Arabs’ education improving but much work still to be done
The latest results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released last month. This international assessment program is conducted every three years and, in this seventh iteration, tests were administered to more than 580,000 students from 64 countries and eight benchmarking regional entities (provinces and municipalities). The results provide valuable data about student performance in math and science at grades four and eight, as well as important insights on key home, school and classroom factors.
From the Arab world, 10 countries took part this time: Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All Arab states performed below the international averages in each field and level. Several countries improved greatly, and some came very close to the 500 middle mark, but a few were well below. Still, it is important to stress the significant improvement across the Arab world, which is a very encouraging sign.
The best of the Arab group were Bahrain and the UAE, and the largest improvements were made by Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, though the last three still remain significantly below the average mark. At the very top were the usual high achievers: Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, followed by Russia and the Scandinavian countries.
The report is important and eagerly awaited by officials in education ministries around the world, as well as all science educators and policymakers. For participating countries, it provides a measure of progress and success in recently undertaken reforms. But, perhaps even more importantly, it tells everyone what factors are most impactful and what changes should be made for effective improvement.
The 600-page report presents results that pertain to the home and school contexts of student learning, such as home environment support; school structure and resources; school atmosphere and discipline, safety, etc. It also provides valuable assessments of classroom factors that affect student learning, such as teacher preparation, professional development and job satisfaction; student attitudes and gender effects; curriculum, instruction, and technology; and challenges to teaching and learning.
So what important lessons can one infer from this latest review?
School and ministry officials will hopefully be enticed to improve the psychological and social school environment for children.
First, the report underscores the importance of early educational activities for progress later. Primary (fourth grade) pupils achieved significantly better when they had been engaged in early-age literacy and numeracy activities at home and/or in kindergarten, as well as at the start of primary school.
However, I personally was not too happy to learn that “emphasis on academic success” correlated with higher achievements, because this will encourage parents, teachers, principals and officials to push students to “succeed” at the expense of a broader development of the child.
On the other hand, I was pleased to read about the significant impact of “school belonging” on math and science scores. This will (hopefully) entice school and ministry officials to improve the psychological and social school environment for children. Indeed, the numbers of students reporting a high sense of school belonging were rather worrisome: 58 percent on average at fourth grade and only 37 percent at eighth grade.
Gender equity in mathematics and science scores were achieved by nearly half the countries. Results from the Arab world were stunning: In eighth grade science, the top eight countries where girls widely outperformed boys were: Oman, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, and UAE. The same effect, though slightly less pronounced, was found in the other tests: In fourth grade science, Arab Gulf countries took four of the top five places; in grade four math, five Arab countries were in the top nine; and in eighth grade math, five Arab countries were in the top six. This is encouraging for girls’ education but highly worrisome for our boys.
A useful section of the report was devoted to students’ attitudes toward math and science. Attitudes were generally positive — and, most importantly, they correlated with scores — but the number of pupils who liked learning math and science and valued these subjects declined significantly between grades four and eight. Unsurprisingly, students’ performance in both math and science correlated with how clear they found their teachers’ instructions and expectations. However, while about three-quarters of fourth grade students said their teachers’ instructions were very clear, less than half of the eighth-graders felt that was the case.
It is no secret by now that teachers’ pedagogical competence — much more than their knowledge of the subjects or even the quality of the curriculum — is key to students’ progress and success, whether in math and science or other fields. And teachers need regular professional development to refresh their methods based on the latest knowledge in education science. Public and private school administrators must train and retrain teachers in various tasks: How to integrate new technology into their lessons, how to develop students’ critical thinking skills, how to improve testing tools, etc. Unfortunately, the report found that less than half of the teachers surveyed had recently participated in such professional development and 70 percent expressed their need for this training.
Math and science education is improving across the Arab world, but important aspects still need to be addressed, particularly teacher development and student school comfort and learning attitudes.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum