The State of Education in the Arab World


Many in the Arab world consider education to be the most effective tool for advancing Arab society. Yet, when closely examining reports on the status of education in the Arab region, especially those prepared by United Nations agencies and others such as the Brookings Institution and the World Bank, the main conclusions have pointed to the Arab states’ deficits in educational attainment, enrollment, and achievement on international tests such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Despite the progress that has been made in increasing enrollment in elementary schools, dropout rates in lower secondary schools—as compared to other developing countries—continue to be high. Such data highlight the urgency of sound and innovative interventions that can transform education systems and schools across the region.

Main Challenges   

In addition to concerns about enrollment, these international reports indicate that there several other issues. For example, the Brookings report notes that 56 percent of Arab primary education students and 48 percent of lower secondary pupils are not “learning foundational skills” in school; this reveals an important reason behind the dropout rates in lower secondary schools. Additionally, there does not seem to be much consideration for ways to retain current students and engage them, enroll those who are not currently in school, or ensure proper education and educational facilities for millions of refugees and displaced Arab children and youth.

Reports fail to provide in-depth analyses of educational experiences in the schooling of children in K-12 or higher education.

Many reports rightly call for an overhaul of the educational system in the Arab world and for modernizing schools. To be sure, denying that major problems exist only exacerbates them. For example, early childhood education is a neglected area in many Arab countries despite strong evidence of the importance of education in the early years. Another example is the problematic area of teachers’ qualifications and their training, skills improvement, professional development, and retention. Further, there is a need to recognize the importance of investing in families as major actors in children’s education because, traditionally, there has been a common understanding that teachers are the sole drivers of children’s schooling, with the family playing a secondary role at home. In fact, what is needed is a real partnership between schools and families. Finally, Arab education must address the lack of overall investment in the school environment, one that would allow children to feel safe in school.

Complicating the task of evaluating the educational sector in the Arab world is the reality that comprises 22 countries. This has led to some inaccurate and misleading achievements and challenges. For example, reports from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme, and others suggest a grim picture when comparing Arab education with that of the rest of the world. The main theme in many of these reports is that Arab countries are behind others in similar levels of development, such as those in Latin America and South Asia. More recent reports, such as UNESCO’s World Education Forum (2015), suggest dividing and grouping the Arab world into “least developed countries” (LDCs) that include Mauritania, Sudan, and Yemen; the Mashreq, including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine; the Maghreb, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; and the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising all the Arab Gulf countries. It is clear, though, that this division mainly relies on economic conditions in each group and emphasizes the disparity and the gaps among countries of the collective “Arab world.”

What Has Been Done?

Even though reports such as the ones mentioned above provide data-driven analyses of education attainment, policies, and expenditures, they fail to provide in-depth analyses of educational experiences in the schooling of children in K-12 or higher education. For example, input from teachers on practices suggests they favor democratic practices and respect for children’s rights. This claim necessitates a deeper look at methods and ways these views of democratic practices are translated into teaching strategies—especially since children in the same study testify to harsh practices used with them in the family and in schools. In many Arab contexts, teachers and educators know how to “talk the talk,” but they don’t “walk the walk.” Of course, this is partly because of the lack of proper teacher training and knowledge of learner-centered pedagogy and instruction. In addition, there is an entrenched culture of rote memorization and, in some places, of corporal punishment.

There are also initiatives that instill hope in some countries where reform efforts are showing some results. For example, over the past 10 years the Jordanian government has expanded its role in directing the country’s K-12 educational system. UNESCO’s reports laud Jordan for probably exceeding other Arab countries in educational reforms. In fact, enrollment numbers of literate Jordanians almost reach 100 percent; however, there is no information on retention and teacher qualifications and development. This is a hopeful example nevertheless, despite the presence of Palestinian refugees and the influx of refugees from Iraq and Syria into the country.

Lebanon is another example of a country that has worked hard to increase the quality of public education since the end of the civil war in 1991. Enrollment in Lebanon is high but “the tremendous influx of Syrian refugees in recent years has further strained the public education system,” prompting Lebanese parents to enroll their children in private schools. In 2015, almost 75 percent of Lebanon’s 491,455 elementary age students attended private schools. Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait are also leading in reform efforts, but it is too early for them to show educational gains in higher enrollment, student retention, and teacher qualifications.

The so-called globalized approach to education is not the best path for the region.

