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Myths about education in the Arab world

Mourad Ezzine's picture
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In light of the Arab Spring and continued focus on the region, we are discovering much about the Arab world. This is a very positive development, which brings to light the many misunderstandings and “myths” about the region. This is certainly true of education. It is time to address and dispel them.

Myth 1 - Education is poor in the region because it has been neglected: Untrue. Since their independence, Arab world countries have made huge gains and currently invest heavily in education. The Arab world has made significant progress in recent decades, with concerted efforts having helped: more than quadruple the average level of schooling for those over 15 years since 1960; halve illiteracy between 1980 and 2003; and achieve almost complete gender parity in enrollment for primary education. Moreover, spending on education as a percentage of GDP has always been relatively high in the Arab world, even in low-income countries of the region. Today it stands above 5.3%, which is among the world’s highest.

Myth 2 - Education quality in MENA today is nevertheless poor:  By OECD standards, this appears incontestable. The regional average on TIMSS 2007 grade 8 mathematics for instance was 383 while the international average was 500. However, if we consider the MENA countries in relation to other countries in Latin America or South East Asia whose GDP per capita and Gross Enrollment Rates (GER) are similar, we see a more complex picture. 

The table below is taken from the World Bank Report The Road Not Travelled (2008), which goes on to suggest that controlling for GDP/capita and GER (on the assumption that better results should be correlated with higher GDP and negatively correlated with low GER), students in several countries of the Middle East actually do much better than expected.(1)

Myth 3 - MENA ranks badly on gender indexes: Indeed it does, but education is an exception. Contrary to the rest of the world, girls perform better than boys in most Arab countries. A recent NBER working paper by Fryer and Levitt (2) finds evidence for a gender gap in elementary school level mathematics in the United States, a gender gap that they find, extending their analysis to international results, in elementary- and secondary-level students around the world – except the Middle East. “Surprisingly, although these Middle Eastern countries have a high degree of gender inequality, there is no gender gap in mathematics on average in these places,” (3) the authors write. In fact there is a reversal of the gender gap in the region. (4)

Myth 4 - Rich countries of the region have better quality education systems:  In MENA, three of the richest oil producing countries, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, performed the lowest in TIMSS 2007, not only in terms of average scores but also in terms of benchmarked performance: students from the 14 countries who participated in TIMSS 2007 were classified into four different performance levels. Only a small percentage of Arab students in just three countries, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, were rated “advanced,”  While some “high” benchmarks are recorded in some Arab countries, in oil-rich countries like Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, there are no recorded “high” performers at all. (5) 

Myth 5 - Education systems in MENA lack evidence on student performance because they do not have the capacity to run good student assessment systems:  Not true. In fact, there has never been a "lack of testing" in MENA countries. Rather, MENA students have to sit for numerous public examinations and in some cases the entire education system revolves around the central role of those examinations. Student achievement is therefore thoroughly examined in MENA but rarely for the purpose of improving education quality – it is, instead, used for selection and academic placement.   Clearly, this must change.

Myth 6 - There are not sufficient policies and regulations in place to deliver good quality education in the region: Untrue. As the Teacher Policy Survey conducted by the HDNED (6) and MNSHD revealed, there are plenty of policies, regulations, decrees, but they are rarely implemented in a consistent manner.  It is not the nonexistence of regulatory frameworks but the lack of clarity in definitions and the lack of incentives to coherently implement those policies that contributes to the weaker performance of students and teachers.  There is hope that the focus on access to information and good governance generated by the Arab Spring will lead to clearer and more consistent application of existing regulations.   

Myth 7 - Teachers in MENA are not paid enough compared to other regions and so they take on side jobs, contributing to poor service delivery at schools: Only partially true. As the Teacher Policy survey revealed, pay for MENA teachers is generally good compared to other countries, even when compared with high-performing nations.  In fact, some MENA countries give higher entry-level salaries than top performing countries. When considered in relation to GDP per capita, entry salaries vary between 150% (Lebanon) to 758% (Djibouti) while top-performing and rapidly-improving education systems pay their teachers 82-135% of their GDP per capita. After 15 years, teachers can expect to earn between 1.19 (Tunisia) and 1.5 times their starting salaries compared with the range of 1.26-1.77 observed in top performing countries. However, the raise after 15 years of service is slower in some countries, which may discourage teachers from staying in the profession.

For more information on the World Bank Arab World Initiative's Agenda for Improving Education Quality please refer here.


(1) That said, there is also recognized urgency. World Bank projections reveal that school age populations in the Arab world will grow by about 2 million in the next five years, but will surge by more than 10 million between 2015 and 2030, at the height of what has been referred to as the ‘youth bulge.’ If the large cohorts of students that enroll after 2015 are well accommodated and well served by good quality education, as we believe they can be, this could be an unprecedented window of opportunity; if neglected, the promise the Region should be making to its youth will continue to be broken.

(2) "An Empirical Analysis of the Gender Gap in Mathematics”, see

(3) Fryer and Levitt (2009), p. 7.


(5) To give an example of the level of ‘low’ performance onthe TIMSS 2007 math exam, here is one of the questions: “On a school trip, there was 1 teacher for every 12 students. If there were 108 students, how many teachers were there?”



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