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The spectacle of global tests in the Arabian Gulf: a comparison of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates

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Although scholars have examined the effects of global tests on national and regional educational governance, few researchers have studied their impact on education in the Arabian Gulf. This research fills the knowledge gap by studying the international spectacle of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS results in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – two small rich states at the periphery of knowledge production processes. I argue that an analysis of these narratives reveals how global accountability discourses are translated into the Arabian Gulf context as truth claims that performance in league tables is an accurate and objective representation of educational quality. Four themes emerge from the analysis: integration of test results into national visions; measurement of educational progress based on test results; ranking of student performance; and policy changes to improve test results. In conclusion, I suggest that the over-dependence on global tests in defining educational quality in Qatar and the UAE erodes educational sovereignty and restricts the capacity of small states to develop and nurture alternative, indigenous and localised solutions for guiding educational reforms.
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Comparative Education
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The spectacle of global tests in the Arabian Gulf: a
comparison of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates
Clara Morgan
To cite this article: Clara Morgan (2017): The spectacle of global tests in the Arabian
Gulf: a comparison of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Comparative Education, DOI:
10.1080/03050068.2017.1348018
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The spectacle of global tests in the Arabian Gulf: a comparison
of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates
*
Clara Morgan
Department of Political Science, UAE University, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates
ABSTRACT
Although scholars have examined the effects of global tests on
national and regional educational governance, few researchers
have studied their impact on education in the Arabian Gulf. This
research fills the knowledge gap by studying the international
spectacle of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS results in Qatar and the United
Arab Emirates (UAE) two small rich states at the periphery of
knowledge production processes. I argue that an analysis of these
narratives reveals how global accountability discourses are
translated into the Arabian Gulf context as truth claims that
performance in league tables is an accurate and objective
representation of educational quality. Four themes emerge from
the analysis: integration of test results into national visions;
measurement of educational progress based on test results;
ranking of student performance; and policy changes to improve
test results. In conclusion, I suggest that the over-dependence on
global tests in defining educational quality in Qatar and the UAE
erodes educational sovereignty and restricts the capacity of small
states to develop and nurture alternative, indigenous and
localised solutions for guiding educational reforms.
KEYWORDS
PISA; TIMSS; PIRLS;
international student
assessments; Qatar; UAE;
educational quality;
education policy
Introduction
International organisations (IOs), global consultancies, edu-businesses and philanthropic
organisations are playing an increasingly influential role in the comparative education
field (Au and Ferrare 2015; Auld and Morris 2016; Lingard et al. 2016). These actors contrib-
ute to the diffusion of an evidence-based education culture that legitimises the use of indi-
cators as a policy tool for education. As part of the globalisation of educational
governance, global tests are viewed as important, reliable and valid comparative indi-
cators of educational quality and of the quality of a countrys human capital formation
(Kamens 2016; Lingard et al. 2016; Meyer and Benavot 2013; Pereyra, Kotthoff, and
Cowen 2011).
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developments (OECD) Programme for
International Student Assessment (PISA) and the International Association for the Evaluation
of Educational Achievements (IEA) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Clara Morgan clara.morgan@uaeu.ac.ae; claracmorgan@gmail.com Department of Political Science, UAE
University, P.O. Box 15551, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates
*
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Gulf Studies Forum, December 57, 2015, Doha, Qatar.
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION, 2017
https://doi.org/10.1080/03050068.2017.1348018
(TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) contribute to the shift
towards universalising models of educational governance. Standardisation, high stakes
testing, national exams, numeracy and literacy focus, national standards, benchmarking
and consequential accountability characterise these universal accountability models
(Lingard and Lewis 2016; Sahlberg 2007,2010).
As part of the Global Education Reform Movement(GERM) (Adamson, Astrand, and
Darling-Hammond 2016; Sahlberg 2007,2010) or the Anglo-Saxon model of accountabil-
ity(Lingard and Lewis 2016), PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS become global signifiers(Nóvoa and
Yariv-Mashal 2003, 426) that contribute to processes of international spectacleand
mutual accountability”’ (428). Thus, as Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal (2003) elucidate, countries
(or economies) participating in global tests succumb to rules of surveillance and turn their
educational systems into public spectacles. They subject themselves to perpetual com-
parison to the otherand through this politics of mutual accountability, they can freely
choose to follow expert advice so as to reform their educational systems in order to
improve their performance and rankings on international assessments (427428). In
their quest to improve their rankings, states selectively borrow from reference societies
that score high on global tests (e.g. Finland, Shanghai, Singapore) (Steiner-Khamsi
2003). The politics of mutual accountability results in the search for quick fixes to
complex policy problems, uncritical policy borrowing and transfer (Chung 2015,2016;
Crossley 2014) and the imposition of one single perspectivethereby de-legitimis[ing]
all alternative positions(Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal 2003, 426).
Within this literature, scholars have examined how the GERM model of accountability
plays out in vernacular ways within different nations and educational systems(Lingard
et al. 2016, 6). They have studied how data accountability practices are deployed across
scales, at regional and national levels, and the contrasting reception and usesof global
tests (Carvalho and Costa 2015). Researchers have traced the international mobilities of
ideas(Cowen 2009) and their interactions in European (e.g. Bieber, Martens, and
Niemann 2014; Carvalho and Costa 2015; Ertl 2006; Ozga 2009), Australian (e.g. Gorur
and Wu 2015; Lingard 2010; Lingard et al. 2016), North American (e.g. Engel and Frizzell
2015; Lingard et al. 2016; Morgan 2015; Rutkowski 2014) and Asian contexts (e.g. Forestier
et al. 2016; Takayama 2008).
Although scholars have analysed the politics of education policy reform and policy
transfer in the Arab region,
1
they have rarely examined the GERM models manifestation
and the use of global tests in the Arabian Gulf context.
2
My paper fills this gap in the edu-
cational policy research field by examining the specific manifestation of the international
spectacle of league tables and the politics of mutual accountability in Qatar and the United
Arab Emirates (UAE) two high income smallstates (Crossley 2010; Crowards 2002) with
unique developmental trajectories (Burden-Leahy 2009; Powell 2012,2014). Qatar and the
UAE are among the worlds wealthiest
3
states (Powell 2012,2014) but are located at the
periphery of the global knowledge production process. They have deployed their
wealth in order to fast track the trajectory of their social, economic and political develop-
ment. I follow Powell (2014) in noting that Qatar and UAEs investments in education have
enabled them to compress, or leapfrog, over a number of developmental stages organ-
izational, institutional, and societal(272) to establish their current public educational
systems. In order to sustain this compressed form of development, both countries resorted
to intense borrowing and importation of educational and teaching practices, including
2C. MORGAN
importation of their educational workforce and the contracting of services and policy
advice from global consultancies, edu-businesses and organisations.
There is a strong desire among states located at the periphery of knowledge production
in achieving worthiness and belonging in the dominant strata of the global community
through their participation in the international spectacle of league tables (Shahjahan and
Morgan 2016, 94). As Crossley (2014) indicates, there is a certain prestigeassociated with
participating in global tests (18) particularly since they are believed to be the routes to
progress and social developmentfor both poor and rich countries (Kamens 2013, 118).
Both Qatar and the UAE are preoccupied with achieving high international standards.
Each round of international testing brings hopeand optimismin improved rankings
(Carvalho and Costa 2015, 644). Instead of questioning the reliability and validity of
global tests, these countries have opted to frame their educational quality goals in
terms of their success on these assessments, further entrenching themselves as global
spectacles in the horse race(Brown 1998; Kamens 2013) and leaving little room for a
different problematisation of educational quality (Crossley 2010). I argue that an analysis
of these narratives reveals how global accountability discourses are translated into the
Arabian Gulf context as truth claims that performance in league tables is an accurate
and objective representation of educational quality. The analysis helps identify what the
global accountability framing discourse foregrounds and what it eclipses, and what it
renders relevant and irrelevant in defining educational quality.
