes difficult to tease out. For example, studies find that there are real benefits to having a good teacher in terms of achievement. However, it is still not clear what elements actually make a good teacher. Additionally, education policy makers in the Gulf face the problem that the majority of research on education is done on other countries, mostly outside of the Middle East as a whole, and certainly outside of the Gulf. Issues surrounding access for researchers have made the education sector in the Gulf one of the most understudied sectors in the world.

It is this desperate lack of research on conditions in schools, and education in general, in the Gulf that makes reforms even more difficult to conceive and implement. As a result, we see local education systems lurch from reform to reform based on evidence from disparate countries that in many cases is unsuited to local conditions. It should come as no surprise, then, when many of these reforms fail to deliver on promises that have been made. Student achievement in some cases worsens, parents complain and local teachers and principals feel frustrated at best. Subsequently, the reform is abandoned and the people who were associated with it fade away. The failure of the reform is then multiplied by the lack of an evaluation process through which the implementing body could learn from the experience and perhaps have some solid evidence at least on what not to do next time around.

In my doctoral study comparing the quality of public secondary education for boys and girls in the UAE, I found that one of the main causes for the low achievement of boys was poor quality male teachers. However, local policy decisions based on best practices from abroad have failed to address this issue and in some cases have exacerbated it. For example, programs such as the sponsoring of national teachers for master’s degrees, while commendable, have inadvertently given more and more training to female teachers, thus largely benefiting female students. Reforms which target the professional development of existing national teachers fail to address the key issue surrounding low male achievement in the UAE and the Gulf as a whole, which is a lack of male national teachers and a dependence on poorly trained and poorly paid expatriate male teachers.

Without policies based on locally derived research, the UAE, Qatar and other Gulf states will be unable to address their own distinct educational needs. Local research gives insights, shows nuances and reveals gaps not identified by large cross-national studies such as the TIMSS. The newly created National Research Foundation and the Emirates Foundation are important organizations moving in the right direction to help create a body of research on education policy for the UAE. But much more still needs to be done. Sustainable solutions to the education challenges of the region require policy decisions based on local realities rather than on international opinions. They also require that schools and data are open and available to researchers in order to help us to understand how education works and how we can all move forward together.

Dr. Natasha Ridge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessed here.


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