Thursday, November 19, 2009

Qatar and Education

This week Qatar is hosting the World Innovation Summit for Education conference. I wish I could have gone but I'm recuperating and it is held on working days so even if I was not recovering I'd have to go to work instead.

Despite the fact that I do not work in an educational field, nor do I have any children, I've always had an interest in educational theory and standards. Maybe because I just love learning and in my school days I certainly learned how an aspiring teacher or a decent programme can make all the difference in someone's education. Unfortunately I have also learnt how a bad teacher can turn people off learning and even discourage people from following a field of study that they liked. And thanks to authors like Jonathan Kozol I've also learnt how poorly funded or overcrowded schools can turn promising young students apathetic and bitter, destroying their potential.

Getting back to the conference is a good thing that Qatar is hosting it -- because they need a lot of innovation right now if they are going make significant improvements to their educational system.

I mentioned in a previous blog post about the OECD's PISA test, which tests 15-year-old students all over the world in reading, mathematics, and science. Despite having one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, I think only second to Luxembourg, Qatar's students scored very poorly on the 2006 PISA test:

Reading -- 55th out of 56 countries
Mathematics -- 56th out of 57 countries
Science -- 56th out of 57 countries

(Krygryzstan was last in all categories)

Well there is also another educational test that numerous countries participate in. It is called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, which tests grade 4 and grade 8 students. And in this test Qatar performed poorly as well, countries such as Ghana and Botswana scored higher. In fact in math Qatar was second-last for Grade 4 and last for Grade 8, in science Qatar was second-last at both ages. How can a country with so much wealth not have an educational system better than many impoverished nations?

I spoke to some Qataris about it. First of all, much like when I mentioned the PISA test a while back, they were not surprised by the results at all. They weren't sure whether things have changed since when they were younger (but they are in their mid-20s so if things are different it wasn't changed that long ago) but when they were in school:

-- A large amount of your grade was attendance, so much of it in fact that if you just showed up you could pretty much pass regardless of your test results.
-- Exams were not comprehensive. If you covered a chapter of a math text you're usually given a small quiz on it and that was that, you did not have to study the material again. This would deftly discourage long-term retention of anything.
-- Apparently schools are run almost as profit centres. Schools are given a certain amount of money from the government without the lot of oversight into how it is spent. So a lot of schools cut corners, resulting in low-paid teachers and overcrowded classrooms. [ I'm not so sure about this one, I'm pretty sure the Ministry of Education would do some oversight on spending. Perhaps because rents are so high a lot of money has to go to rent for the school building and housing for teachers, making it more problematic for schools to spend money on other things]
-- a lot of time spent on religious studies which takes away from science, maths etc. I can't blame a sharia society are putting emphasis on religious study and I doubt that is the main reason why the test scores are so poor (one would think it would improve reading scores). I don't think Qatar would be willing to be number one in these tests if it meant getting rid of religious study. Perhaps the Education Ministry would aim for improvements to keep the country's students at least on par with the industrialised world, balancing it with the religious study.
-- not a lot of homework given out. I remember talking to one person who used to teach in Bahrain and they told me that teachers were generally discouraged from giving out homework since a lot of the kids would just get someone else to do it for them at home, or pay someone. Not too hard to imagine since many South Asian labourers make as little as $120 a month, I'm sure they'd gladly do a kid's homework for $10.
-- And of course it might be the usual culprits that are always bantered about in North America when discussing education -- TV/video games and parental involvement in education.

Qatar has made some changes, I know it developed an Academic Bridge programme through Qatar Foundation to give recent graduates extra assistance in getting them prepared for University but that may be too little too late. Changes are definitely needed in the elementary and middle school programmes if Qatar is going to make significant improvements in education.

The results of the 2009 PISA test are due out around March or April next year. I'm hopeful there will be a slight improvement but nothing significant, comprehensive educational reform will take many years. Any changes that were implemented by the Ministry since the 2006 test will take time to show up in the scoring.


A 2 Z said...

Hi Glen,

I just found your blog. My husband works in Qatar. I visit him often but I leave after max 2 months because I just get bored. I could not get a job where he works (company policy) I left Qatar just as the film festival was about to start. I live right next to the Four Seasons and I could see all the prep going on. I will probably go back in mid-January when the weather is crap here in Montreal. I dont have my own blog but keep up the good work. You're a pretty good writer for an accountant (just teasing). Bye

Magnus said...

Sounds like they could learn a thing or to from certain religious school in the Christian or Jewish faith. While I have known of some very bad examples I do know of schools that have been able to balance religious studies with academics and allow students to excel.

Glen McKay said...

Hi Anne-Marie, thanks for stopping by. I'm hoping to move to West Bay soon myself, getting sick of the commute.

Magnus based on what my Qatari friends told me about local schools a lot of reform is needed. Qataris take great pride in their country but mention the school system has huge problems, and results are worse than some of the poorest nations, they all agree!