For this paper, I draw on results from a three-year research study supported by UAE Uni-
versitys Start-Up Grant that examines the effects of international student assessments in
the Arabian Gulf (20152017). The paper uses Arabic and English qualitative data derived
from content analysis of news articles and government documents from both Qatar and
the UAE, semi-structured interviews conducted with officials and experts in the UAE, and
empirical observations. The paper proceeds in the following manner: I begin with a brief
overview of the Qatari and Emirati educational systems, followed by my conceptual frame
and my methodology. I then elaborate on my findings and focus on four themes: (1) Inte-
gration of test results into national visions; (2) Measurement of educational progress based
on test results; (3) Ranking of student performance; and (4) Policy changes to improve test
results. I conclude by suggesting that the over-dependence on global tests in defining
educational quality in Qatar and the UAE erodes educational sovereignty and creates an
environment of restrictive policy learning (Hodgson and Spours 2016). Global accountabil-
ity narratives leave little room for nurturing and developing alternative, indigenous and
localised solutions for guiding educational reform that benefit students, teachers and
communities in Qatar and the UAE.
Educational governance in Qatar and the UAE
Qatar and the UAE were formed in 1971 and are relatively young states compared with
other developed and developing economies. Prior to their independence, they were
under informalBritish imperialism characterised by indirect rule rather than direct colo-
nisation (Onley 2005; von Bismarck 2013). Britains hegemony in the Arabian Gulf region
began in the 1820s via a series of treaties that protected British Indias trade routes. In
return for British protection, the rulers of the Arabian Gulf conceded not to wage war
and to allow the British to control their external relations (Davidson 2008; Onley 2005).
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 3
A Political Resident for the Persian Gulf was responsible for managing the British Empires
relations with the Arabian Gulf rulers and for protecting British interests (Onley 2005; von
Bismarck 2013). In terms of social and economic development, the British pursued a policy
of benign neglect with little investment made in schools, hospitals and social infrastruc-
ture (Davidson 2008; Heard-Bey 1999).
With the discovery of hydrocarbons, Qatar and the UAE transformed from poor, tribal
societies based on subsistence agriculture, fishing and regional maritime trade to
owners of large quantities of hydrocarbons (Tetreault 2011, 9). They invested their
incomes from oil and gas exports into building infrastructure, developing their local econ-
omies, providing for their citizenswell-being and expanding their educational systems
(Abdulla 2012; Tetreault 2011). Both countries depend on large numbers of foreign
workers for their socio-economic and infrastructural development, with Qatars migrant
population estimated to grow to 2.5 million due to the construction boom for the upcom-
ing FIFA 2022 World Cup (Gibson and Black 2015). Their local populations are relatively
small, comprising about 1115% of the total population, with the 2010 Qatari population
estimated at about 240,000 (De Bel-Air 2014) and the 2010 Emirati population at about 1
million (De Bel-Air 2015). Both countries instituted workforce nationalisation strategies
that seek to Qatarize and Emiratize their respective labour markets (Hasan 2015). Hence,
educating and equipping their citizens with knowledge and skills for the labour market
are important national development objectives.
The development of Qatar and UAEs educational systems can be organised into
three types: the kuttab schools; the semi-modern schools; and the modern schools.
Religious education was the primary method for learning in both Qatar and the UAE
and took place in kuttab schools. Students studied the Quran with a religious Imam
or the Muttawa (Davidson 2008;Kobaisi1979). In the early 1900s, local philanthropists
began to fund semi-modern schools that combined religious and non-religious (such as
the Arabic language, geography and English) curricula. Most textbooks and curricula
were borrowed from the Egyptian educational systems (Davidson 2008,635;Kobaisi
1979, 37). Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, these two small states began to expand
their educational systems by establishing modern schools. Egyptian, Jordanian, Leba-
nese, Palestinian, and Syrian teachers and principals were employed to teach and
run these schools (Kobaisi 1979). In UAEs case, Kuwait assisted in establishing its
modern schools through the Gulf Permanent Assistance Committee that was located
in Dubai. The Committee coordinated funding for financing teacherssalaries, training
local teachers, constructing new schools and establishing overseas scholarship programmes
(Davidson 2008,639).
As oil export incomes started to flow in the 1960s, Qatar and UAE invested heavily in
modernising and expanding their educational systems and in the development of their
educational bureaucracies. Once they were granted their independence, both Qatar and
UAE ensured that their Constitutions guaranteed their citizens a free education while
also underlining the role of education in contributing to their social progressand
social development. These newly formed states began to develop their own curricula
that reflected their cultural and social identities. The development of the state in Qatar
and the UAE came to be closely intertwined with the development of their respective edu-
cational systems and the universalisation of education both at the primary and secondary
levels. Qatar and the UAE continue to invest heavily in educating their citizens. For
4C. MORGAN
example, Qatars 2017 budget allocated 20.6 billion Qatari Rials (US$5.7 billion) to edu-
cation, representing 10.4% of its total spending (State Expenditure in 20172016). In its
2017 budget, the UAE allocated more than half of its spending to social services (25.2
billion Dirhams or US$6.9 billion) with general and higher education representing 20.5%
of its total budget at 10.2 billion Dirhams (US$2.8 billion) (UAE Cabinet Approves
2016). With these significant investments, Qatar and UAE leapfrogged several stages of
organisational development and educational planning in order to achieve their current
level of modernised educational quality and delivery (Powell 2014).
At the turn of the twenty-first century, we begin to see in Qatar and the UAE edu-
cational reforms that reflect trends in the global educational accountability movement.
For example, in 2001, Qatar commissioned the Rand Corporation to recommend
options for system-wide educational reforms. The three options Rand came up with
were a modified centralised model, a charter model and a voucher model. There was
no question for the Rand team that The basic educational elements of a standards-
based system had to be put in placein Qatar (Brewer et al. 2007, xviii) that was
made up of standards, curriculum, assessments, professional development, and data
use(Brewer et al. 2007, xix). The accountability framework for all three models involved
regular national and international testing to monitor student achievement.
Qatar selected the charter model for its educational reforms, which was renamed the
Independent School Model, and began to implement its reforms in 2002. The first gener-
ation of independent schools opened their doors in 2004. The model decentralised edu-
cational governance and allowed for many more schooling options(Brewer et al. 2007,
58). In order to monitor school and student performance in this decentralised system,
an evaluation system was instituted called the Qatar Student Assessment System
(QSAS) in which schools would be evaluated regularly through a set of measures, includ-
ing standardized student assessments(Brewer et al. 2007, 59). Significantly, QSAS would
also be linked to results from global tests in order to compare student performance at the
international level. As the Rand report states,
The QSAS also supports student participation in such international student assessments as the
PISA, PIRLS, and TIMSS, which will enable policymakers and the public to compare Qatari student
performance to that of students in the education systems of other nations. (Brewer et al. 2007,
157, my emphasis)
Consistent with Rands recommendations, Qatar rst participated in PISA in 2006, TIMSS in
2007 and PIRLS in 2006. It took part in the most recent round of assessments of PISA 2015;
TIMSS 2015 and PIRLS 2016.
Both countries recently reformed their educational systems. In January 2016, Qatar dis-
banded its Supreme Education Council (SEC), where educational authority had resided,
and created the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (Walker 2016). Based on
the Ministrys website information, SECs three institutes remain in operation but under
the Ministrys authority. These include the Higher Education Institute, the Education Insti-
tute and the Evaluation Institute. The Evaluation Institutes two primary roles are to
monitor school performance and provide information to parents and other decision-
makers on the extent to which schools are fulfilling their roles. Students attend three
types of schools in Qatar: government-funded schools called independent schools,
semi-independent schools and private schools.
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 5
The UAE government is attentive to ensuring that schools in one emirate are of the
same standard as schools in another(UAE Budget Prioritises2015). As a federal state,
authority over education is divided between the national government and the emirates.
