Jordan education reforms make the grade, grow capacity
By Jillian Slutzker
October 15, 2014
On paper, Jordan scores an A+ in educating its population, about 42 percent of whom are under 14 years old. The kingdom offers free primary and secondary schooling, and attendance is compulsory until age 15.
Literacy levels for both males and females ages 15-24 top 99 percent. Nearly 98 percent of school-aged children attend primary school and around 88 percent go to secondary school.
Behind these impressive statistics, however, Jordan’s education system has been facing a myriad of challenges preventing students, teachers and communities from getting the most out of education.
In 2009, when Jordan’s Ministry of Education launched the Education Reform Support Program (ERSP), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, it was facing financial shortfalls, outdated infrastructure, and a lack of educational data for policy decisions,
Having already conducted multiple reform programs, the ministry encountered the challenge of institutionalizing disparate, short-term initiatives while building ministry capacity to manage long-term reform.
“On the surface things looked quite functional unlike some other countries that were starting from the ground up,” says Dr. Eileen St. George, Chief of Party for the program, which was implemented by Creative Associates International.
“What you did see once you were inside the ministry and talking with individuals was a real challenge with owning and implementing programs after the life of any given project.”
The five-year Education Reform Support Program, which built on Jordan’s ongoing Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy initiative, worked to strengthen national capacity within the Ministry of Education to implement quality education reform in four domains.
The reforms focused on early childhood education; youth, technology, and careers; professional development for teachers and leaders; and data use for decision-making in education policy.
Program staff worked hand-in-hand with ministry counterparts to ensure that achievements would be able to endure well after implementing partners were gone.
“ERSP was a pioneer, not only in its activities and implementation approach, but also in developing a Transition and Sustainability Strategy with the ministry,” said one USAID official reflecting on program successes.
Learning to love learning young
Recognizing that quality primary schooling is a building block for long-term success, the program undertook a robust effort to improve early childhood education.
The ministry’s Early Childhood Education Division was a natural and advantageous partner for this, having been a key player in both phases of Jordan’s national education reforms starting in 2003.
A push to expand access to free kindergarten, particularly in low income areas, under previous reforms had led to a surge in kindergarten enrollment. But many kindergarten classrooms and buildings lacked the proper learning tools, furniture and play equipment that can transform a regular room into a vibrant and effective learning environment for young students.
As St. George explains, getting children in school one year earlier can actually be counterproductive if the environment is not conducive to early grade education. Kindergarten should instill in children a love of learning, fostered by the school and class atmosphere.
Over its five years, the Education Reform Support Program refurbished 544 public kindergartens across the kingdom, creating brighter and better educational spaces for more than 10,000 children.
“The improvement of the learning environment has encouraged the students, especially in the early grades, to enroll in schools,” says Engineer Firyal Aqel, Head of the Development Cooperation Unit at the Ministry of Education.
As the physical environments improved, so did the quality of instruction. The program trained 2,849 kindergarten and grades one through three teachers, and nearly 2,000 school principals in better teaching practices for learners in these critical development stages.
The early childhood education component also included a significant out-of-school group of beneficiaries—parents. Parents were encouraged to engage in their children’s primary education through two avenues.
The Parent Child Package provided mothers with at-home learning tools and lessons for pre-grade one children without access to kindergarten, while the Parent Involvement Program placed parents in kindergarten and primary school classes as volunteer aides.
As a volunteer in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom in the town of Dalagha, Shtaieh Rawa learned to read and write herself at 41-years-old.
“Usually parents volunteer to support the teacher and encourage children,” said Ms. Amani Al-Ghenemat, Shtaieh’s daughter’s teacher. “Shtaieh proves that parents can also benefit, and in this case the benefit was life-long learning.”
Equipping youth for success
Shaping young minds is high priority, but, as the ministry realized, secondary school youth transitioning to universities and careers represent a demographic equally in need of targeted programming,
The Education Reform Support Program reached this group approaching important life transitions through three channels.
These included an online course to improve workforce readiness and entrepreneurial skills for eleventh graders; a School to Career initiative that offered career counseling to secondary students and parents; and a Life Skills through Sports approach that helped students develop skills like teamwork, time management and communication through athletics.
The School to Career initiative reached more than 130,000 students around the country while more than 20,000 student competed in the Life Skills through Sports leagues.
But beyond the numbers, participating kids attested to personal changes in their lives, which they attributed to their experiences.