Attempts to use US-based organizations to reform the education system may not be the best fit for the region. The recommendation for certain countries in the GCC to implement an English language curriculum may backfire and slow the reform movement. The so-called globalized approach to education, which promotes an agenda of privatization, standardization, accountability, school choice, and testing, is not the best path for the region.

Iraq and Syria are painful examples of countries that once had the highest literacy rates in the Arab world and beyond; this is prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the beginning of the current war in Syria. Even today, around 99 percent of both Iraqi and Syrian male and female youth are literate. Lack of recent investment threatens the future of millions of Iraqi and Syrian children. Indeed, three and a half million school-aged Iraqi children are currently “estimated to be out of school, attending irregularly, or to have lost years of schooling”—thus spurring an increased risk of early marriages and child labor. A UNICEF-supported study titled “Child Poverty in Iraq” illustrates that “one in five poor children who dropped out before completing primary school did so for economic reasons.” To be sure, creating safe environments for children is the most critical goal of education in these countries.

What Can Be Done?

It is clear from the examples above that there are serious issues to address in the Arab education system and that a comprehensive and holistic approach to education is needed. This approach builds on the characteristics of the Arab student in the various regions, the recent research regarding brain development and functioning, and current approaches to child-centered teaching and learning. This in large part involves learning that is integrated and of relevance to the Arab child’s life. It also mandates providing environments that are safe, stimulating, and project-based. In fact, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), there are five tenets to the whole child approach—and these also apply to education in the Arab world. The ASCD website details this approach as follows:

  • “Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.”

Unfortunately, many of the above tenets are missing in Arab school systems. Recent studies by several international and Arab organizations point out that Arab children are at risk despite the decrease in dropout and illiteracy rates and the easier access to basic education. A study by the Carnegie Middle East Center states that “with more than 40 percent of people in the Arab world under the age of eighteen, schools are key social and political actors that can strongly impact the process of democratization” and social change.

The following are some immediate steps that Arab countries can take to move forward:

  • Invest in safe educational environments and infrastructure.
  • Construct and revise curricular materials to meet the needs of the highly informed and technologically savvy Arab child (the Arab region has a high rate of social media consumption in the world). In addition, Arab countries would do well not to import curricula from outside but invest in locally rooted and created guidelines.
  • Change testing and assessment methods to include critical thinking and problem-solving skills and to assess the whole child and his/her performance.
  • Provide continuous professional development opportunities for leadership teams, including administrators.
  • Provide ongoing professional development for in-service teachers while relying on professional development models that are successful in engaging teachers and helping to develop their skills.
  • Evaluate and modernize pre-service teacher training as part of a comprehensive reform plan.
  • Initiate localized family education networks and invest in improving the relationship with the local community.

Educators, especially those who already have a high regard for schooling and education as important for social mobility, need to believe in the power of education to transform nations. As indicated in The Arab World’s Education Report Card, the Arab family values education and schooling and has the motivation to transform parenting and discipline techniques; however, families lack the access and resources to do so. Further, many of the attempts to reform the Arab context display impatience and are not implemented properly. This may be because of the top-down approach adopted in Arab politics, but it is important to consider a grassroots approach in order to effect meaningful change in the education sector.

Adopting a Pedagogy of Hope

This approach to education is inspired by Freire’s work in Brazil and other countries on the pedagogy of the oppressed and the pedagogy of hope. According to the Freirean school of thought, traditional teaching approaches view learning as a “banking transaction” where the teacher deposits knowledge into the child’s mind and hopes for the best. Freire argued for learning that is critical and interactive, allowing students to take ownership of the learning process and of their liberation from traditional and oppressive methods and habits. This type of pedagogy can provide teachers with actual strategies that start with the teachers themselves. Education according to this approach usually tries to accommodate the social and political status quo.

A comprehensive and holistic approach to education in the Arab region is needed.

To become agents of change, however, it is incumbent on the teachers themselves to transform. Some of the pedagogical implications focus on teachers’ involvement in critical reflection about their practice and about their students’ belief systems. They also call for praxis—a continuous process of connecting and combining theory and practice. This approach involves the teacher’s engagement in self-examination to develop her/his ways of teaching and learning. Many educators advocate using “problem posing” with children so they can use their critical thinking and prior knowledge to solve real life problems. The teacher does not give the solutions but generates them collaboratively by working together with the students.

This approach clearly necessitates a comprehensive look at education systems and ways to transform them through innovations in pedagogy, reform of curricula, and ongoing assessments of educational gains and attainments that are based on authentic and holistic methods.