Three major bodies are involved in UAEs education sector: the Ministry of Education,
which has full jurisdiction over the northern emirates of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah,
Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain while also managing the public schools in the
Emirate of Dubai; the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which governs both public
and private schools in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi; and Dubais Knowledge and Human
Development Authority, which governs private schools in the Emirate of Dubai (KHDA)
(Ruban 2012). In February 2016, the UAE Cabinet instituted the largest structural change
to the education sector in its history, establishing a Supreme Council for Education, the
Youth Council and the Council of UAE Scientists. The Cabinet also added two new minis-
ters to the education portfolio: a Minister of State for General Education and a Minister of
State for Higher Education (Khalifa Approves2016).
Evaluation and assessment functions for public and private schools are carried out by
the Ministry of Education, ADEC and KHDA. Educational governance across these three
authorities involves monitoring educational quality with the use of inspections, national
exams and global tests and closely resembles the characteristics of the GERM model
(Morgan and Ibrahim 2017). Recently, these entities released a unified approach for eval-
uating schools aimed at achieving the educational goals of UAEs 2021 national vision
(KHDA, ACTVET, ADEC, and Ministry of Education 2015). As I will discuss later, the national
vision benchmarks educational outcomes to specific rankings on PISA and TIMSS. The UAE
first participated in PISA in 2009 through Dubais involvement, with the rest of the Emirates
participating in 2010 in a PISA round called PISA 2009+ (Ministry of Education 2013). The
UAE also participated in PISA 2012 and 2015. Dubai participated in TIMSS in 2007 as a
benchmarking participant. The UAE participated in TIMSS 2011 and 2015 and PIRLS
2011 and 2016. All three educational authorities in the UAE have integrated educational
outcomes from global tests as part of the evaluation of their educational systems.
Conceptual frame and methodology
In analyzing the translation of global educational accountability discourses in the Arabian
Gulf context, I examine how truth effects inform, influence and constrain educational
policy production processes. Policy-makers value the knowledge produced by technical
and scientific discourses, especially in an era of evidence-based policy-making (Auld
and Morris 2016; Biesta 2007; Shahjahan 2011). Truth claims emanating from quantitative
and statistical analysis of student assessments are viewed as valid, reliable, accurate and
objective indicators of school performance.
The power of discourse lies in its capacity to create categories, to narrow or constrain
knowledge, and to privilege certain ideas and norms (Bacchi 2000; Ball 1990; Foucault
1980). By drawing on a policy as discourse approach, I trace how data-driven educational
quality discursive practices can influence educational policy narratives in Qatar and the
UAE. The policy as discourse approach examines how policy is constructed in terms of pro-
blems and solutions (Bacchi 2000, 48). The analysis is attentive to discursive practices that
foreground certain ideas, facts, truths and categories during policy-making processes,
even as they marginalise others (Ball 1990; Saarinen and Ursin 2012; Snow 2004).
6C. MORGAN
By examining the process of meaning construction, I trace how discourse is produced
and how truth effects are deployed in the policy production process in countries that have
integrated external referencing processes by relying on global tests as benchmarks and by
borrowing best practices from high achieving reference societies (Steiner-Khamsi 2003).
The concept of framingcaptures processes through which dominant actors produce
frames of meaning to gain support for a particular policy approach, problem or solution
(Fiss and Hirsch 2005; Saraisky 2015). The term framing alignmentis useful as it reflects
how those who produce the frames gain support or adherents (Saraisky 2015; Williams
2004). For example, the OECD produces certain narratives about the importance of
measuring educational quality, which then are used by states as authoritative frames for
aligning their own educational policies and reforms (Juillet 2007). I seek to understand
how actors influence interpretations of educational realities among various audiences
(Fiss and Hirsch 2005, 30), particularly audiences located at the periphery of knowledge
production, and how consensus is produced through such processes (Williams 2004). I
examine processes of framing and framing alignment to show how truth effects are pro-
duced that legitimise the adoption of the GERM model and global tests as signifiers of edu-
cational progress. By tracing the discursive effects of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS in institutional
and media discourses, I illustrate how these results construct the meaning of educational
quality in Qatar and the UAE while also rendering these societies susceptible to rules of
surveillance that turn their educational systems into public spectacles within a broader
process of the politics of mutual accountability.
Methodological considerations
The empirical material contained here comes from three Arabic and English sources: news
articles, government policy documents, and interview data with government officials and
experts in the UAE. Given that I was unable to secure permission to conduct interviews in
Qatar, I rely mainly on analyses of news articles that are supplemented with evidence from
government documents. Where relevant, I draw on 11 interviews I conducted with officials
and experts with the UAE Ministry of Education, ADEC and KHDA that took place from May
2015 to May 2016.
My primary source for data collection is news articles published in Qatar and the UAE.
Rugh (2004) describes the print media in these states as loyalist pressbecause it is loyal
and supportive of the regime in power despite private ownership (59). The news content
of the loyalist press can be described as uniform particularly with regards to important
issues. Its overall tone is passive and it has a tendency to be more muted in its commen-
taries than, for example, the Western press (Rugh 2004, 66). Although the loyalist press
supports the government on all essential matters (Rugh 2004, 65), it does criticise govern-
ment services such as health, labour and education (68, 70). In this respect, the loyalist
press provides a good reflection of government discourses on important initiatives and
policies. This is reaffirmed in my interviews with government officials whose narratives
were consistent with what was being reported in news content.
Key newspapers included two English and two Arabic news sources for each country:
Khaleej Times,Gulf News,Doha News and Gulf Times for my English news sources and Al
Bayan, Al Ittihad, Al Raya and Al Watan for my Arabic news sources (see Table 1). I collected
domestic news articles from the on-line Arabic news websites and for Doha News.
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 7
I searched the Pro Quest Central database for news articles in the English news media of
Gulf Times,Gulf News and Khaleej Times. I used the keywords of PISA,TIMSSand PIRLSfor
my searches and collected articles from January 2008 to January 2016 that discussed the
preparation and implementation of the assessments and student performance on these
tests.
I also did a search using the keywords education + quality + schools + [country]and
selected articles that discussed the national vision, educational performance, standards
and evaluation in K-12 education. These articles helped provide an understanding of
overall educational policy directions in both countries. Table 1 provides details on news
sources, circulation and readership numbers and number of articles used for the analysis
from PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS keyword searches.
I scanned the news articles and selected those articles that discussed assessment
implementation, policy development in relation to these assessments and assessment
results. Excerpts from each article were organised into tables and each excerpt was
assigned a theme. Where relevant I examined government documents that outlined the
future development visions of Qatar and the UAE and that highlighted education and
human capital formation as important targets for national development. I collected docu-
ments from educational authorities such as Qatars Supreme Education Council and the
UAEs Ministry of Education, ADEC and KHDA that discussed the implementation of
certain educational policy and evaluation strategies. I also browsed the educational auth-
oritieswebsites to identify documents that reported on global tests.
All Arabic text selected as evidence for this paper was translated with the assistance of
students from UAE University enrolled in translation studies. I identified patterns and regu-
larities across the data I collected and found themes that overlapped across news articles,
government documents, interviews and empirical observations (Bogdan and Biklen 1992).
Based on the analysis of the descriptive data, I identified four themes that aligned with
global discourses of educational accountability that I will discuss in the next section.
International student assessment discourses in Qatar and the UAE
The evidence reveals the ways in which global accountability discourses are translated into
Qatar and UAEs local contexts. The data are organised into four broad themes: integration
of test results into national visions; measurement of educational progress based on test
Table 1. News sources and number of articles collected.
News source Frequency Circulation
a
No. of articles PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS
QATAR
Al Raya (Arabic) Daily 36,500 (2015) 21
Al Watan (Arabic) Daily 25,000 (2015) 48
Doha News (English) On-line news 500,000 unique users/month (2015) 8
Gulf Times (English) Daily 32,000 (2015) 5
UAE
Al Khaleej (Arabic) Daily 123,166 (2015) 78
Al Ittihad (Arabic) Daily 109,640 (2013)
b
44
Gulf News (English) Daily 107,778 (2015) 31
Khaleej Times (English) Daily 93,000 (2015) 18
a
There are no official media circulation numbers in Qatar and the UAE. The author was able to obtain most of the 2015
circulation/distribution numbers by contacting the circulation mangers for each media source.
b
This circulation number was obtained from Wikipedia.
