Who Defines “Excellence” in Education? And How?

Educational quality is something everyone agrees is important – but what does it mean? How is it defined?  This subject has been much examined by international organizations concerned with education as a fundamental building block for economic and social development, including the World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). All have published reports on the subject.

What interests me as a researcher of educational policy and governance is to understand and reveal where the notion of educational quality comes from, and how the conversation about educational quality has been created and defined in the Arab region.

It’s important to recognize that the term “quality” is socially constructed. That is, what we mean by the quality of education depends on how we, as a society, define what we value as excellence in education. Increasingly, educational quality is measured in terms of how students do on international assessments. For example, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have become important indicators of educational quality for governments and international organizations.

In the Arab region, educational quality took center stage with the 2010 Arab Ministerial Colloquium on Quality of Education and the Doha Declaration on Quality Education for All. As a result of those meetings, the World Bank and the Arab Ministers of Education established a new initiative entitled the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Educational Quality (ARAIEQ). Launched in 2012 under the auspices of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), ARAIEQ’s aim was to improve the quality and relevance of educational services in the region through regional collaboration, while also functioning as a think tank, a network of experts, and a resource for tools and knowledge for policymakers.

For the World Bank, international student tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS are important indicators of the quality of education in Arab countries. For example, in its 2013 report, Jobs for Shared Prosperity: Time for Action in the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank noted that “the quality of learning in MENA [Middle East and North Africa] as measured by international standardized tests … is still below the level expected given MENA countries’ per capita income.” Data and graphs are used to tell the story of the poor performance of these countries.

Example of how the World Bank uses data from international student assessments to report on education quality in the Arab region. Source: World Bank, 2013, p. 172.

The World Bank report says “countries must invest in assessment for learning because such investment is the foundation for meaningful and sustainable improvement in the quality of education.” The thrust of its approach is that in order to reach real improvements in educational quality, Arab nations must adopt objective and standardized measures, with schools operating under competitive market conditions. Meanwhile, other educational objectives such as equitable access and equality of educational opportunities get far less emphasis in the World Bank’s report.

The UNDP, in its 2002 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, takes quite a different approach in framing the subject of educational quality. The report sets out broad strategic directions for reforming education based on 10 key principles such as respecting the dignity of the individual; giving precedence to creativity; and improving equal educational opportunities. It proposes that strengthening the education system in the region requires actions in three areas: enhancing human capabilities; creating strong synergy between education and the socio-economic system; and formulating a program for education reform at the pan-Arab level. In this people-centered discourse, improving the quality of education is not the central objective in its strategy, but rather a tool for enhancing human capacity through the allocation of increased resources in education and the more effective use of resources. Perhaps what is most distinctive about AHDR’s approach is its emphasis on pan-Arabism and Arab cooperation. It underlines the need for Arab synergy by calling on countries to put national rivalries aside and build a cooperative framework in areas such as curriculum development, textbook production and teacher training.

We can expand on this humanistic view by adopting a social-justice approach to educational quality–that is, one that recognizes that countries vary in terms of income, poverty levels, educational opportunities and access, developmental trajectories and political economies. The social-justice approach is rooted in an understanding of the differing barriers and inequalities that groups in society face in accessing good-quality education, while at the same time opening up the space for alternative perspectives to emerge through public debate. A social-justice approach to educational quality emphasizes the complex nature of education, and of teaching and learning, and seeks to capture this complexity by drawing on multi-disciplinary viewpoints and mixing qualitative and quantitative research methods.

To achieve educational quality, we must be inclusive in our approach. If we opt for a definition of educational quality in terms of learning outcomes, as measured by international tests and rankings, then we are selecting a narrow definition. The problem with this is that it may lead to restrictive forms of policy learning that crowd out deliberation and reflection in the formulation of policy. A definition of quality in terms of learning outcomes may also limit creative thinking about fundamental problems and possibilities.

We need to ensure that our approach to educational quality captures the multidimensional and complex nature of teaching and learning, and this cannot be adequately represented by narrowly constructed approaches that rely solely on learning outcomes, cognitive tests and statistical analyses.

Dr. Clara Morgan is an assistant professor of political science at UAE University. Her research interests include the global governance of education and educational developments in the MENA region.


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