Our schools aren't world class - this is what they must do:

There has been much talk recently about creating world class schools for the knowledge economy. It sounds good, but I wonder what it means

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There has been much talk recently about creating world class schools for the knowledge economy. It sounds good, but what does it mean? Knowledge economies are ones where higher-level knowledge contributes to overall economic effectiveness. Knowledge is gathered (through schooling and research) and then applied to solving problems and creating opportunities. Take Finland as an example: 40 years ago, its primary export was wood. Today, more than half its income results from high technology products - knowledge economy items.

The term "world class" needs no explanation. So, the question is: are there differences between education systems of highly successful knowledge economies and those of less successful ones? The first step is to identify the countries that have the most successful knowledge economies. This task has been done, in its way, by the World Bank's Knowledge for Development Project. It has created a Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) that ranks 142 countries on the basis of four sets of indices: knowledge, economic incentive and institutional regime, innovation, and ICT (information and communications technology).

I have also added international test scores that are more sensitive measures of what students really know. I used scores from the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a survey of 15-year-old high school students from 45 countries. And I added scores from two other international comparisons, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

The top knowledge economy countries are Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, United States, Australia Germany and the UK. To these I added five other countries not quite as high but known to have very good education systems: Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. This group of countries has a high mean KEI score of 8.93 (89 per cent). Their average KI score is slightly higher.

Then I added four Arabian Gulf countries that aspire to become knowledge economies, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Their average KEI score is 6.11 and the KI is 5.91, about 30 per cent less than the leading countries. When we examine the scores that directly reflect what students know in maths, science and reading (TIMSS, PISA & PIRLS), the advanced knowledge societies have average scores of about 540 points, with a range from 461 to 605. The Gulf countries were considerably lower, with an average of only 341 points.

Simply stated, students in the Gulf are learning much less than students in successful knowledge economies. The goal of having world class schools for a knowledge economy is far from being achieved. So what are the differences between the education systems of the best and those of the Gulf? The first key difference is the amount of time dedicated to learning as time correlates highly with student achievement. Taiwan and Korea have 222 days of schooling a year while Japan has 240 days. The UAE officially has 180 days. Further, world class schools have more than 1,100 hours of class per year while the UAE (and most other schools in the Gulf) have fewer than 900.

Teacher salaries, another significant difference, are typically 1.5 to two times the per capita GNP in high countries. In the UAE, they are well below per capita GNP. So teacher salaries must be increased and related to student learning. The world class standard for assessing student achievement is to have national testing, with learning in at least one primary and two secondary years being evaluated. Knowing exactly what students are learning helps teachers, students and parents to increase their motivation and better their efforts. The UAE does not yet have a national testing system, while Qatar recently developed a very good system.

In order to achieve world class schools, the UAE must do several things including significantly improving the quality of the curriculum and resource materials in maths, science and English and other subjects. Fortunately, on the issue of the curriculum, the Ministry of Education seems to be making much progress. Then, the system must have a curriculum-based nationwide student achievement evaluation system. Again, it appears that the Ministry has this in mind and is moving toward implementation.

The crucial issue of time spent learning, though, has yet to be tackled. One thousand hours of high quality class time should be the goal, with qualified teachers who teach students to learn, think and apply their knowledge, not simply memorise information. Rote memorisation must give way to active participation and logical thinking for problem-solving. That takes us back to teacher qualifications. It is known that many teachers in the UAE do not have the qualifications required for a high quality system. That has to change.

Improved curriculum, greatly improved teaching methodology, longer school hours, better trained and better paid teachers, principals with leadership skills, and constant and consistent student achievement evaluation: these are the steps that must be taken if the UAE (and the region) is to have world class schools for a knowledge economy. Dr Clifton Chadwick is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education, British University of Dubai