8C. MORGAN
results; ranking student performance; and policy changes to improve test results. Table 2
maps the global educational accountability discourses that are translated into local narra-
tives of educational quality.
(1) Assessment results and national visions
Both Qatar and the UAE adopted national visions that emphasise the importance of edu-
cation in attaining national development objectives and in fulfilling the needs of the
labour market. A key aspect of Qatars National Vision (QNV) for 2030 is human develop-
ment. According to the Government of Qatars website, the QNV aims to develop an edu-
cational system at par with the highest international standards, preparing Qatars students
to take on the worlds challenges and become tomorrows innovators, entrepreneurs,
artists and professionals. Raising the achievement of Qatari students, especially in math-
ematics, science and English, is one of the key challenges highlighted in Qatars national
20112016 strategy (Qatar General Secretariat for Development Planning 2011, 26). PISA is
used as one of the performance indicators for measuring human development outcomes
along with tertiary school enrolment and adult literacy rates (Qatar General Secretariat for
Development Planning 2011, 349). As SEC indicated in a meeting that aims to improve
results on TIMSS 2015, PISA 2015 and PIRLS 2016 under the slogan to reserve our place
among the distinguished, these assessments provide the international standards for an
education system that supports QNV 2030 (Raslan 2014). Qatars vision also highlights
the importance of traditions and cultural heritage and innovation and creativity.
However, given that these worthy educational goals cannot be accurately measured,
countries gravitate towards what can be countedin international tests.
As the UAE announces on its government website, its National Vision for 2021 is to
develop a first-rate education system. To achieve this goal, the vision indicates that a
complete transformation of the current education system and teaching methodsis
required. One of the targets is to ensure UAE students rank among the best in the
world in reading, mathematics and science exams. Performance indicators for achieving
these targets include increasing UAEs rank as one of the top 15 countries on TIMSS
and among the top 20 countries on PISA. The Ministry of Education, ADEC and KHDA
are responsible for translating these targets into policy action and implementation in
schools. For example, the Ministry of Education developed a framework for achieving
these targets and created a planning team dedicated to raising student performance at
the school level (Ibrahim 2014). Similarly, KHDA instituted a plan to raise international
test scores to meet the national visions benchmarks. The following text captures how
this process will unfold:
Table 2. Mapping global educational accountability discourses.
Global educational discourse Local translation in Qatar/UAE
Benchmarking is a good governance practice. Integration of test results into national visions.
Test results are reliable indicators for informing policy choices and as
measures of educational quality.
Measurement of educational progress is based
on test results.
External referencing that point to top-ranked countries as having
achieved educational excellence.
Ranking of student performance against other
countries/regions.
Each test cycle should inform future innovations and educational
reforms.
Policy changes and reforms to improve test
results.
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 9
Meeting these rankings by 2021 is an ambitious goal for UAE schools that are currently ranked
below the international average of 500. To fulfil the national agenda goals the students must
rank 520 in all the subjects of the PISA exams. While to fulfil the UAE national agenda, grade
eight students must score 510 and grade four students must score 530 in TIMSS (Dubai Prin-
cipals Meet2015).
Specific scores are being set for the students who will participate in the next three PISA
rounds in 2015, 2018 and 2021 (Ibrahim 2014). As a private consultant in the UAE noted in
an interview, these benchmarks are a shot in the armfor boosting performance. The
Director-General of KHDA reaffirms this perspective by stating, we have been witnessing
linear progress, what we need to meet this target is an exponential growth(Nazzal 2014a).
In other words, the UAE has not been moving fast enough to attain its desired
benchmarks.
It is not surprising that Qatar and the UAE have adopted global tests as benchmarks for
measuring their educational systemsperformance. As a senior expert told me, there is a
tendency to over-borrowand over benchmarkin the Arabian Gulf. Educational bench-
marking is reinforced as a good governance practice by the OECD. For example,
Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Edu-
cation Policy to the Secretary-General, notes that international educational comparative
benchmarking has become a powerful instrument for policy reform and transformational
change(Schleicher 2009, 99) and may at times be more powerful for reform than legis-
lation, rules and regulations(Schleicher 2009, 100). In fact, he encourages the use of com-
parative benchmarking for governing educational systems because it sheds light on the
differences on which reform efforts can then capitalize(Schleicher 2009,99100). By
adopting a benchmarking approach to educational progress, Qatari and Emirati policy-
makers align their frames to the OECDs authoritative narrative. In this way, the OECD
gains support for its policy prescriptions and consensus is produced through framing
alignment processes. What is problematic is that the benchmark itself becomes the reg-
ulating rule, obliging everyone to refer back to it(Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal 2003, 429).
Such an approach to educational policy-making leaves little room for small states such
as Qatar and the UAE to experiment, deliberate and explore alternative problematisations
and solutions to educational issues since all policies become wedded to and constrained
by the benchmark.
(2) Educational progress: measuring the success of educational reforms
A second theme that emerges from the analysis is a preoccupation with achieving edu-
cational progress. Both countries have implemented significant educational reforms,
and international student assessments are important indicators for gauging the success
of these reforms and for informing future reforms. The assessments represent inter-
national educational standards against which these two countries can benchmark,
monitor and evaluate their performance. Measuring the progress of educational reforms
involves monitoring improvements in learning outcomes by comparing TIMSS results
every four years, PIRLS results every five years and PISA results every three years. Edu-
cational progress is equated with improvements on international tests whereas edu-
cational regress is associated with either lack of score improvement or deterioration in
scores.
10 C. MORGAN
A culture of assessment is at the centre of Qatars educational reforms (Nagi and Alsaadi
2012). Qatars Minister of Education and Higher Education indicated recently that there will
be increased emphasis on the quality of education, with a focus on studentsresults (Min-
ister Lays Stress2015). In Qatars case, the results of international student assessments
informed a significant educational reform: changing the language of instruction in Inde-
pendent schools from English to Arabic (UNESCO 2015). Qatars Director of the Evaluation
Institute noted that Qatars students have performed well compared to previous [PISA]
exams and it shows a symbolic improvement in their performances(Qatar Students
2013). Qatars policy-makers monitor the precise improvement in scores which translates
into evidence of educational progress in reading, mathematics and science and contrib-
utes to a total quality perspective(Hafiz 2012). As the Director of Evaluation noted,
the Qatari fourth grade students have also marked progress from 2007 to 2011 by scoring 100
points, which is the highest progress result among the worlds participating countries. Qatar
was ranked 8th in Science for 2011 compared to the 2007 edition. (SEC Honors2013)
These results are also reported in Qatars 2015 Education for All National Review Report as
indicative of the achievement of educational quality goals. For example, the report noted
that Qatari students made remarkable progress in PISA scores between 2006 and 2012;
they scored 76 points higher in reading, 58 points higher in mathematics and 35 points
higher in science (SEC 2014, 138). According to a senior SEC ofcial, improvements on
these international tests provide an indicator of the degree of educational progress as
well as information on how to attain the desired quality (Aljaaberi 2013). Based on this evi-
dence, Qatars decision-makers and policy-makers carefully monitor student score
improvements on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS as they are deemed to reect objective, accurate
and valid measures of educational progress and quality.
In the UAE, international student test results provide a mechanism for tracking progress
towards creating one of the most advanced [educational] systemsin the world and for
identifying strengths and weaknesses in student performance (Alemarat aluwla2012).
