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Consultants Help Modernize Arab Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 25, 2008 10 min read
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It’s no accident that in undertaking improvements to its school system, the Ministry of Education in this small, oil-rich Persian Gulf country has made the most progress so far with an initiative to retrain school principals.

After all, Vincent L. Ferrandino, the American consultant the ministry hired to help develop the school improvement plan—and who has a five-year contract to help the United Arab Emirates implement it—specializes in what it takes for principals to raise the level of instruction.

For eight years, until last summer, when Mr. Ferrandino relocated to the UAE, he was the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. He’s also a former Connecticut commissioner of education.

“What drew me was the opportunity to do reform in a setting that is critical and doable,” Mr. Ferrandino, 58, said in a recent interview.

He is part of a small, but influential, group of foreign education consultants who are helping the UAE and a handful of other Arab countries adopt standards-based reform, child-centered teaching methods, decentralization of top-down bureaucracies, and other school improvement strategies familiar in the West.

It’s common for countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, a regional economic group that includes the UAE, to seek the advice of such consultants on how to update primary and secondary education, according to Ibrahim M. Al-Dosary, the education adviser to the secretary general of the GCC.

“Experts come and go every day, and the system is always developing,” Mr. Al-Dosary wrote in an e-mail message. “Those experts are interacting with very well-educated people who know very well what they want. It is one way of convincing other people of the need for change.”

The reform effort here has piqued the interest of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has accepted an invitation to learn more about it during a visit to the UAE in mid-May, according to an Education Department spokesman, Chad Colby.

Vincent L. Ferrandino, far right, and his team of foreign consultants are training principals in the UAE in school improvement methods that have found favor in Western countries.

Mr. Ferrandino and his team—six other Americans, three Canadians, an Egyptian, and a Saudi—are costing the UAE $2.2 million a year, including salaries, benefits, housing, and car allowances. Mr. Ferrandino’s $200,000 salary alone matches what he received as an association executive.

Determining how much to take the advice of consultants can pose a management challenge for conservative Arab governments accustomed to carefully overseeing all details of their education systems.

Qatar, which relies heavily on the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. for advice on school improvement, has focused its reform efforts on establishing a system of charter schools, called “independent schools,” that is parallel to the country’s traditional schools run by Qatar’s Education Ministry. The UAE has also begun a pilot project to start charter schools in its capital city, Abu Dhabi.

“It is absolutely wise to appoint well-known experts from all over the world to work for the ministries of education to achieve specific goals or to transfer knowledge and experience to national educators,” Ali A. Al-Karni, the director general of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said by e-mail. “It is unwise, however, to bring those experts and give them total control over the whole educational system.”

Mr. Al-Karni noted that he hasn’t been impressed with how charter schools have worked out in the Arab world.

Cultural Challenges

The biggest challenges for improving primary schools in the region are to make the curriculum relevant to students’ needs and those of society, and to move beyond memorization as the dominant learning style, Mr. Al-Dosary wrote in a paper for the Gulf Research Center, an independent research institute based in Dubai that studies GCC countries.

“It is doubtful that most learners are capable of thinking independently, or have much use of what they are being taught at schools,” he wrote. The GCC’s members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Hanif Hassan, the UAE’s minister of education, is hoping that an intensive effort to employ foreign education advisers in the UAE will help the country move toward an “outcome-based education.”

“The education has been based on the teacher—he’s been the master who delivers everything,” Mr. Hassan said in an interview in January. “The students memorize it.” Instead, he said, students need to be participants.

Mr. Ferrandino said that one reason the leaders of the UAE know they need to improve the quality of primary and secondary education is that the country’s universities are having to provide a great deal of remedial education.

Weighing Arab Public Education

The World Bank evaluated school systems in 15 Middle Eastern and North African countries on indicators reflecting access to schooling, educational equity (including gender equity),efficiency, and quality of education. They were ranked on a scale of zero to one.

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SOURCE: World Bank

Comparative data are hard to come by. The country as a whole has not taken part in international tests that compare performance of primary and secondary students in different countries, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or timss, and the Program for International Assessment, or PISA.

But Arab countries, such as Jordan and Qatar, that have taken part in those tests have not ranked high. A report released in February by the World Bank, titled “The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and Africa,” praised countries in the region for building schools, recruiting teachers, producing textbooks, and creating a curriculum in recent decades.

But it said that, on the whole, the region “has tended to focus too much on engineering education and too little on incentives and public accountability.”

Investing in Education

In the UAE, a nation of seven emirates with a population of 4.1 million, the public schools enroll 275,000 students, and its leaders are starting to invest more money in the system. The country’s precollegiate budget for fiscal year 2008 is 5.6 billion dirhams, or $1.5 billion, an increase of 14 percent over the previous fiscal year, according to Mr. Hassan.

Hanif Hassan, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of education, at right, is hoping that educational consultants from outside the country can help transform a system in which teachers primarily deliver content and students rely on memorization.

The system caps enrollment of non-nationals—mostly Arabs from other countries—at 20 percent of students, and while the ministry doesn’t have data on any non-Arabs who may attend UAE public schools, the children of foreign workers typically have attended private schools (“Private Schools Catering to Foreign Students in Dubai,” Jan. 30, 2008.)

Mr. Ferrandino said that he and the other foreign consultants he hired with the minister’s consent to be part of an advisory team in the UAE see their charge as “to work on capacity-building of the locals and to do so by working with them side by side.”

He added: “Our aim is, in fact, to make ourselves extinct as the nationals take over the leadership and management of their system.”

