Published on Arab Voices

The education challenge: 204 ÷ 4 = err???

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Following  a recent live web chat about the challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa region, our Vice President  Inger Andersen observed to what great extent education had become a prominent regional issue with a sharp focus on quality, participatory school management, and the role of the private sector. Let me start in this blog with education quality. More to come on the other issues.

Since their independence, Arab countries have made formidable progress in providing access to education, fighting illiteracy and reducing gender disparities.  But despite these achievements there is now the uneasy realization that for too many students in the Arab world, schooling has not been synonymous with learning. It’s clear that poor education quality is to blame but let me make the case.

World Bank | Dale Lautenbach | 2011One clear illustration is the disappointing Arab country 1999 TIMSS test results, TIMSS being the international test of mathematics and science skills. Sadly this trend has continued: of the 14 Arab countries that participated in the 2007 grade 8 math test, the MENA average was 389, while the international average was 451 in a scaled average of 500. The highest scoring country hit 598. To illustrate the importance of these numbers the World Bank Education Strategy 2020 noted that a country that increases its reading and math scores from the median to the top 15% can expect a significant 2% increase in annual GDP per capita growth. 

More troubling, perhaps, were the number of low performers in the region: in many countries, more than 60% of grade 4 students could not answer the following question (benchmarked to be at a low-performance level): “A cord 204 cm long must be cut to make 4 equal lengths. What must be done – multiplication, division, addition or subtraction – to solve this?” (Answer, division of course but imagine this result among 7 and 8 year olds).

So what do we mean by “education quality?” A complex question, yes, but not a mystery. It is usually defined as an education system that ensures students acquire the cognitive skills of reading, writing, and numeracy; problem solving and critical thinking skills; and the life skills with which to function effectively as responsible citizens and productive economic actors.

The Arab world education system has built its considerable achievements on “inputs,” in other words what is put into schools like desks, books, teacher training, good buildings and so on. The assumption was that the desired results would somehow inevitably be achieved in this well-equipped environment. This worked quite well as long as the goal of national education policies was getting girls and boys behind desks. But when you shift from “education for all” to “learning for all,” results look disappointing suggesting inputs are necessary but no longer sufficient.  This is all too clear in the fact that some of the countries in MENA with the highest levels of expenditure per student ranked the lowest on the TIMSS benchmark.

If we consider public education expenditure as a percentage of total government expenditures, we see that the MENA region’s median expenditure (about 20%) was the highest of all regions in the world between 2005 and 08. Given the poor student results we just saw, the region is clearly not getting what it pays for.

For some years now my World Bank colleagues and I have been in close conversation with educationalists and authorities across MENA recommending that what matters most now is managing for results by assessing student learning and adjusting policy based on evidence.  Ironically, there has never been a lack of assessment in MENA countries. Students have to sit for numerous public examinations and in some cases the entire education system revolves around these exams. So student achievement is indeed thoroughly examined but rarely for the purpose of improving education quality.  Instead, the scores are used simply for selection and academic placement.

We believe that by monitoring and evaluating the quality of education, Arab countries can use this assessment information to feed back into the curricula to improve quality and relevance to market opportunities. It would also level the playing field for students across the social spectrum and not inherently favour students from the traditionally educated class or those able to hire private tutors to up a student’s score.

Let me report that our conversations are leading to action. There is a lot of work to be done to build capacity but there are significantly more education ministers in the Arab world who feel the burning need to skill their high numbers of young citizens for a brighter and busier working future than in 2008, when the Bank published its report on Education in MENA “The Road Not Travelled.”

So 204 ÷ 4 = 51, after all.


Mourad Ezzine

Education Sector Manager, Middle East and North Africa

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