School reform in the Arab region is multi-faceted. In this conference, foreign experts shed light on their countries’ experience with public school reform. UAE nationals showed indi erence then apprehension towards western ideas of school reform, of fear that these might rob locals of their cultural identity. Look for The Middle East Educator to cover major school reform projects regionally.
He had a lot to say and he tried to speak slowly and deliberately. Amid the disharmony of sounds, he cracked a joke and nobody laughed. In fact, throughout the keynote speaker’s monologue, the conference room sounded like a cocktail party, except no alcohol was being served. The expert was Peter McWalters, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.
McWalters was speaking at a conference organized last April 17th by The College of Education at the UAE University. The three-day symposium in Dubai entitled ‘School Reform: Challenges and Aspirations’ hosted workshops and discussions featuring a number of case studies of international scholars and researchers in the field of school reform.
What happened to McWalters came in great contrast to the inaugurating speech made by Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Chancellor of UAEU Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan. His presence so commanded the attention of everyone that you could hear a pin drop. “We have to address this era’s challenges and proceed with important national objectives to elevate the standards of learning from KG to grade 12 levels,” Al Nahayan said. The minister said the education ministry is working closely with universities on book and curriculum reform, teacher rehabilitation and the implementation of national studies and best practices. “We need to close the big gap between high school and higher education and reduce the exorbitant cost of having college freshmen take remedial courses,” Al Nahayan stressed. He then urged the audience to listen and learn from the experiences of the panel of experts at the conference. Indeed McWalters had some insightful information. He said that in the US, reform was something that was revisited every couple of generations. “We did not serve our children. Only 30% graduated from college with 40-50 percent of high school students not being prepared for it,” McWalters said. In 1983, a federal program entitled ‘A nation at risk’ sent the message that to support one’s family, people needed an education beyond high school with either a two-year technical diploma or a four-year university degree. “The alternative was to become a second class economy with many dropouts being prison inmates and the rest unemployed and either way it’s financially taxing,” McWalters explained. Between 1983 and 2000, all the work was done at state level but in 2000-2001, the federal government revisited with the aim of having all kids graduate. “There was no connetion between high school completion and university placement with teachers on either side not speaking the same language,” McWalters said. He said that children were not encouraged to think critically and debate knowledgably since teaching methods were based on facts with tests based on recall. “They covered who, when and where but not why,” McWalters opined adding “Change has to start at the KG level.”
The commissioner then explained that reform could not happen if the teacher, principal, commissioner and ministry each has a different understanding of leading and supporting. He asked whether UAE schools had teams of teachers who took time or were allowed to share knowledge and practices, or if they made assessment and testing decisions based on state standards. “ e answer in the UAE is here with you. It has to be wrestled with and debated. No one will do it for you,” McWalters advised.
But once McWalters was done, the audience, realizing there wasn’t any auditory input, politely applauded. The language barrier was something that even simultaneous translation couldn’t overcome. Next up was Kati Haycock. Perhaps thinking of a new communication stratagem to break through the audience, she gingerly took her place at the podium with an uneasy smile on her face.
Being one of the leading child advocates in the field of education, Haycock speaks out for what’s right for young people, especially those who are poor or members of minority groups. She offered a number of suggestions needed to create world-class education. She said that leaving curriculum matters in the hands of teachers will give uneven and repetitive results. “Teachers need clear support as to what to teach and consistency in what teachers ask their students from school to school,” Haycock said. She said that succumbing to a salary based purely on experience means sacrificing teaching quality. “Administrators need to let bad teachers go, no matter what their experience is, and also recognize that effective teachers are not interchangeable,” Haycock pointed out. She said that teachers who get the biggest learning gains need to be studied in terms of their knowledge, practice and attitude “and this is how we prepare future teachers and drive the recruitment process.”
You could almost hear the room full of UAE public school teachers mumble their disapproval of what was being presented to them- reform of their Arab schools based on western ideas. During one of the Q&A sessions, one UAE gentleman commented: “I am not against reform per se, but rather against reform that takes away my garb, my culture, my religion and my children.” He was speaking as a teacher, parent and citizen, and echoing the words of UAEU’s vice-chancellor at the conference. “School reform cannot rely solely on the efforts of those in charge of schools, but also on the effective partnership forged by all stakeholders including educational leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, students and the community at large, said Dr Hadef bin Jouan Al-Dhahiri.
EXACTLY! WHERE WERE THEY?