Friday, December 10, 2010

OCED PISA test - back to Qatar

The release of the PISA results tied in well with the 2010 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), which was being held in Doha at the same time.

I was wondering if the results were going to be discussed at the summit because in the first couple of days the local English-media were silent about Qatar’s test results. One newspaper had mentioned the results of the test were out and that Shanghai had done so well but didn't mention how Qatar had scored, which led me to wonder if there is a bit of reluctance to discuss the issue. My fears were unfounded -- there was a special session at WISE to discuss the results and after the session one of the three English-language papers noted Qatar’s score and had a brief interview with one of the delegates about the results.

I was also encouraged to hear the following...

In Qatar, the Supreme Education Council decided to join PISA 2012 where the major domain will be mathematics. In PISA 2012, the field trial of which will be administered in March 2011, 1300 students enrolled in Private Arabic, Independent, Community and International schools will be assessed

It is good to see that Qatar is clearly not shying away from the PISA tests and are willing to have their students undergo such scrutiny even though the results may reflect poorly on the country's educational system. This in my mind shows that the Supreme Education Council is more concerned with reform than hiding problems.

As I've noted before reforms in education will take a long time to bear fruit and it is important that those reforms include the earliest school years as that will impact the education of students in the later years. But what are the issues in Qatar's educational system? If you search my blog for PISA you'll find a few posts from last year that discuss the issue, one of which noting in detail some of the things I heard from both teachers and Qataris about how schooling works in the public sector, and it is definitely an eye-opener. That can't be the full story though. It was not only Qataris that were tested, students in the various private schools were also tested and Qatar has a large number of private schools: Indian curriculum, British curriculum, Pakistani curriculum American curriculum, French curriculum, even a Canadian school. I also don't think Qataris make up the majority of students in the country anymore given that Qataris only make up about 15% of the population, I speculate they are around 30% of the students due to the high birthrates amongst Qataris as well is the fact that many of the ex-pat workers do not have their families here. PISA likely tested students from all backgrounds.

Yet Qatar scored far lower than all of the OECD countries, and scored lower than other Arab nations such as Jordan and Tunisia. But if many of these kids went to private schools on Western curriculums one would have thought that at least a portion of the students would've scored around the levels of their home countries (unfortunately India, Pakistan, and major Arab countries like Egypt didn't participate in the PISA study so we have no idea how well those curriculums would do). This would imply that the public school students would've on average scored even lower than the Qatar average would suggest. While I have no data to back it up I can't believe that would be true -- Qatar public schools would have to be some of the worst on the planet for that to be right! The schools may have a number of issues based on what I've been told but I have met many Qataris and their education is certainly not that bad.

So what are the possible issues? I don't have the data, hopefully the Supreme Education Council has data on individual schools or additional supplementary statistics they can use to get to the heart of the matter. I will speculate on some possible problems:

1. Learning multiple languages at once

Qataris generally know both Arabic and English. Much of the ex-pat population are from non-Arabic speaking countries so it can be difficult sometimes to get by without English. Most Qataris, including children, know English to some degree. Same would be true with many of the other curriculums. If the educational system is geared to teaching two languages then kids are definitely going to suffer on the PISA reading scores went up to countries who focus on one language.

2. Cultural focus on education

Do parents involve themselves in a child's education to the extent they do in places like East Asia? Are parents monitoring that homework is being done, and studying is taking place? Is getting good grades important to parents? Do parents put pressure on the school to not fail their child even though they're not performing well? I really don't know the answer to these questions, this is a cultural issue that I have not explored.

3. Wealth

Qatar has been blessed with wealth but sometimes wealth is a double-edged sword, in poorer countries students can be very motivated to do well in their studies because education is seen as a ticket out of poverty. But what if your family is already financially well-off? Are students really motivated to do well if they think that Daddy will get them a job when they get out of high school anyway?

4. Cultural focus on reading

The Qataris I have spoken to are not avid readers and the PISA results show that children who enjoy reading and read recreationally for even a half hour a day score way better than their peers on the reading test. Is reading encouraged in Arab society? Is it a common pastime? I'm assuming it is encouraged to some extent if only for religious reasons -- reading the Qur'an and related religious writings, but perhaps for whatever reason recreational reading is not a big thing in local culture. Again, I don't know if this is true or not.

5. School curriculums not testing on a comprehensive basis

If what I've heard about public schools is true it appears that in many courses tests only cover the most recent chapter of the textbook and then you are never tested on that material again -- there is no comprehensive final at the end of the course. This means that long-term retention of concepts is of less importance than it would be in a comprehensive test curriculum. It also encourages cramming for the test which is also never a good thing for long-term retention of the material.

Qatar might want to consider some form of nation-wide standardized testing to at least ensure that minimum standards are being met.

6. Too much emphasis on "participation"

Again if what one of the Qataris has told me about the public school system is true then in some classes up to 50% of your mark is based on attendance. So technically you can pass the class by simply showing up. Even if the 50% is not true I don't care if it's 25% that is still way too much just for attendance or participation, especially if it is something like math or science. The Supreme Council deathly needs to take a look at this to make sure that schools are putting too much weight on participation.

Hopefully there will be some announcements over the next few months from the Council of Education about the reforms that have been undertaken and what further steps will be initiated to help solve some of the issues in schools.

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