Published on Arab Voices

Reforms that Kuwaiti and DC schools have in common

 Maryam Abdullah/World BankGarfield Elementary School is in one of Washington, DC’s, poorest neighborhoods and, four years ago, it ranked as one of the least effective schools in the city. “It was a noisy place, more like a summer camp,” explains the current principal, Kennard Branch, “the kids went out on a field trip almost every other day.”
You would never know it now. Entering the school, the first impression is one of seriousness. The school is clean and quiet and, in each of the classrooms, young students are busy studying. This is just what the principal intended. When he started working here, he immediately turned his focus to the central task of student learning. “Isn’t this what a school’s supposed to do?” he asks incredulously, “Teach kids?” 
Washington, DC is clearly not Kuwait—they are a world apart—and yet the pressing question of school improvement remains the same. It was with this in mind that a delegation from Kuwait’s state-funded public schools began a five-day tour in Washington, DC. A key objective was to learn about schools that are being turned around by DC Public Schools, the body in charge of state-run schools in the US capital.
And, despite the differences between public schools in DC and in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti delegation came away impressed by what they had seen at Garfield. With teaching kids in mind, the principal of Garfield school had called on staff to help him turn the school around—to reverse its decline and start improving it.
The working environment was the first step: students had to learn that behavior and attitude were a prerequisite to success. Then the staff could focus on teaching and learning, drawing on assessments to get a clear picture of what students really knew and where they could improve, and calling on the central office of DC Public Schools to get the kind of coaching that they, as teachers, needed.
The school had to do outreach to the community to convince them of the importance of schooling. This was not easy: for the most part, many of the parents with children at Garfield had not done well in school themselves. Many had dropped out; many are out of work today. Disadvantage is part of their community.
“There is still so much to do,” explains the principal of Garfield school, “but we are on the right track.” Student learning is now above average for the majority of students. Principal Branch was named DC’s “Principal of the Year” for 2015. “Everyone in the school deserved the award,” he explained modestly.
Kuwait’s Integrated Education Reform Program (IERP) also focuses on some of the same areas that Garfield has, such as the effectiveness of teachers, school leadership, and standards and assessments. Led by the National Center for Education Development, a national assessment system has looked at learning in grades 5, 9, and 12 in Kuwaiti public schools for three years now—that is, at the end of elementary school (primary), and the ends of middle and high school (secondary). In the next five years, Kuwait is rolling out completely new curricula based on competencies and standards across all levels and subjects.
Kuwait’s program to improve policies and practices for school leadership has already expanded to over 80 schools. This defines the powers of principals, assistant principals, and teaching staff. In this sense, drawing parallels between Kuwait’s educational reform process and what is going on in DC Public Schools is easy .


Simon Thacker

Education Specialist

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