The Middle East is famous for a long-standing commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. One – of many – shared features between Islamic and Jewish culture is the value placed on education. Palestinians are rightly proud of their leading position within the region, with particularly high literacy rates, university enrollment and resulting success in a wide range of fields including business, medicine and engineering. Unfortunately, experience on the ground in the West Bank, as well as Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, has proven that these communities are not immune from what a recent Brookings Institution report described as “a global learning crisis.”
This crisis “affects children and youth who are out of school with limited learning opportunities and those who are in school but not learning the skills they need for their futures.” It is the second case that most afflicts children in the Middle East. Public school systems are not adapting their approach to “produce a flexible, adaptable, multi-skilled, and trainable youth cohort prepared for employment,” as recommended by report author, Brookings’ Center for Universal Education. From my time living and working in Palestine over the last four years, I have both seen first hand and heard from professionals the extent to which schools are failing children there. Despite long school days, rigorous exam schedules and parents’ high level of commitment to their children’s education, literacy rates are crashing and life skills like planning, problem solving and cooperation are weak.
Recent research from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education provides still more troubling news: these short-comings seem to be concentrated among low-income students, while affluent Palestinians in private schools perform much better on measures of verbal ability, literacy and creativity. This conclusion was based on research conducted with almost 200 children at UNRWA and Ministry schools and several West Bank NGOs during the spring of 2010. The resulting paper is still a work-in-progress and should only be cited with authors’ permission, but available for reference here. As authors Elizabeth Buckner and Paul Kim point out, these class-differentiated outcomes are very troubling, as the “potential for social and political radicalization is high among marginalized social groups”. Inasmuch, Palestinian leaders as well as interested international education professionals must think seriously about ways to foster problem solving, critical thinking and creativity skills among ALL children in Palestine, as well as reviving basic education for literacy and numeracy. The Brookings report suggests exactly these three steps: robust early childhood development programs, emphasis on reading and ‘rithmetic in primary education and quality post-secondary training to cultivate practical life skills.
Given the size of the public education system, budget limitations and bureaucratic procedures, public schools have never been best suited to large-scale innovation. Inasmuch, NGOs and community-based organizations have a crucial role in developing and delivering creative new programs including non-formal education and academic support. Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) works to do just this through varied after-school and summer programs led by a combination of Palestinian staff and American and Palestinian volunteers. We offer homework help sessions, photography classes, cooking workshops and sports leagues for marginalized students from refugee camps and other poor areas. Several other exceptional organizations like Peace Players, Right to Play and Education for Employment Foundation also offer complementary programs that are supporting the development of Palestine’s next generation of leaders. As well as this innovation, I see great hope in the fact that UNRWA has reached out to TYO and other organizations to provide innovative non-formal programs that their schools don’t yet deliver themselves. This public-private partnership is an outstanding model for a solution to the alarming gap in literacy and life skills that is emerging between rich and poor in Palestine, and doubtlessly other countries of the Middle East and beyond.