The education improvement plan that Mr. Ferrandino helped write in 2005, while he was still with the principals’ association, calls for the creation of “world-class educational standards,” a move toward “student-centered learning,” integration of technology with learning, upgrading of school buildings, and increased public accountability, among other changes.

On the ground, the UAE has begun its efforts with 50 of the country’s 750 public schools.

“There’s this desire here to bring about change rapidly,” which matches the fact that the city of Dubai is growing rapidly, said Mr. Ferrandino. “Getting people to understand that change in education is a long endeavor is the biggest challenge.”

United Arab Emirates: At a Glance

The UAE is a federation of sevenemirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai,Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Qaiwain,Ra’s Al-Khaimah, and Fujairah.

POPULATION: 4.1 million
CAPITAL: Abu Dhabi
SECOND-LARGEST CITY: Dubai
FY 2008 FEDERAL BUDGET FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS: $1.5 billion
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: 750
STUDENTS: 275,000
TEACHERS: 24,000

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SOURCE: Education Week; United Arab Emirates National Media Council

His team has assurances from top UAE education officials that the country is receptive to changes based on methods that have proved valuable elsewhere.

“We’re not restricted to one model,” Mr. Hassan, the education minister, said about his country’s plan. “We’re trying to take international best practices and bring them here,” whether they come from Australia, European countries, or the United States.

One strength of American schools, Mr. Hassan added, is that they engage students in activities and have them do presentations. The downside of the U.S. system, he said, is that many of its students lack discipline.

Key Concepts

Two concepts that are well developed in the American education system, and that Mr. Ferrandino’s team is helping the UAE implement, are that principals need to be instructional leaders and that schools must have a process for identifying children with disabilities and serving them.

At the heart of the effort to retrain principals is a mentoring program that began last fall. The 37 “principal advisers” are from Australia, Britain, Canada, Lebanon, South Africa, and the United States. Each has a one-year contract to mentor one or two UAE principals. The cost of that advisory program is $4 million per year.

In Al-Ain, a city near the UAE’s border with Oman, John A. Howard, a longtime principal from Canada, is mentoring Ibrahim Abdalla Al-Jarrah, the headmaster of the Khalif bin Zayed School, a secondary school for boys with 600 students.

On a recent winter day, they talked about the arrangement.

Previously, Mr. Al-Jarrah said, he focused on teachers’ classroom management. Mr. Howard has helped him focus on instruction through a revised teacher-evaluation form that reviews teachers’ performance with a checklist of skills. They include using “a variety of activities which engage students” and showing “awareness of different learning styles.”

Mr. Al-Jarrah explained that, in the past, “we kept the student quiet. Now we care about methods.”

On that same day, the Khalif bin Zayed School hosted a regional meeting for about 10 foreign principal mentors. Christina Meyer, a principal mentor from Rockford, Ill., said that in the elementary school she’s assigned to in Abu Dhabi, teachers have begun to post students’ work in their classrooms, which she says isn’t a common practice in the UAE. She said she has supported the principal of the school to encourage teachers to provide a “print-rich environment,” which includes using “word walls,” on which sight words or vocabulary are posted.

Principals also must complete an International Computer Driver’s License, or ICDL, which is a certification for using technology, and must pass a standardized English test.

And in addition to having schools increase the use of technology, the improvement plan calls for schools to teach half the curriculum in English and half in Arabic. Currently, most UAE schools are teaching core subjects in Arabic and providing students with a period each day of English instruction.

Progress on Inclusion

Mr. Ferrandino said one area that has moved along more quickly than he had expected is an effort to get schools to identify students with disabilities and serve them in regular classrooms. Traditionally, students with disabilities have been taught in separate, special centers in the UAE.

Annemarie F. Neubecker, a consultant from Florida, and Miriam Al-Ghawi, an Emirati who is the assistant director of the department of special education in the Education Ministry, are encouraging public schools to try inclusion. At this point, they say, 63 students with disabilities who once attended special centers are being taught in regular classrooms.

To push for that number to grow, the women are using as a foundation a law enacted by presidential decree in August 2006 that calls for support of people with special needs, The two educators say that children with disabilities carry a stigma in the UAE.

“There’s an attitude of charity and pity, not of recognizing competencies,” said Ms. Neubecker, who formerly supervised teachers of students with impaired vision or hearing for the Duval County public schools in Jacksonville. In the UAE, she said, some parents keep children with disabilities at home because they are ashamed of them.

“Sometimes parents prefer the special schools,” added Ms. Al-Ghawi.

The two came up with a plan to train 1st grade teachers in “differentiated instruction.” Ms. Neubecker trained teams of administrators at 18 primary schools that are among the 50 pilot schools for reform. The administrators, in turn, will train the 1st grade teachers, who Ms. Al-Ghawi said often feel challenged by having children with special needs in the classroom.

The two educators also say they’re trying to implement a basic version of the individualized education program, or iep, that is used for such students in the United States.

Mr. Ferrandino said that while the idea is to draw from the American approach to special education, the goal is to establish a process in the UAE that is “not as onerous or legalistic” as he believes the process in the United States is.

Ultimately, Mr. Ferrandino predicts, any school improvements in the United Arab Emirates will depend on making sure the country’s 24,000 teachers better engage students in learning—a process that must be led by principals who can encourage and support teachers to change their instruction, he says.

“In the end, if there is going to be change, it’s going to be the result of significant training for teachers,” Mr. Ferrandino said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Consultants Help Transform Arab Schools

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