Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Qatar education

The other day I was talking to some Qataris and the conversation went on to education. They commented that in Qatar the public education system wasn't very good and many Qataris nowadays are opting for private school for their children. I recalled similar problems in Bermuda with the quality of public education and wondered if there was a strange quirk about very wealthy countries that for some reason they struggle with their educational system.

Coincidentally I was later on the OECD website looking up some materials when my search found the PISA assessment for 2006. PISA is an assessment undertaken by the OECD every three years (the first one was in 2000) where thousands of 15 year-olds in OECD countries take a 3+ hour standardised test measuring their abilities in reading, mathematics, and science. It is one of the most comprehensive worldwide surveys, possibly the only decent worldwide survey, measuring the ability of students in some fundamental concepts of education. Though there have only been three studies so far most countries treat the results seriously. Media tend to take a keen interest in the results and then discuss with education ministers as to what the deficiencies are and where improvements are needed. And with every PISA survey more and more countries sign on to take part, even those that are not in the OECD. In 2006, fifty-seven countries took part, the 2009 one had something like sixty-seven. To my surprise Qatar had taken part in the 2006 survey, the only country in the Gulf to do so. I was impressed that Qatar would take part, I think it shows that the Education Ministry is taking these things seriously and wants to measure how its students are doing compared to international counterparts. Over 7000 children in Qatar wrote the test, which given at the time the population of the country was probably one million people it is likely that almost every 15 year-old in the public education system wrote it.

So how did Qatar do? Well, here's the base rankings on the three categories including some other OECD countries, (top 5 plus selected others):

Reading (56 countries)

1. Korea
2. Finland
3. Hong Kong
4. Canada
5. New Zealand
. . .
15. Japan
17. UK
18. Germany
23. France
33. Italy
39. Russia
. . .
54. Azerbaijan
55. Qatar
56. Kyrgyzstan

(for some reason there are only 56 countries on the reading list because the United States is not listed, why I don't know)

Math (57 countries)

1. Taiwan
2. Finland
3. Hong Kong
4. Korea
5. Netherlands
. . .
7. Canada
10. Japan
20. Germany
23. France
24. UK
34. Russia
35. USA
38. Italy
. . .
55. Tunisia
56. Qatar
57. Kyrgyzstan

Science (57 countries)

1. Finland
2. Hong Kong
3. Canada
4. Taiwan
5. Estonia
6. Japan
. . .
11. Korea
13. Germany
14. UK
25. France
29. USA
35. Russia
36. Italy
. . .
55. Azerbaijan
56. Qatar
57. Kyrgyzstan

So I guess the Qataris I spoke to were right as these are very surprising results for a country with such wealth. In fact I showed these results to a couple of them and they were not alarmed at all. They could not clarify specifically why results were poor however. Poor-quality teaching? Lack of parental involvement? Lack of discipline by students for studying? Class sizes too large? Curriculum lacks focus? I guess that is something for the Education Ministry to investigate - I hope that whatever it is they are undertaking reforms. Then again it would depend on the reasons why, I know that Qatari public schools do a lot of religious instruction in Islam and the Qur'an which would mean less class time on math and science (I don't know if that would impact reading scores since reading skills would be important for understanding the Qur'an). Anyway it would appear that Qatar has some changes to make.

Qatar's Education Ministry posted articles about the PISA study when it was published and had signed on to do the 2009 study, which was conducted in March, with even more students participating than in 2006. I see that as a positive sign that Qatar is taking the issue seriously and wants to see if whatever changes they have made have improved things. Dubai signed on as well for 2009 but no other GCC country has, including other UAE emirates.

As for Canada I am glad that it is doing very well in terms of the results, but I sure couldn't tell you why that is. I guess since I have only been through one educational system (Canada's) I can't really compare and contrast with what is done in other countries. The US education system appears to score poorly which is perhaps not too surprising as there has been a lot more criticism and discussion of the issue in the United States over the last 8 to 10 years, and major attempts by the government to rectify problems, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. I have not looked at the previous two studies to see if the US has shown improvement over the last six years.

Finland had the highest overall scores of any country in the world, again I'm not sure why. They solidly outscored other Scandinavian countries so they must be doing something differently. Neighbouring Estonia also has decent results, much better than the other Baltic states and Russia so I suspect they have then taking a page from the Finnish model.

If you're interested in the PISA study I highly recommend looking at the full reports at The reports are very long and detailed, have additional tables with further information, and also provide methodologies and examples of the questions. From looking around I even know that countries could get detailed reports by region -- Canada has published their results by province, probably on a Canadian Gov't website somewhere.

Look out for when the results of the 2009 study are published -- probably in early 2010.

(And if anyone from India is reading this your country does not take part in the PISA survey. Given the emphasis Indians put on education I'm surprised they haven't signed on. Pressure your government to get on board, I suspect India will have good results and PISA is a valuable way to identify possible weaknesses)


Mr. Q said...

when I was younger and in high school my family relocated to Bahrain because it had better education.

Qatar's improved dramatically since then, and the Ministry of Education has started to get rid of rubbish teachers and vowed to make the public schools more 'private-like'.

Let's see how that goes, because proper education brings open minds :)

Glen McKay said...

I'm not expecting large improvements to scores in just three years as the 2009 writers would have spent most of their childhood through the unreformed system. Hopefully Qatar is looking at this in terms of long-term improvements. I expect minor improvements in PISA 2009 but a bigger jump in scores for PISA 2012(if the reforms are significant).

AquaFox said...

I think the biggest mistake education does with science is that science is taught as a fact based discipline, not as a means of discovery and explanation.

BTW, I am an Omani skeptic \o/. I googled Oman+Skeptics and found this blog. Honestly, I was disappointed when I found out you weren't Qatari :(. It's all cool, you're a skeptic nearby :).

Glen McKay said...

Yep, sorry but I am not a Qatari. From what I recall none of the skeptics on the JREF forums are from the GCC region either so I guess there are not many English-speaking skeptics in this part of the world.