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Regional study: Palestinian refugee students attending UN schools achieve above-average results on international assessments
Palestinian students attending United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools for refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are achieving higher-than-average results in international assessments such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), despite the challenging and adverse circumstances they live under, says a new World Bank Group report.
The report, Learning in the Face of Adversity: The UNRWA Education Program for Palestine Refugees, highlights how a resilience approach that includes effective classroom practices of teachers, strong school leadership, assessments and shared accountability for learning, can support adaptability and performance in high-risk contexts.
UNRWA’s educational system, one of the largest non-governmental school systems in the Middle East with 500,000 refugee students each year, utilizes a school-family-community partnership to create a culture of learning that recognizes the vulnerable environment the children live in and promotes collaboration amongst the school, the teacher, the parent and the community all focusing on student achievement and well-being.
“UNRWA schools have created a distinguished learning community centered on the student,” said Harry Patrinos, World Bank Group Education Practice Manager for the Middle East and North Africa. “UNRWA students perform better than their peers in public schools despite their socioeconomic disadvantages and parents’ education, which seems to be compensated by students’ self-confidence, parental support and involvement in school activities.”
UNRWA manages nearly 700 schools, employs 17,000 staff, educates more than 500,000 refugee students each year, and operates in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The report focuses on three regions: the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan.
The report cites high job satisfaction among teachers as a strong factor associated with student performance. At UNRWA schools, 75 percent of teachers are either satisfied or highly satisfied with their jobs, according to surveys organized by the research team led by Husein Abdul-Hamid, World Bank Group Senior Education Specialist and one of the co-authors of the study.
Key findings of the study include:
- UNRWA selects, prepares, and supports its education staff to pursue high learning outcomes. UNRWA teachers’ colleges attract the best high school graduates to enroll free of charge and with guaranteed employment. In addition, UNRWA teachers are provided with explicit standards regarding what students must know and receive guidance on how to achieve these outcomes. UNRWA also requires classroom experience (built into the curriculum at their teachers’ colleges) and a mandatory two-year intensive training program focused on classroom instruction after they are hired.
- Time-on-task is high in UNRWA schools, and this time is used effectively. The proportion of time spent on learning activities in UNRWA schools compares favorably with successful systems in developed countries. UNRWA schools appear to use this time to engage students through confidently led collaborative activities, discussions, and assignments, all promoting greater student participation. In the West Bank/Gaza, for example, most of the teachers’ classroom time is dedicated to teaching.
- UNRWA schools have reduced management layers and a world-class assessment and accountability system. UNRWA evaluation systems include classroom observations and other criteria that are rigorous and frequent. Professional development and performance evaluations are requirements to remain in the teaching profession within the UNRWA system, with incentives for good performance and sanctions for poor performance.
- UNRWA schools are part of a wider community and culture of learning that supports the child and ensures that the education received is meaningful and relevant. The sense of community appears to be strengthened by the fact that UNRWA teachers originate from the same at-risk population, are part of the same communities as students, and have themselves been through the UNRWA system. In sharing these difficult living situations, teachers are accessible role models for their students, providing them not only with academic guidance but socio-emotional support.
The conclusions of this report are aligned with the Bank Group’s understanding of resilience not as an outcome in itself but as a process in contexts of adversity. The report suggests that the UNRWA system is gauging and promoting a set of opportunities which support its students to ‘navigate’ the adversities they face.
“UNRWA welcomes the findings of the World Bank study and its acknowledgement of the strengths of the UNESCO supported UNRWA education system. It is the Palestinian refugees themselves, from the student to the Chief of Education in each Field, who are the UNRWA strengths and resilience factors and our ongoing reform is working to realize their potential,” said Caroline Pontefract, UNRWA Director of Education.
“Evidence-based policies and practices have been put in place to build on these strengths towards quality, equitable and inclusive education - this seeks to benefit each and every student children including those who are less resilient,” added Pontefract. “This is even more pertinent as UNRWA schools continue to operate in an increasingly challenging environment with many of our children exposed to conflict on a daily or regular basis. UNRWA will continue to strive to realize the potential of all children whatever their needs are and we appreciate the affirmation that the World Bank study has given as to what matters in quality education as we move forward.”
The success of the model shows how scarce resources can be used to build a resilient system. In that sense, the Bank Group is working with countries in the region to strengthen such systems and learn from national, regional and global experience. Over the past two decades, the Jordanian education system has made significant advances. Backed by a strong government commitment and an effective donor coordination framework, the First and Second Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy projects (ERfKE I and II) have tackled education reform in a comprehensive, yet sequenced manner, and allowed the development of strong public-private partnerships to support advancements in ICT, curricula, e-learning, and student assessment systems. In spite of these advances, the education sector has been critically affected by the impact of the Syrian conflict and additional support is needed to help the public school system cope with the pressure stemming for the recent refugees influx.
You can read the full report here (PDF).
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