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ARAB WORLD: Democracy uprisings should herald a new dawn of education reform


Editor’s note: The post is from an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of the analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the positions of The Times or its blog.

As the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries achieve their primary goal of changing the political regime, they will soon face the urgent need to reform the education system as well as the economy.

Carnegie logo Consolidation of political democracy and economic liberalization requires citizens who have appropriate knowledge, skills and values. As states democratize, good governance will promote quality education, an objective that most Arab education systems have failed to achieve.

Despite the rapid expansion in primary and secondary education, Arab schools continue to have high dropout and repetition rates, with graduates lacking the required skills and knowledge to compete successfully in the global job market or to pursue quality higher education.

Curriculum in most Arab states tends to be didactic, teacher-directed, and does little to foster critical thinking skills and creativity.

Shortages of qualified teachers, low levels of learning achievement as demonstrated by test scores, weaknesses in national learning assessments, and a lack of public accountability also plague many Arab education systems.

Students' academic performance is generally low, as demonstrated by the results of international tests. Students in the fourth and eighth grades who participated in the TIMSS international tests in mathematics and science in 2003 and 2007 scored, on average, significantly below average.

Fourth-graders who participated in the PISA test on reading, mathematics, and science in 2003 and 2009 performed at a similar level. Fifteen-year-old students from the Arab states who took the PIRLS international test on reading achievement in 2006 also scored well below average.

Arab states currently undergoing popular unrest have shown a weak political commitment to produce independent, creative, responsible students, as such citizens may be more likely to challenge authority — be it political, religious, or traditional. Such education systems are generally unwilling to promote social values that flourish in democratic societies. As a result, teachers do not give voice to diverse opinions, dulling attempts at informed debate and limiting citizens’ capacity to reform their governments.

Political reform in the emerging Arab democracies needs citizens who have mastered 21st century skills in their ways of thinking (innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and life-long learning); ways of working (communication and collaboration); tools for working (information literacy and information and communication technology, or ICT literacy); and ways of living in the world (local and global citizenship, and personal and social responsibility, including cultural awareness). The concepts of citizenship, empowerment, and community engagement are emerging as educational priorities for democracies.

Education for citizenship is an essential component of education reform. It encompasses knowledge and understanding of civics and the opportunities for participation in civil society, as well as ways in which the citizen may interact with and shape his or her own community and society. A responsible citizen may be defined as one who knows his or her legal rights and duties and how to contribute to the common good, and who can apply this knowledge to evaluate or justify the government’s policies and practices. Responsible citizenship, along with other civic values and attitudes, is first taught by parents, then by schools, starting in preschool or in primary grades. 

Educating young Arabs for citizenship requires much more fundamental reform than what has so far been undertaken in education reform plans. It requires getting past several serious shortcomings in the Arab education and political systems.

These shortcomings begin at the individual student level, including low learning achievement; lack of creative, independent, and critical thinking; and lack of problem-solving skills. They also include the home or family level, which is often guided by authoritarianism, obedience to authority figures, limited freedom of expression, and dependence on a family network for prospective employment.

The shortcomings extend to the school level, where students are hindered by a lack of school autonomy, ineffective and traditional management, teacher-directed curriculum, a focus on knowledge of facts and concepts rather than analysis and critical thinking, a shortage of qualified teachers and learning resources, the absence of open discussions in classrooms, and limited opportunities for participation in governance processes.

More broadly, education challenges exist in the local community, with the dominance of authoritarian values, limited opportunities for participation in governance processes and decision making, constraints on freedom of speech and belief, and strong loyalty to one’s ethnic and/or religious group. Finally, at the national level, problems include poor governance in the ministries of education, nondemocratic regimes, a prevalence of corruption and lack of public accountability, constraints on freedom of speech and belief, fear of repression, substantial percentages of public workers who depend on the state for their livelihoods, and high rates of illiteracy and school dropouts in several countries. 

To overcome those shortcomings, new democracies in the Arab world should be committed to comprehensive education reform, but particularly to citizenship education. Their governments should work with highly motivated educational practitioners from these countries and elicit support from community stakeholders at the school, local, and district levels, and from society at large.

 -- Muhammad Faour in Beirut

Photo: A teacher at an overcrowded classroom at the Hawrash secondary school in Sana, Yemen. Many classes are overcrowded and lack materials. Credit: Paul Stephens/ For The Times 

Comments () | Archives (4)

You're living in a fantasy world. The Arab education system will never reform until their culture reforms and steps out of the stone age and starts giving right to the women. Islam has made all Arab nations so regressive and stagnant that it will be nearly impossible to change their direction now. They hate the west and everthing the west stands for.

The fact that so many Arab people have been subjugated and relegated to third world living standards for so long and under massive military action, whether in slums or refugee camps or tents while their leaders and neighbors thrive and live like Pariahs is very telling.

(With the exception of the Tyrant criminal, Gaddafi who does prefer sipping his Moet in designer tents with buxom nurses and guards)

The new fledgling democracies we are seeing (and we will see more to come yet) have to place utmost importance on education and skills, both for their youth but also training for skills for many adults too if they are going to develop an infrastructure so they may be free and unheeded by military oppression, secular theology, religious entitlement and draconian strictures.

With the right opportunities any human being can reach any pinnacle of achievement. The incredible people of the middle east are no exception and are rather exceptionally resilient.

May the Arab Spring be a long Winter for Tyrants indeed.

The author paints a bleak future for this 'Arab Spring' as it takes a entire two generations turn over to achieve a demographicly supportive underpinning for democarcy in any country and conditioned on an new, alien and non-existent educational system. In the interin, the conservative forces of the intrenched powers have no incentive to promote the educational system that will remove or at least compete with them.

Internet education for the 3d world is a viable and cheap interventionist alternative for the West to support in Arab nations. While notentirely beyoind the control of the government, as we see in China and SA, its an option to bring quality universal education to Arab nations to support democratization and complete tet-a-tet with the Mullahs.

Only the damnedest of fools thinks the middle east is about to burst into democracy.


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