U.S. Institutions Help Shape Education in Islamic World

May 28, 2003 8 min read
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When Qatar decided to reinvent its primary and secondary school system, its government turned to a seemingly unlikely source for help: the Santa Monica, Calif.-based rand Corp.

The small Middle Eastern country, perhaps best known to Americans as the base for the U.S. military’s Central Command during the war with Iraq, aims to transform schooling, from setting up an array of new school options to installing a system of national testing and accountability.

Working closely with a team of Qataris, RAND—an organization that’s been involved in U.S. education research for about 30 years—examined the Islamic country’s school system and recommended fundamental changes. The emir of Qatar issued a decree this past fall that puts in place school improvement plans based largely on those recommendations. Now, the think tank will help Qatar implement the new system.

RAND is just one of many U.S.-based institutions helping to improve education in the Islamic world. Such collaborations can be challenging, given the vast cultural differences and, in some cases, considerable anti-American sentiment overseas.

One of the highest-profile instances of late has been the one-year, $63-million contract awarded by the U.S. government to Creative Associates International to take the lead in reconstructing Iraq’s school system. (“U.S.-Led Effort Girds to Reinvent Iraqi Schools,” April 23, 2003.)

That Washington-based firm also is providing educational assistance in Afghanistan and Morocco.

Many other groups, such as the Christian Children’s Fund, based in Richmond, Va., and RTI International, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., are engaged in similar endeavors. In fact, the U.S. government last December announced a four- year, $60 million contract for RTI to help upgrade the Pakistani education system. (The nonprofit group is also a subcontractor for Creative Associates’ Iraq contract.)

While such development organizations are well-known for their education work overseas, others more familiar in U.S. education circles also are working in predominantly Islamic nations. Beyond RAND, another notable example is Teachers College, Columbia University. The college is gearing up to help Afghanistan, picking up on 25 years of educational assistance efforts halted in 1978 after a Soviet-backed coup.

Autonomy Sought

RAND started its education work for Qatar about two years ago, according to Dominic Brewer, the director of the think tank’s education program, who is also heading up the Qatar project.

The first task RAND undertook, he said, was to send a team made up chiefly of education researchers to Qatar to take a closer look at the country’s school system.

“We went to Qatar several times, interviewed everyone from ministers to principals and parents, to teachers and students,” Mr. Brewer said, “trying to get a sense of the problems with the existing system, the strengths and weaknesses.”

The school-age population in Qatar—roughly the geographic size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined—is about 70,000, based on recent data.

An essential element of the planned changes is moving away from a highly centralized system, according to Darwish Al-Emadi, the director of the new Education Institute, established by the government in Qatar.

Currently, he said, most aspects of schooling at government-financed schools—which a majority of Qatari children attend—are decided by the government.

“All of this is spelled out at the central ministry,” Mr. Al-Emadi said. “There is no variation.”

But that’s about to change.

“In the new system, the schools will not necessarily be copies of each other,” he said. Although schools will be expected to teach certain core subjects, beyond that they will have considerable leeway, from choosing teaching strategies and curricula to hiring and firing staff members.

“The main thing is to provide the schools with a great deal of autonomy,” Mr. Al-Emadi said. “The word ‘autonomy’ is extremely important.” And parents will have a range of choices of where to send their children.

Still, he added, “with autonomy comes accountability.” And in that regard, the government has plans for a national testing system.

“For the first time, there will be a national examination,” said Mohammed Al-Sada, a member of the Supreme Education Council, a new body formed to oversee the changes. “The [new] Evaluation Institute ... will examine and evaluate schools, systems, and students,” he said. “And it will publish results periodically, publicly.”

The country also will shift away from an educational approach that emphasizes rote learning.

The current system “is based in very traditional ways,” said Sheikha Al-Misnad, another member of the Supreme Education Council, with “no time ... devoted to problem-solving, critical thinking.”

Ms. Al-Misnad stressed that the educational effort is only one aspect of what’s happening in Qatar.

“It’s part of a total change,” she said, noting simultaneous shifts in the country’s economy, political system, and other structures. “Changing education became a necessity in order to reach a state where you are really developed.”

