Our Education System is Failing

A nation that lags behind in education can never hope for a better future. We need to radically overhaul the way we teach.

By Osama Al Sharif

Education reform has become the centerpiece of public debate in the country against a backdrop of controversy over means, ways, and objectives of such a process.

The call to improve the education system is now championed by HM Queen Rania who recently delivered an in-depth critique of the educational system and highlighted some of its flaws at the launch of the National Strategy for Human Resources Development.

Queen Rania said that “the real treasure is in the minds of our children and all we have to do is extract it.” She cited a number of depressing facts, like 80 percent of the second and third grade primary students underperform in reading, and that elementary school students in Jordan are falling behind in mathematics. She also noted that in the eighth grade, Jordan’s ranking has deteriorated over the last two cycles in the TIMSS International Mathematics and Science Assessment. Studies also show that last year, 100,000 students entered the twelfth grade. But only 60,000 of them sat for the secondary certificate exam, of whom a mere 40 percent passed.

The list goes on and on, and what it finally shows is that we have a failed system that’s not delivering on its main objectives. In citing remedies, Queen Rania called for “curricula that enrich learning and expand horizons of knowledge,” suggesting the creation of a “curriculum center to implement the latest educational methods and curriculum development techniques—a model adopted by many top performing countries.”

I don’t think the Ministry of Education has ever compiled a report in which it detailed the challenges facing elementary and secondary education in Jordan. Queen Rania’s diagnosis should sound the alarm at the highest levels because it does not need a genius to deduce that a failing education system is a prelude to a failing national system at all levels. We are talking about the future here and if we fail to salvage, reform, and invigorate the education system we will never achieve the goals that we set for ourselves as a nation among nations.

Queen Rania daring remarks shouldn’t drive us to despair, though. The reforms we seek can be achieved if there is the will, determination, and long-term commitment. A nation as young as Jordan should channel its resources to restructuring the education system over years and within a national strategy with measurable results. Other nations have done so and made a difference that separated them from others. We should look at successful case studies and be brave enough to copy and emulate.

The challenge goes beyond the state of our schools. Our universities are in trouble as well and what was once the pride of Jordan is today a burden that cripples progress and the achievement of economic, social, and cultural advancement.

It is depressing to learn that the Ministry of Education, in an attempt to tackle extremism in society, reverted to introducing superficial alterations to school curricula; ones that have created a political storm in the country and divided society. That’s certainly not the way to tackle the challenge.

Meanwhile, it looks like the ministry has taken the wrong steps in dealing with education reform. For instance, as part of a national strategy to combat extremism in society, it approved alterations to elementary grade curricula that focused on Arabic language, religion, and history textbooks while ignoring science, mathematics, the arts and others. The move has stirred up public controversy as critics accused the government of deleting religious texts and replacing them with civic lessons. In a conservative society like ours such moves must be taken carefully without allowing the conspiracy theorists to cry foul. What does it mean to delete a photo of a veiled woman and replace it with one whose head is uncovered? Is this the kind of reform we are seeking?

Such moves have forced the ministry to back track. It also appears that a committee that has undertaken such alterations didn’t engage in public discourse or consult with academics. The ministry should have focused its attention on revamping the education process, rehabilitating teachers and reviewing the way students are being taught in schools.

Queen Rania has pointed out the defects and suggested ways and means to begin a long and arduous process of reforming the education system. This should become a national priority that transcends governments and parliaments. It should be at the heart of the national strategy to develop our human resources. A nation that lags behind in education can never hope for a better future. It’s as simple as that.