In some respects, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has a very strong record in the area of education. For example, if we rank countries by increases in the average number of years of schooling between 1980 and 2010, nine of the top twenty are from the MENA region (see here for ranking). This good performance in the quantity of education stands in sharp contrast to the comparatively weak performance of the region in sustaining high economic growth over the last three decades. In part, the discrepancy could be due to deficiencies in the quality of education.
One source of globally comparable information on the quality of education is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This study is conducted every four years to assess proficiency in mathematics and science at the fourth (9 to 10 year olds) and eighth (13 to 14 year olds) grades. Thirteen MENA countries participated in one or more modules of this study in 2007, most for the first time. The initial results were disappointing. None of the thirteen scored at or above the global average and most were clustered at the bottom of the table with countries that had much lower levels of per capita income.
The most recent TIMSS round conducted in 2011, however, gives reason to think that the situation is turning around (see here for relevant data). While all participating MENA countries still scored below the global average, many showed improvement. Of the 20 scores that can be compared between 2007 and 2011, 13 show improvement while 7 show deterioration. If we include scores reported with statistical reservations, 35 pairwise comparisons are possible. Of these, 22 show improvement while 13 show deterioration.
While one must be cautious about reading too much into one round of TIMSS results, the improvement in scores across a wide range of MENA countries does suggest that recent efforts to improve the quality of education are paying dividends.
Some other notable items from the 2011 TIMSS:
- Iran shows improvement in all cases. Indeed, Iran has participated in TIMSS since 1995 and has steadily improved its scores ever since.
- Qatar has experienced huge improvements. For example, between 2007 and 2011, it improved its fourth grade mathematics score by 117 points from 296 to 413 and its eighth grade science score by 100 points from 319 to 419. Too good to be true?
- Dubai scores highest among all MENA education systems. At 485, its eighth grade science score was close to the global average of 500 (although lower than the 489 it achieved in 2007).
For more information on the achievements in education in MENA, and the challenges ahead, please visit this page.