The Qatari officials, in a telephone interview, said RAND was chosen to help design a new school system because of its expertise in education. RAND is only one of many institutions that will help execute the changes, they said.

The nonprofit institution is also widely known for its research and analysis in such areas as national security, terrorism, health, and science and technology. Indeed, RAND isn’t just working with Qatar on education. Just last month, the think tank and the government agreed to form the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute to study a range of key issues facing the Middle East.

RAND’s Mr. Brewer said the effort to design a new education model involved close collaboration with Qataris at every stage. Ultimately, the nation selected from three broad models put forward. The idea, he said, wasn’t to impose a U.S.-style system on the Persian Gulf emirate.

Still, what the Qataris and RAND have chosen to do includes many of the features of American schooling, such as an accountability system, parental choice, and decentralization of decisionmaking.

“We definitely think of this as trying to bring the best expertise from around the world,” Mr. Brewer said.

Mr. Al-Emadi said some detractors would always be at hand in Qatar suggesting the American influence would corrupt the education system.

“You always have that [complaint],” he said. “The important thing for us is to show these people that this is really about modernizing, and not Westernizing. There’s a fine line between the two.”

Teachers College Returns

Meanwhile, Teachers College is going back to Afghanistan to help the war-ravaged nation rebuild its school system.

From 1954 to 1978, Teachers College played a major role in providing K-12 education in Afghanistan, said Barry M. Rosen, the college’s executive director of external affairs. “We were integrally involved in those 25 years.”

And now, as the country struggles to move forward after the U.S.-led military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime, Teachers College will again play a role. It’s been asked to advise the nation on teacher and curriculum development and on educational policy and planning.

Teachers College, the Afghan Ministry of Education, and the United Nations Children’s Fund formally agreed this month on a plan to cooperate in establishing the National Academy of Education there.

Mr. Rosen said the effort is aimed in part at building an “integrated system” from the patchwork of educational efforts now under way. A host of other U.S. and international organizations are helping Afghanistan with education.

The nation faces tremendous challenges, from simply building schools to producing a qualified teaching force.

“Afghanistan is a country that has been at war for 23 years, and as a result of that, it lacks infrastructure at all levels,” said Richard A. Navarro, the chief of education for UNICEF in Afghanistan. Girls’ education is among the significant challenges. Under Taliban rule, Mr. Navarro said, girls older than age 10 were prohibited from attending school.

Nancy Lesko, an education professor at Teachers College, said she’s especially interested in addressing the gender issue.

“We need to think about moving the education [system] to one that emphasizes girls and women as active individuals, agents in the world with some autonomy,” she said.

At the same time, Ms. Lesko said, she is keenly sensitive to not impose ideas on the country.

“It’s very easy to fall into that [mind-set of], well, we can tell them how to do it; we have the answers,” she said. “I think it’s a constant thing that has to be guarded against.”

U.S. Aid Grows

While the activities of RAND and Teachers College aren’t financed directly by the U.S. government, many others are. U.S. officials have taken a growing interest in education overseas, especially in the Islamic world.

The most obvious examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where its military interventions have given the United States a special obligation to help rebuild. In addition to its education plans for Iraq, the U.S. government in February announced a three-year, $60 million package of aid to help Afghanistan renovate and construct schools, print textbooks, and pay for teacher training.

Among the other Muslim nations where the United States is providing education aid are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Yemen.

The level of assistance for education overseas has begun to grow rapidly, said George M. Ingram, the executive director of the Washington-based Basic Education Coalition, a group of development organizations that seeks to increase educational assistance for children in poor countries. He noted that the “basic education” program at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the main but not sole federal source, has more than doubled, to $217 million, since fiscal 2001.

Officials in Washington have made clear that foreign aid is intended to serve multiple purposes—helping countries in need, but also pursuing economic, political, and national-security objectives, especially given concerns about terrorism.

Said Vijitha M. Eyango, a senior education adviser at the USAID’s Asia-Near East Bureau: “People are understanding that education serves as a moderating force.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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