“At our age, we rely on adults or family members to solve our problems for us,” said Gassem Al Batarneh, a 16-year-old Life Skills through Sports team member at Al Hashmiyeh Secondary School for boys in Zarqa.
“And one of the things I learned through [Life Skills through Sports] is how to make decisions, resolve conflict, and problem solving that allow me to take matters into my own hands and think maturely for myself, which is how I deal with things now.”
Training teachers and leaders for better schools
When the program launched 2009, first-time teachers entering Jordan’s public school system received only two weeks of a whirlwind onboarding process packed with information on regulations, teaching methods, classroom management and teachers’ responsibilities.
Teachers could qualify for the job with a Bachelor’s degree and were assigned to teach subjects relating to their degrees. Consequently, many new teachers were ill-prepared for the realities of teaching and managing classroom dynamics.
The program redefined the induction system for new teachers and worked with the ministry to develop and institute a more rigorous onboarding process for new teachers, including ongoing mentorship from experienced educators within their schools.
Through an equally active professional development and certification agenda for veteran educators, which trained over 12,000 teachers, principals and supervisors and incorporated performance rankings and tracking, the program transformed the learning environment for students nationwide.
“Before our teachers enrolled in the [professionals development] trainings, I was just a listener in the classroom; we were sitting there like statues,” said a 10th grade student at the Al Adaseyeh secondary school for girls in Na’our.
“After they participated in the trainings, we became more engaged and took leadership roles in our classes.”
Not only was this change evident to the students, but visitors to the schools also witnessed a transformation.
“What was interesting was that, when you visited the school the guide was no longer a teacher. When the foreigner came, the translator was a student. You saw a change in how they assigned student responsibility. And the students were talking about their potential,” says St. George, explaining the qualitative difference she experienced in Jordanian schools after training and reforms were underway.
To ensure that the successful trainings would continue beyond the life of the reform period, the program trained 475 ministry trainers over an intensive two-year capacity building process.
In 27 newly constructed USAID-funded school, more than 2,000 educators and school staff were taught best practices for using new educational facilities and tools to maximize the space and create ideal learning environments.
Educators were given their own classrooms where they could teach a single subject and personalize their environment, rather than rotating each class period as they had done previously.
Teachers self-organized into committees and took leadership on important issues including school maintenance and community engagement, which had profound effects on the community, says Aqel.
“The engagement of local communities has enhanced the [community’s] responsibility towards schools…and increased positive attitudes and ownership [of schools]…and encouraged them to support the school through different ways,” she says.
Data-driven progress for the future
With all these changes afoot and teachers, students and community members reporting a noticeable change in their schools, the ministry needed a means of systematically tracking progress and performance.
Partnering with the ministry’s Directorate of Planning, the program implemented a system-wide database that allowed educators from the school level to the ministry to access, analyze and track data on key performance indicators.
“What a conceptual leap into the importance of having schools access data and tell them their status from a comparative perspective,’ says St. George. “I think that is something that should be replicated [in other countries].”
Suddenly, with the click of a computer mouse, a small rural school could compare their students’ attendance, performance and other indicators on a field directorate and national level.
Principals could use information from within their institution to make choices about priority school improvement solutions to boost student achievement.
“Utilization of the Data in Decision-Making program has supported the decision-makers at the school level to identify challenges facing schools and students such as drop-out, absence, etc. and has encouraged them to provide various solutions and to take the right decision based on available data and information,” says Aqel.
At its fingertips, the ministry could consult countrywide statistics before making critical policy decisions that would affect student achievement throughout Jordan.
The program’s groundwork in data use provided a foundation for the ministry’s shift to an Open Education Management Information System, in close collaboration with UNESCO who would support the initiative moving forward.
At the program’s close, with more than 10,000 education professionals accessing integrated data in 3,566 schools, Jordan has the capacity to continue to direct smart and targeted education policy to sustain and build on its many accomplishments over the last five years.
With the dedication of the Ministry of Education officials and teachers nationwide, Jordan is well-positioned to keep scoring high marks.
As Mr. Muhannad Neewashi, an Arabic teacher at the Omar Bin Abdul-Aziz School in Irbid who benefited from the program said, “If we have a strong will and a little creativity, we can overcome all challenges and make a difference in our classrooms every day.”
Featured Image: Nihan Siam, Creative Associates International