June 12, 2013

(WNN/OD) Amman, JORDAN, WESTERN ASIA: Having no significant natural resources like our neighbors in the Gulf, and no coastline like Mediterranean countries, Jordan has always seemed intentionally delineated to be void of natural wealth. At times, this has been more of a blessing than a curse. Either way, in 2002 King Abdullah II realized that unless a petroleum reserve was to be discovered under Petra, his country needed an economic plan. He shortly announced his intention to transition Jordan’s work force into a “knowledge economy”, to keep up with the changing demands of a changing world, and partnered with US AID to do so. The program was calledEducation Reform for Knowledge Economy, “ERfKE”.

Dalal Salameh, an ex-teacher writing for the blog 7iber, states that, “theoretically, these plans sought to change the traditional teaching methods based on memorizing and indoctrination, and apply new methods to enhance skills like analysis and creativity, making the student a partner in learning rather than a passive recipient.” Prospects were bright, and there was a push to reform all levels of education quality. ERfKE sought to introduce a kindergarten year to compulsory education, engage parents, and improve material school conditions comprehensively with a special focus on low-income areas.

On paper, the initiative was a triumph. Last year the Jordan Times announced “Jordan slashes illiteracy rate tenfold over 50 years”. The statistics put Jordan close to the top of Middle Eastern nations in terms of enrollment rates and literacy rates- for women as well as for men. But in practice, things have proven to be very different.

Public schools are run in two shifts, and teachers report classrooms overflowing with pupils, few supplies, and outdated materials for both. Curricula are old and outdated. Educators are not held accountable for corporeal punishment and have not been taught how to instruct in this new style. When ERfKE started a top-down implementation of a more inductive approach to learning, grades plummeted and people quickly grew suspicious of the foreign money. In the field, teachers tell tales of students up to the middle school years who are illiterate or show negligibly poor reading and writing skills. ERfKE’s $315 million investment into Jordan’s education sector yielded some results, but has not been the modernizing metamorphosis it set out to be So where is the disparity between the statistics and the classroom? Industry professionals say that literacy has been conflated with enrollment. Quantity has been prioritized over quality. The further from the capital one moves, the worse teaching conditions get.

“Tawjihi”, my direction, is the Jordanian equivalent of the International Baccalaureate (IB). It takes up the last two years of high school and allows students to choose between a scientific, literary, and vocational specialization track. Tawjihi started in the mid twentieth century, and has hardly undergone serious reform since. At the beginning of Abdullah II’s reign, there was talk of scrapping Tawjihi altogether, but it was met with hard pushback from university deans who couldn’t imagine having to reform their admissions process. Tawjihi focuses on rote memorization and is a standardized government exam that is given twice a year. It also acts as an admissions process wherein students can only study specific majors based on their Tawjihi scores. At the University of Jordan, the golden standard of Jordanian higher education (but hardly even a contender for a spot on the list of the World’s Best 1000 Universities) the priorities are as follows: doctors, engineers, and pharmacists are at the top of the heap with almost perfect scores. Towards the bottom one finds theology, land, water, and environmental management, and literature.

Even if one disregards the fact that this rigid system completely ignores students’ own desires and areas of interest, it is ingraining a clear hierarchy of what skills are valued and which ones are not. This hierarchy permeates class divides and its cultural and economic ramifications can be felt in every aspect of society; Jordanians lack even one truly great author or thinker of their own. Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the entire world. The people with the lowest scores are the ones put in positions of tremendous privilege as Imams or Sheikhs of Mosques whom people turn to for guidance on extremely sensitive personal issues like sexuality, faith, and ethics.

The job market is crippled and the economy limps on with astoundingly high unemployment amongst youth (about 25-30% for men and close to 50% for women). Outside of Amman, the most coveted jobs are in the military and the government due to job permanence, short hours, and an early retirement with a sense of entitlement as the cherry on top. Menial labor is considered beneath a Jordanian to do and falls mostly on the backs of Egyptians, Filipinas, and Sri Lankans who often send the money home and out of the economy.

There is a bright side. Queen Rania’s initiative “Madrasati”, my school, has helped many struggling schools with infrastructure and cosmetic improvements. Columbia University has sponsored a teachers’ college, the results of which need time to be assessed. Women are among the top-scorers in Tawjihi and the top-graduates, but societal pressures and expectations lead them away from the job market and towards domestic duties.

Political reform is necessary, but at the end of the day everything boils down to education. The King should prioritize this above all, and everything else will inevitably follow. There is, however, a more sinister side to this equation. Many of the economic elite question whether the government and its allies truly want a country full of critical thinking, educated youths. Some believe that analysis leads to anger and then action. Has U.S. AID prioritized stability over education? For now, after-hours education-based NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) like Quest-scope must fill in the gaps where the government is unable to, and youths must use education as the liberating instrument it is; either the pen or the sword.


Munir Atalla is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin studying Middle Eastern Studies, American Studies, and Communications at Tufts University. 

Atalla, Munir. "Overflowing classrooms continue to battle illiteracy in Jordan." Women News Network, 8 June 2013. http://womennewsnetwork.net/?p=22968