The UAE Minister of Education noted that, these tests are important as they act as indi-
cators that reinforce the ministrys efforts and help in creating policies aimed at develop-
ing the education sector(Nazzal 2013a). Another senior ministry official informed parents
that the tests provide decision makers in the ministry with information about the quality
of education in the state, so they can take appropriate development decisions(Ziarat
maydaniat2015). The official noted that the assessments are used to develop education;
to upgrade educational strategy; keep up with change; also [they are] important to under-
stand studentsskills and knowledge(Ziarat maydaniat2015). In preparation for PISA
2015, ADECs Director General emphasised the importance of participating in the assess-
ment as it, will help generate accurate and updated information on achievement levels
thus leading to implementing best practices(Over 4,000 Abu Dhabi2015). When PISA
2012 results were released, the UAE Minister of Education noted that the UAE had
improved its educational performance: The results this year were remarkable, we were
able to see tangible improvements in the students performance in comparison to PISA
2009, as the UAE was one of the only six countries to show a big improvement in
scores(Nazzal 2013b). Commenting on UAEs poor results on international student assess-
ments, a senior UAE Ministry of Education official underlined the progress that is still to be
made by UAEseducation sector in order to become a top-performing country by 2021
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 11
(Al Khan 2014). The domestic discourse reflects policy-makersexpectations of continuous
improvements in test results with each test cycle. These tests results become important
symbols of educational progress and provide an authoritative framing for rationalising
educational reforms particularly for developing states such as Qatar and the UAE that
are eager to reach high standards of educational achievement.
The above narratives demonstrate that the knowledge produced from analyzing inter-
national test results becomes the bedrock of policy implemented to reform schools. Dom-
estic discourses are aligned with global IO discourses which claim that test results are
reliable indicators for informing policy choices and as measures of educational quality
(e.g. World Bank 2008,2013). As one of the World Banks experts at an education research
initiative in Dubai emphasised, the quality of education has a direct impact on a countrys
GDP with one-point improvement in studentsperformance in reading and mathematics
linked to 2 per cent increase in annual GDP(Private Schools2012). While on a visit to
the UAE in 2015, Andreas Schleicher indicated that the UAE will be among the top perfor-
mers in education(UAE on Right Track2015). Schleicher emphasised the use of global
benchmarks for informing educational reform, noting that the benchmark for educational
success is no longer merely improvement by local or national standards, but the best per-
forming education systems internationally(UAE on Right Track2015).
It is difficult for countries located at the periphery of knowledge production to resist
these truth claims that are disseminated by dominant actors in global educational govern-
ance. Thus, Qatari and Emirati policy-makers align the framing of their educational policy
narratives with authoritative discourses produced by the OECD and the World Bank. As
Goldstein and Moss (2014) point out, governments bring their system data into line with
OECD advice(260). As these countries strive to catch upto high-performing countries,
they adopt measures of performance on student tests which become proxies of educational
quality. Qatar and the UAE become trapped in the politics of mutual accountability. They are
exposed to the spectacle of global tests and are forced to continuously measure their pro-
gress each time they participate in one of these international assessments.
What global test results cannot capture are the societal, historical, economic, cultural
and institutional conditions in which teaching and learning take place. As Phillips (1989)
cautions, Outcomes themselves should not be seen in isolation from the processes that
have produced them(269). Education is a complex phenomenon and studentsperform-
ance on science, mathematics, or reading cannot fully reflect the educational experiences
of teachers and students, the breadth of the curriculum, and the institutional variability
and each schools unique organisational culture (Tyack and Cuban 1995). Given that
these global educational accountability narratives play a determining role in how edu-
cation is to be interpreted, constructed and assembled in the national context (Sobe
and Kowalczyk 2014), Qatar and the UAE will need to resist the increasing hegemony
of a positivist global discourse of educational research and policy-making(Vulliamy
2004, 277; cited in Crossley 2010) in order to construct a localised and indigenous under-
standing of educational quality.
(3) Comparing student performance: rankings and the horse race
A third theme that emerges from the analysis is rankings. The narrative on PISA, TIMSS
and PIRLS compares Qatari and Emirati student results to those of other countries in
12 C. MORGAN
the region. This process of comparison results in ranking Arab countries and assigning
winners and losers in this global horse race. Policy-makers indicate that their interest in
these student assessments is to be able to examine other educational systems for best
practices, thus bringing about a more improved education policy on a nation-wide
level(TIMSS 2015 Places2015). However, the media is interested in sensationalising
test results and prefers to report on each countrys place on the league tables. For
example, when PISA 2012 results were released in December 2013, the media reported
that:
Students in Qatar have once again underperformed in the latest Program for International
Assessment (PISA) figures []. In math, some 70 percent of students who took the test
were ranked low achievers. Qatar clocked a mean score of 376 in this category, while the
global average was 494 though thats a nine-point improvement from last year, according
to the report. The UAE, in comparison, had a mean math score of 434, and globally ranked
47th. Qatar was 62nd. (Khatri 2013)
The decit language deployed by the media (e.g. underperformed,low achievers)
reinforces the metaphor of the horse race. Countries compete to achieve better results
on these international tests, which forces Ministries of Education to react by instituting
reforms (Takayama 2008).
The rankings of Arab countries is a favourite topic in the regional media. Both UAEsAl
Khaleej and Khaleej Times reported on UAEs superior performance relative to other
countries in the region. Al Khaleej noted the superiority of the UAE students to students
from Jordan, Tunisia, and Qatar(Abdullah 2012) and Khaleej Times indicated that the
UAE scored the highest in the region ahead of Qatar, Jordan and Tunisia(Shabandri
2012). At the same time, these articles noted that UAEs performance is below the inter-
national average which is a cause of worry for educational authorities(Shabandri
2012). The media constantly compare the performance of Qatar and the UAE given that
they are the only Arab Gulf countries participating in PISA. For example, Doha News
reported that In the most recent PISA scores, Qatar came behind the UAE The Emirates
ranked 47th overall in Maths, 46th in Science and 48th in Reading(Scott 2016). These
news items rarely include an analysis of the data but serve to contribute to processes of
international spectacle with states such as Qatar and the UAE succumbing to rules of sur-
veillance of their educational systems.
It is not surprising that these media discourses are being deployed domestically since
rankings are used as evidence by global actors such as the World Bank to inform policy
advice. For example, in its 2013 report, Jobs for Shared Prosperity. Time for Action in the
Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank draws on PISA and TIMSS data for its analysis.
It notes that learning outcomes are particularly poor in the Gulf countries, given their high
rates of economic developmentand goes on to say that Qatar and the UAE performed
significantly worse [on PISA and TIMSS] compared with countries with similar levels of
income(World Bank 2013, 170). Thus, the World Banks authoritative discourse rooted
in rankingsis aligned and replicated at the regional and national level.
League table rankings influence countries in their selection and adoption of certain
kinds of educational reforms that mimic the performance of top-performing countries
(Waldow, Takayama, and Sung 2014). As Waldow, Takayama, and Sung (2014) note,
achieving a high position has become the hallmark of educational excellence(302).
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 13
This type of framing alignment takes place through the publication of PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS
results and the subsequent use of these results to inform policy advice and the adoption of
best practices from reference societies. Such discursive practices assume that a school that
works in Finland or Singapore will work just as well in Qatar and the UAE. Thus, the search
for best practices”…is built on an optimistic faith that a school is a school is a school”’
(Kamens 2013, 130). At the same time, these framing alignments restrict a societys vision
by eclipsing or devaluing other potential reforms that may come from its own internal
policy evaluation and review processes or from consultations with teachers, parents and
students.
(4) Interventions and policy change: improving test results
The final theme that emerged from the analysis is policy change to improve test results.
Domestic narratives identified factors that could be fixedin order to improve students
poor performance. The media reported on several key factors including differences in cur-
ricula in private and public schools, teacher quality, and student motivation and incentive
to participate in these assessments.
Media reports regularly highlight public schoolspoor performance on international
assessments relative to private schools. The UAE public school curriculum was blamed
for poor learning outcomes when TIMSS 2007 and 2011 results were released. A news
article indicated that when grade four and eight pupils were measured against inter-
national averages it was found that students in public schools that follow the national
curriculum, were under-performing(Ahmed 2009a). Another article by the same repor-
ter noted that Almost half the students following the National Curriculum failed to
reach the low international benchmark in Maths, in both grades [4 and 8](Ahmed
2009b). In contrast, private schools teaching the International Baccalaureate, the
British curriculum and the Indian curriculum were identified as high performing on
international test results (Shabandri 2012). With the release of TIMSS and PISA 2015,
KHDA reported to the media that Dubais private schoolsperformance was on track
in meeting the UAEs TIMSS and PISA benchmarks. Media reports noted that in
TIMSS 2015,itwas on par with schools in the top 15 high-performing countries,
which is a 2021 targetand in PISA 2015, Dubai private schools have performed
similar to schools in the top 20 countries in reading and in science another 2021
target(Masudi 2017). This narrative pits public schools against private schools
thereby turning both systems into public spectacles and entangling them in the politics
of mutual accountability.
