Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eroding Arabic identity?

By Carrie Sheffield

Qatari leaders are struggling to implement sweeping changes to its K-12 educational system, which faces teacher shortfalls and concerns that anglicizing the national curriculum erodes Qatar’s Arabic identity.

During an address Tuesday, we heard from Mickie Mathes, an American-trained educator and professor at Qatar University’s College of Education, who told us about Qatar’s ambitious plan to move all public schools away from Education Ministry control to independent charter control.

Dismayed by dismal test scores, Qataris in 2002 adopted the charter system (it’s called the “independent” school system because the word “charter” didn’t translate well into Arabic) after commissioning a study by the California-based RAND Corporation. The think tank came back with three alternative models: charter, voucher or a modified centralized system.

The charter model proved most attractive, and by 2004, authorities certified 12 independent schools, 21 more in 2005, and 13 in 2006. This past school year, 85 independent schools operated, and by 2011, all schools must be independently operated.

Mathes said the beauty of the new model is its curriculum flexibility and the ability of parents to choose which school is best for their children. Schools must meet minimum requirements and test scores but are given wide autonomy. And the type of person or organization who can administer a school is wide open. For example, an oil company could bid to run a school or network of schools so long as they met a basic academic threshold.

“There’s quite a bit of independence, compared to what it used to be,” said Mathes, who said the country is experiencing a shortfall of qualified teachers who meet the new standards, including new licensure requirements. “It’s a fact. They need teachers, in all areas. They are just hustling to get teachers.”

As part of the curriculum reform, math and science must be taught in English, a hurdle for many teachers who are undergoing language training from British instructors.

Qataris in our group were concerned that adopting a Western-oriented system diminishes Qataris Arabic language abilities and diminishes the Qatari identity. Mathes acknowledged students’ Arabic skills are on the decline but said the English mandate was developed from within the country.

“Don’t forget this push came from the Qatari government.,” said Mathes, associate dean for academic affairs at QU. “I think this country really wants to put out there in the global market, and they want to have a global competition. They want to have citizens and future adults and children to be in global competition, and I think that is the focal point of doing this.”

Mathes said three subjects—Arabic, Social Studies and Islamic Studies—are conducted in Arabic, and this helps maintain Qatari social cohesion.

“I don’t think they are promoting losing their identity at all,” she said. “We want really strong teachers who have a strong competency in teaching Arabic. I hope that we never lose that.”

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