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An Arab “Learning Barometer” Sounds an Alarm

CAIRO—A significant proportion of the young in the Arab world don’t receive quality education—or any education at all, according to a report published this week by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings.

There was some tenuous progress: The number of primary-age children in the region who are not being educated fell from 6.8 million in 2002 to 4.8 million in 2011, while the number of out-of-school adolescents dropped by more than a million, the report said.

But about 8.5 million children and youth region-wide are not in school. And more than half of those attending school do not meet basic levels of learning. A whopping two-thirds to 90 percent of primary-school-age students in Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Kuwait are failing to learn—outcomes that the report said are particularly worrying.

“The Arab countries are producing large numbers of people with diplomas, but what do those diplomas really mean, especially in terms of getting skills required for the labor market and particularly certain skills that are not even taught in Arab schools?” said Hafez Ghanem, co-author of the report and senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution.

“Skills like teamwork, entrepreneurship, creativity—those are the kinds of attitudes that employers are looking for, and increasingly what we see is that we have people coming out of schools and universities who learn a lot of things by heart, who do not necessarily have the kinds of skills that are needed,” he said.

The findings were published in a paper titled “Arab Youth: Missing Educational Foundations for a Productive Life.” An accompanying interactive tool, which was also published by a Brookings’ policy center that focuses on universal quality education in the developing world, charts the ability of children across the region to attend and learn in school.

“What we were trying to do was bring together various sources of data and provide an easily accessible tool to let people get a sense of the urgency of the situation,” said Liesbet Steer, co-author of the report and a fellow at the Center for Universal Education.

Steer said one of the frustrating components of the project was that the available data was scarce.

“The first thing we immediately recognized when we started to do the work is we need to do much more to try and measure, for example, learning in schools,” Steer said.

Of the 20 countries surveyed in the report, only 13 participate in international assessments either at the primary or secondary level, Steer said, while only seven countries measure data at both the primary and secondary levels.

“That was one thing we felt was a little alarming and somewhat worse than we had expected,” Steer said.

Some of the compiled data, which drew on available statistics, indicated positive developments. The number of primary school students who complete their primary education—in countries for which data was available—exceeded 90 percent, according to the report. Moreover, enrollment in secondary schools improved, although more students are dropping out than they were 10 years ago.

Despite some progress, Brookings describes the situation as a learning crisis that, coupled with a lack of skills acquisition among the region’s youth, is directly linked to broader challenges with unemployment.

In Egypt, only 34 percent of youth participate in the labor force, according to the report’s interactive data mapping tool. Figures are lower in other countries including Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

And gender gaps in employment are also vast. While girls are more likely than boys to continue onto secondary school after primary education, more than three times as many men than women across the region participate in the labor force, according to the data.

The statistics are reflective of a region in which growing economic challenges have fueled political unrest beginning in late 2010 in Tunisia. Nations across the Arab world rose up against repressive leaders and demanded freedom. Among protesters’ demands were calls for more jobs and better wages.

But nations are still waiting for progress after ongoing political turmoil made economies worse. Political instability also threatens educational progress, the report said.

In Syria, 93 percent of primary-age students were enrolled in school before the start of a civil war that began in 2011, the Brookings report said. Two years later, about 90 percent percent of Syrian refugee children between the ages of 6 and 17 were believed to be out of school, according to a 2013 report by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“With the potential of long-term displacement, there is a risk of a generation of Syrians lacking access to quality education,” the Brookings report said.


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