Similarly, in Qatar, the media reported that Qatars private school students had the
biggest advantage over their state peers, with a 108-point differentialand that state-edu-
cated children were three years behind their private schools peers in math ability(Walker
2015). The articles mobilise evidencein the form of test results to support curricular
reform. For example, the UAE Minister of Education noted in 2009 that The curricula at
national schools will be overhauled with the introduction of advanced scientific and
knowledge based learning to stimulate young minds(Ahmed 2009a). In addition, the Min-
istry of Education has linked new curricula to international test requirements (Al Khan
2014). The results from international student assessments instigated policy change and
influenced the direction of educational reforms.
14 C. MORGAN
Domestic and global narratives emphasise the role of teachers in improving learning
outcomes on international student assessments. For example, Barbara Ischinger, Director
of OECDs Education and Skills, stated that teachers were key to better assessment ranking:
If the UAE wants to rank better it should focus on training teachers and raise their prestige
among society. PISA did an assessment to see what will improve outcomes and found that
this is very important(Nazzal 2014b). The Ministry of Educations analysis, which con-
verged with OECD analysis, revealed that The majority of teachers in UAE public
schools do not have qualifications or degrees in education, which causes some students
to have a higher level of performance than others(Nazzal 2013a). Qatar has likewise ident-
ified teachersshortcomings as a site of intervention. The media reported that Qatars
Supreme Education Council launched a training programme for teachers the Teach
for Qatar programme to address this problem and has put in place professional devel-
opment courses to raise and maintain teachersskills levels (Walker 2015). In this example,
the OECD and domestic actors are aligned in their framing of poor teacher quality as a
factor that contributes to low rankings. This particular frame associates improvements
in teacher quality with improvements in rankings on PISA.
Other media reports in Qatar and the UAE attributed poor performance on assessments
to lack of school, teacher and student preparation and to studentslack of motivation and
lack of incentives to test well. Qatar implemented several training workshops for schools
and teachers on the 2015 PISA and TIMSS assessments. Regular bulletins sent to schools
provided examples of how to integrate test questions into lessons. Sample questions from
the assessments were also posted on line for both teacher and student use (Alikhtabarat
al duwalia2013). Qatar motivated students to participate in international tests by organ-
ising Knowledge Olympics, competitions between schools in which winners received
cash prizes (Said 2010). In preparation for the 2015 PISA and TIMSS tests, UAE senior Min-
istry of Education officials emphasised the need to incentivise students to test well. They
tried to instill national pride in the student population, casting the tests as symbolic of
national achievement (Al Khan 2014). Other incentives saw students receiving certificates
of appreciation for their participation in TIMSS and PISA in the UAE. Qatar publicly praised
schools that achieved high test scores or demonstrated significant improvements of 100
points or above previous scores (SEC Honors2013). A societys desire to become part of a
prestigious community of nations is instilled in its citizens who are participating in these
assessments. Participation in PISA or TIMSS becomes a badge of good citizenship’–‘signal
[ing]to others that the given country and its elite were ready to participate in standard
rituals of nationhood in an international community in which assessment had become a
major ritual of rationality(Kamens 2013, 126).
Discursive practices of fixingproblems are translated into governance practices
through the implementation of performance indicators for each school. For example,
Qatar posts an annual school report card on the SEC website. One of the categories on
the report card is the schoolsperformance on international tests. The schools perform-
ance is compared to that of other participating countries as well as to other schools in
Qatar, as shown here in Figure 1.
However, these PISA scores provide little guidance on teaching and learning that takes
place in the school. The report neither provides an explanation of the comparative data
nor does it chart a course forward. It is difficult to glean how these global test results
can contribute in a meaningful way to educational quality and educational improvement.
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 15
The search for causes, fixes and solutions to poor performance on student assessments
results in sudden policy changes that are not conducive to improving teaching and learn-
ing in schools. For example, UAEs PISA 2015 results were reported as disappointingwith
experts pointing to several reasons for poor results such as studentsslow reading abilities
and teacher empowerment. Andreas Schleicher was quoted saying it was too earlyto see
the results of UAEs educational reforms but he also indicated that in order for the UAE to
improve its results, a relentless focus on teaching will be key(Pennington 2016). Given the
tendency for quick fixes in response to global tests results, educational authorities may
react to these disappointingresults by implementing a new set of reforms. As one
media report in Qatar noted, principals complained of continuous and sudden
changes[]arush to get results”’ (Paschyn 2013). The constant search for innovation
and improvement is aligned with Andreas Schleichers policy advice that Success will
go to those individuals and nations that are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open
to change(UAE on Right Track2015). Instilled in this faithin numbers as authoritative
indicators of educational quality is the misguided belief that somehow these short-term
policy fixes will magically cure the educational systems problems (Kamens 2013, 133,
my emphasis).
Conclusion
This paper examined the discursive effects of international student assessments in
national settings with a focus on two countries in the Arabian Gulf: Qatar and the UAE. I
showed how truth claims made by dominant actors influence educational policy pro-
duction processes in small states at the periphery of knowledge production. My analysis
revealed four themes through discursive policy effects of framing and framing alignment
takes place: (1) Integration of test results into national visions, which is aligned with global
discourses that emphasise good governance benchmarking practices; (2) Measurement of
educational progress based on test results, which is aligned with narratives that point to
test results as reliable indicators for informing policy choices and as measures of edu-
cational quality; (3) Ranking of student performance, which is aligned with discourses
that point to top-ranked countries as having achieved educational excellence; and (4)
Policy changes to improve test results, which is aligned with narratives that each test
cycle should inform future innovations and educational reforms.
Figure 1. Example of a Qatari school report card. Source: Bitaqat taqrir aladaalmadrasi lilam aldirasi
2015/2016 [School Report Card for Academic Year 2015/2016]. Doha: Supreme Education Council.
http://www.sec.gov.qa/En/ServicesCenter/Pages/QatariSchoolsListing.aspx.
16 C. MORGAN
The evidence in this paper suggests that Qatar and the UAE have transferred and
translated global accountability discourses as authoritative guiding practices for reform-
ing their educational systems. In particular, small states at the periphery of knowledge
production processes are susceptible to global educational narratives and risk losing
their educational sovereignty in pursuit of international standards as they succumb to
the spectacle of global tests and the politics of mutual accountability. As Assié-
Lumumba (2017) notes, the pursuit of educational progress through uncritical policy
transfer is a mirage. Educational progress can truly take place if developing states
assert their power in creating solutions that are indigenous to their communities,
societies and histories (Assié-Lumumba 2017, 11). Qatar and UAEs over-dependence
on global tests in defining educational quality erodes their educational sovereignty
and restricts their capacity as small states to develop and nurture alternative, indigenous
and localised solutions for guiding educational reform in order to benefit their students,
teachers and communities.
More research needs to be conducted in the region in order to enlarge and diversify the
conceptualisation of educational quality and nurture the production of indigenous policy
practices and discourses other than the ones proffered by IOs, global consultancies, edu-
businesses and experts. The reality is that the glocalization (Powell 2014; Robertson 1995)
or the hybridization of the global with the local (Robertson 1995) of these educational prac-
tices and policies are mediated by local histories, politics, and cultures, leading to path
dependency for policy in specific systems(Lingard et al. 2016, 6). Thus, as Cowen
(2009) reminds us, with the international mobilities of ideas, people, institutions and
social processes, there is also shape-shifting or metamorphoses taking place (323) that
researchers need to be attentive to when studying educational policies and reforms in
the Arab region (Akkary 2014).
