Even as the merits of charter schools are still debated in the United States, an ambitious, charter-like experiment in public education is fast emerging in the Middle East.
In the small Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, more than 30 autonomous, government-financed schools have opened since 2004. They offer an array of options to families accustomed to a rigid, highly centralized mode of education in schools run by the Ministry of Education. With another 13 of the so-called independent schools opening this fall, the new sector will serve about one-third of all students in government-financed schools, according to analysts from the RAND Corp.
The Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization, which was hired in 2001 to help Qatar examine and overhaul its K-12 system, devised three models for the government to choose from. (“U.S. Institutions Help Shape Education in Islamic World,” May 28, 2003.)
“We concluded that structural or systemic change was necessary,” Catherine H. Augustine, a behavioral scientist at RAND, said at a July 10 briefing on Capitol Hill. “They chose the design most akin to a system of charter schools.”
The design, she said, is based on four principles: school autonomy, accountability, variety, and parental choice.
The new schools, which operate under three-year, renewable contracts approved by a new government body called the Supreme Education Council, are taking a variety of approaches. One school is billed as a military-leadership academy, for instance, while another is a sports academy with an international academic program, said Charles Goldman, the assistant director of RAND’s education unit.
The schools enjoy considerable latitude in their operations and design, but must meet standards in the core subjects of Arabic, English, math, and science.
A book describing the RAND effort in the wealthy nation is expected out this fall.
The independent schools are part of a broader overhaul of the Qatari education system that also includes the adoption of new curriculum standards, national assessments, and other accountability demands for all government-financed schools.
It will take time for Qatari citizens to fully accept the idea of schools run by independent operators, according to Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad, a member of the Supreme Education Council, which is overseeing the changes.
“The operator concept is new to our people, but once the reform builds more momentum and people become more familiar and involved with the process, they are likely to accept it and scrutinize it objectively,” she said earlier this year in an interview in a publication issued by the Supreme Education Council.
And the government is still making some midcourse adjustments.
Earlier this year, it issued new rules on school governance. From now on, an independent school must be run by a single individual who is Qatari and has a professional background in education, according to information on the Supreme Education Council’s Web site. The individual must act as the school’s principal as well as its operator, and must set up a nonprofit educational institute. Previously, a new operator, or possibly a group of individuals, set up a limited-liability company and often hired a principal to run the school.
“The authorities in Qatar have recently decided that they’re uncomfortable with this model that stresses the business operation,” Mr. Goldman said at the congressional briefing. “We don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out.”
‘It Doesn’t Take a Lifetime’
The RAND analysts said the independent schools offer a strong contrast to the traditional, government-run schools.
“The teachers in the new, independent schools are doing a much more student-centered curriculum,” Mr. Goldman said. “Teachers will arrange the students in groups; the students will work with each other. This is very new and different.”
He said one lesson the experience in Qatar—which has about 75,000 school-age children—might provide for the United States relates to school choice.
“This is a real example of a system that … essentially in three years has almost transformed itself into a choice-based system,” he said, “where parents can say, ‘I want my child to go to that school.’ And the costs of doing so have not been excessively high; the costs have been reasonable.”
“It doesn’t take a lifetime to do it,” Mr. Goldman added, “and it doesn’t take an extraordinary infusion of resources.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Charter-Like School Experiment Expands in Qatar