In addition, future research needs to treat contextsas matters of concern(Sobe and
Kowalczyk 2014, 11). For example, Sobe and Kowalczyk (2014) and Robertson and Dale
(2015) shift our analytical gaze to assemblages and education ensembles. The concept of
assemblages help us think in terms of how education is assembled together from a
non-place/non-structured structure (Sobe and Kowalczyk 2014, 10) and the notion of
ensemble helps us view educations multiple relationships in society as a complex and
variegated agency of social reproduction(Robertson and Dale 2015, 150). Thus, we
move away from a binary representation of comparative education as a salvational
path to best-practices or a dangerous neo-colonial imposition(Sobe and Kowalczyk
2014, 7) and pay attention to the ways in which context is constructed.
The results of international student tests are attractive to both global actors and policy-
makers because they provide a simplified and tangible measure of educational progress.
They are an effective tool for harnessing complex and diverse educational systems to
provide generalisable causal stories (Auld and Morris 2016). Yet these global signifiers con-
struct the context of education as thin descriptions,stripped of contextual complexity
(Ozga 2016, 71) and encourage the creation of a system that is closed conceptually
(Auld and Morris 2016, 224).
Small states such as Qatar and the UAE can transition from the transfer and translation
phases that characterise their educational policy reforms to the transformative phase in
which localisation and indigenisation takes place (Cowen 2009, 323). My own qualitative
research identifies issues in UAE schools that require indigenous and situated solutions
COMPARATIVE EDUCATION 17
such as studentsweak bilingual language abilities, lack of parental involvement due to
English language barriers and teachersworking conditions (Morgan and Ibrahim 2017).
By diversifying their research methodologies and opening up space for alternative
views and policies, Qatar and the UAE can transform their educational systems in order
to meet their indigenous educational flourishing.
Notes
1. See, for example, Abi-Mershed (2010), Akkary (2014), Alayan, Rohde, and Dhouib (2012),
Ibrahim (2010), and Mazawi and Sultana (2010).
2. Examples of scholars who have examined educational policy transfer in the Arabian Gulf
include Burden-Leahy (2009), Bashshur (2010), and Hayes (2017).
3. According to the World Banks 2015 GDP rankings, Qatar ranked 55 (US$165 million) and the
UAE ranked 30 (US$370 million) out of 195 countries. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/
download/GDP.pdf.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank Comparative Educations reviewers for their valuable comments.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
Funding
This work was supported by UAE Universitys Start-Up Grant (20152017).
Notes on contributor
Clara Morgan is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at UAE University. Her research interests
include education and labour market policy and the global governance of education. Her current
research focuses on educational developments in the Arab region. She has published in the
Journal of Education Policy,Policy Futures in Education and the British Journal of Sociology of Education.
ORCID
Clara Morgan http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7204-5417
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... The UAE (as well as other Arabian Gulf states) would like to move away from being a recipient of ideas and assistance from the Global North to becoming a source of ideas and an equal partner in global policy setting circles, such as within the OECD. To fast-track its socio-economic development, the UAE pursued a policy of educational borrowing starting in the 1950s of employing foreign teachers and staff and importing curricula, textbooks, and teachers' training (Aydarova 2012;Morgan 2018). As we shall explain in our findings, for the UAE and its citizens, choosing to participate in very public assessments such as PISA and TIMSS is a strategic choice for ensuring the nation achieves its strategic outcomes. ...
... It uses the comparative data from international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS to compare its performance and curriculum to high performing countries. 15 Since the UAE has instituted significant educational reforms and has invested substantially in its educational systems, it has adopted international tests as credible and objective measures for assessing educational improvements (Morgan 2018). UAE students have made some modest improvements on these assessments but remain below the OECD average in PISA 2012 and PISA 2015 and below the TIMSS average in TIMSS 2011 and TIMSS 2015 (Navdar 2016). ...
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Scholars of the global phenomenon of international student assessments (e.g., PISA, TIMSS) have paid little attention to the ways in which student users of these material objects are configured in nations that are located at the periphery of knowledge production. Our analysis takes the United Arab Emirates as its case study to capture the social construction processes and relations of PISA and TIMSS users, agents and test objects within global educational accountability infrastructures. Drawing on evidence collected from interviews with principals, vice principals and teachers in nine schools as well as with government officials, we reveal how the state plays a role in the re/configuration of the user in this process. We also trace the discursive and emotional narratives that delineate usage and the institutional practices deployed to solidify user re/configurations. We argue that user configurations induce institutional reforms, cognitive remappings, and affective reactions which reflect adaptations being made by ‘real’ users to misconfigured material objects. We suggest that rather than blaming students for their poor performance on global tests, it is more appropriate to point to a failure in the material object’s obdurate design and monocultural user configuration.
... Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as in the rest of the GCC, have attained progress along different developmental stages of education, in part due to the intense borrowing of best educational practices from around the world (Powell, 2014). Over the past two decades, students from Qatar and the UAE have participated in international assessments to achieve high standards (Morgan, 2018). Participation in these assessments helps countries to benefit from expert advice in order to improve students' performance (Elliott et al., 2019;Nóvoa & Yariv-Mashal, 2003). ...
... The present study provides a systematic review of STEM in the GCC, a topic that has not been addressed before. In the face of the declining aspirations of GCC youth in STEM fields (Said, 2016) and their underachievement in international assessments (Morgan, 2018), such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), STEM education for sustainable development is increasingly gaining momentum within the GCC countries. Studies conducted in this field are key to educational policy in each GCC state, especially in light of these countries' strategic plans and visions to build a national capacity possessing the skills that are critical to developing a sustainable knowledge-based economy (Hvidt, 2013). ...
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... In the early primary classroom of the international school in this study, the majority of classroom book resources come from England and relate to the National Curriculum of England (Department of Education 2013). Educational materials, including books in the United Arab Emirates, are heavily borrowed from many Western nations (Morgan 2018). In many world regions, globalising processes have transported complex and Western notions of literacy which supplant a 'skill-based approach', with one that sees literacy as a social practice (Hamilton 2014). ...
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... Competition, choice, standardization, and testing were main pillars of the neoliberal GERM, the movement that has dominated education reform discourse and practice since the 1980s (Sahlberg, 2007(Sahlberg, , 2011a(Sahlberg, , 2011b(Sahlberg, , 2016. In this design, market ideals, standardization, and testing replace professional autonomy and norms as the main guarantors of accountability and education quality (Morgan, 2017;Nasser et al., 2014;Sahlberg, 2007Sahlberg, , 2011b. ...
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... 10 My analysis expands on research I have conducted on the global governance of education and the role that IOs play in legitimating and perpetuating educational quality discourses in the global and North American contexts (Morgan 2011Morgan , 2016; Morgan and Shahjahan 2014; Morgan and Volante 2016; Shahjahan and Morgan 2016). As a Canadian researcher based in an Arab university, I became interested in critically tracing and researching the effects of these global discursive practices in the Arab region (seeMorgan, 2017). The article draws on data from a research study that received a one-year research grant from the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (2015–2016). ...
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The United Arab Emirates’ education policy agenda is focused on a singular goal: to be one of the top 20 countries in PISA 2022. The focus on PISA has become so robust in the UAE that it is now a central component of teachers’ professional development. This article explores teachers’ sensemaking of dominant education policy discourses through their experience in an internationally sited professional development program in Vietnam – a country whose 2015 PISA performance inspired the education policy reform in the UAE. The findings presented in this article highlight teachers’ deficit framing of difference and their performative adoption of STREAM-focused practices to replicate Vietnam’s 2015 PISA scores. This article concludes with recommendations for future research to better understand the ways in which dominant discourses inform teachers’ professional development, and opportunities to expand teachers’ roles in the policymaking process.
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تبحث ورقة العمل هذه أداء الطلبة الإماراتيين ذوي الدخل المنخفض في المدارس الثانوية بدولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة. من خلال الاعتماد على بيانات PISA 2015 لتقييم الأداء الأكاديمي للطلبة الإماراتيين في الرياضيات والعلوم والقراءة.
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This paper analyses the approach to systemic educational reform in the Arabian states of the Gulf and the central role within that of the Global Education Industry (GEI). Initially the authors identify the commonalities of their approach; subsequently they compare the approaches in Bahrain and Qatar. They demonstrate how the GEI is embedded in all stages of policy making, delivery and monitoring which revolves around the selling of ‘best global practices’. They argue that the outcome is a commercial model of applied ‘comparative education’ designed for ‘selling to the other’ and it is both distinctive and of limited effectiveness; it also provides a vision of the future as educational policy making is increasingly outsourced to the private sector. They conclude with a discussion of the conditions which facilitated this approach and of what others might learn from the experience of the Gulf.
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From the 23rd to 26th of November 2009 in La Palma island, in the Canaries, the Comparative Education Society in Europe (CESE) organized an international symposium entitled PISA under Examination: Changing Knowledge, Changing Tests, and Changing Schools. During four days seventeen leading scholars of Europe and America presented their contributions to debate the different problematiques of the remarkable phenomenon represented by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA. PISA is not merely an educational event. It is also a media circus which involves the public rehearsal for reasons for failure or success; and even, in some cases, public and political and academic explanations about why 'failure' was not really that, and why 'success' was not really that either. At the centre of all these indications, we find the growing influence of international agencies on education and schooling which is decisively contributing to a marketisation of the field of education, in the context of an increasingly multilevel and fragmented arena for educational governance based on the formulation, the regulation and the transnational coordination and convergence of policies, buttressed at the same time by the diffusion of persuasive discursive practice. Organized in four sections entitled The Comparative Challenges of the OCDE PISA Programme, PISA and School Knowledge, The Assessment of PISA, School Effectiveness and the Socio-cultural Dimension, PISA and the Immigrant Student Question, and Extreme Visions of PISA: Germany and Finland, the contributions of this book offers a comprehensive approach of all these challenging and significant issues written from different and distinct research and academic traditions.
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This chapter deals with the globalization of the Anglo-American approach to educational accountability that first emerged in the early 1980s. This top-down, test-based mode of accountability developed in the USA in incremental ways from the time of President Reagan’s influential and critical report on schooling, A Nation at Risk (1983), which argued for school reform and the raising of standards in a policy domain over which the federal government had, historically and constitutionally, limited jurisdiction. There were also parallel developments in England from the time of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership (1979- 1990) following the 1988 Education Reform Act, which witnessed the first national curriculum in England and the introduction of standardized testing for all students in all schools. We refer here to England, rather than the UK, given different developments in schooling in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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Education reform is increasingly portrayed as a means to improve a nation's global competitiveness as measured by its performance in international league tables of pupil achievement. This has created a demand for comparative research which identifies ‘what works’ in high-performing school systems. A diverse array of consultancies, thinks tanks, and entrepreneurs has emerged to satisfy that demand, portraying their approach as a pragmatic and objective form of evidence-based policy-making. However, the attempt to translate complex conditions into straightforward solutions (i.e. ‘what works’) leads researchers into a basic paradox. This paper identifies the strategies used to address this paradox and to advocate reforms. We demonstrate that, though they are persuasive, the strategies fundamentally fail to overcome the problems inherent in the enterprise.
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This article interrogates assumptions of comparative education research and international education in the transfer of policies and practices generally in North-South relations within the context of structural inequality. The pursuit of learning in different educational traditions and the quest for comparison are examined. Aspects of meanings of individual sociogeographic and intellectual journeys within the global context are analyzed in articulating the patterns of contradictions in temporality and epistemology in knowledge production, focusing on agency, legitimacy, and ownership. Issues critically examined include what ought to be the guiding principles toward new transformative relational theories and methodologies of understanding education in formerly colonized societies, including Africa. The Ubuntu paradigm is articulated as an alternative framework for defining relations within and across the borders of local and global spaces, as a permanent corrective measure that can offer possibilities of growth and renewal to the field of comparative and international education. © 2016 by the Comparative and International Education Society. All rights reserved.
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Globalization as an empirical reality has been the subject of much theorizing. This work has produced both useful insights on the process and important empirical analyses (e.g., Meyer & Hannan, 1977; Collins, 1979). One point that is central to all these approaches is the idea that in a loosely structured, decentralized system of nation-states a good deal of diffusion occurs. Whole sets of institutions that were once found only in the West are now found almost everywhere.
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The article focuses on the political usages of OECD- and IEA-type studies on student achievement, and suggests that we examine in more detail how policy makers use results from international comparisons to advance fundamental school reform at national level. The author categorizes three types of policy reactions to league tables: (1) scandalization, (2) glorification, and (3) indifference. Drawing from media reports and policy debates that emerged right after the release of the results from TIMSS, PISA, and the Civic Education Study, the author points at the different policy reactions that these OECD and IEA studies have had in various national contexts. In Japan, for example, the release of TIMSS led to a self-affirmation or glorification of Japanese methods in science and mathematics, whereas the release of PISA in Germany triggered self-criticism or scandalization, and strengthened existing demands for a fundamental reform of the German educational system. Most striking is the political indifference that the release of the IEA Civic Education encountered in Germany. German students held the last rank in the international league table on attitudes towards immigrants (Civic Education Study), whereas they scored below OECD-average in reading literacy (PISA). The author provides a few tentative explanations for the following question: why was there such a political spectacle about the reading literacy scores of German students given that German students did far worse with regard to xenophobia?
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This article makes contributions to questions of why international transfers of programmes do not lead to the outcomes that nations engaging in them expect to gain. Using Bahrain as an example, it is argued that tensions arising from policy borrowing are rooted in the complexities of the political incoherence between the new teaching policies, the Kingdom’s economic vision and educational aspirations of many locals that have been shaped by old political and employment settlements within the nation state. The research shows that educating for global development is not a ‘magnet’ that equally attracts everyone.
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Background: International achievement studies such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have an increasing influence on education policy worldwide. The use of such data can provide a basis for evidence-based policy-making to initiate educational reform. Finland, a high performer in PISA, is often cited as an example of both efficient and equitable education. Finland’s teachers and teacher education have not only garnered much attention for their role in the country’s PISA successes, but have also influenced education policy change in England. Main argument: This article argues that the Finnish model of teacher education has been borrowed uncritically by UK policy-makers. Finnish and English philosophies of teacher preparation differ greatly, and the borrowing of the Finnish teacher education model does not fit within the teacher training viewpoint of England. The borrowed policies, thus, were decontextualised from the wider values and underpinnings of Finnish education. This piecemeal, ‘pick “n” mix’ approach to education policy reform ignores the fact that educational policies and ‘practices exist in ecological relationships with one another and in whole ecosystems of interrelated practices’. Thus, these borrowed teacher preparation policies will not necessarily lead to the outcomes outlined by policy-makers in the reforms. Sources of evidence: Two teacher preparation reforms in England, the University Training Schools (outlined in the UK Government’s 2010 Schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching) and the Master’s in Teaching and Learning (MTL), are used to illustrate the problematic nature of uncritical policy borrowing. This article juxtaposes these policies with the Finnish model of teacher education, a research-based programme where all candidates are required to complete a Master’s degree. The contradictions exposed from this analysis further highlight the divergent practices of teacher preparation in England and Finland, or the disparate ‘ecosystems’. Evidence of educational policy borrowing in other settings is also considered. Conclusions: Both the MTL and the White Paper reforms overlook the ‘ecosystem’ surrounding Finnish teacher education. The school-based MTL contrasts with the research-based Finnish teachers’ MA. Similarly, the University Training Schools scheme, based on Finnish university-affiliated, teaching practice schools, contrasts heavily with the rest of the White Paper reforms, which contradict the philosophies and ethos behind Finnish teacher education by proposing the move of English teacher preparation away from the universities. The analysis highlights the uncritical eye through which politicians may view international survey results, looking for ‘quick fix’ options instead of utilising academic evidence for investigation on education and education reform.