Last month the World Bank released a report on the performance of UNRWA education programmes in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. The study’s findings suggested that the Agency was significantly outperforming the local public education systems in these areas (emphasis added):
Palestine refugees are achieving higher-than-average learning outcomes in spite of the adverse circumstances they live under. Their education system—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—operates one of the largest non-governmental school systems in the Middle East. It manages nearly 700 schools, has hired 17,000 staff, educates more than 500,000 refugee students each year, and operates in five areas, including the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Contrary to what might be expected from a resource-constrained administration serving refugee students who continually face a multitude of adversities, UNRWA students outperform public schools in the three regions—the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan—by a year’s worth of learning.
This study uses a mixed methods research approach, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative research to address the complexity of the research question and its exploratory nature, namely how do UNRWA schools continually and consistently outperform public schools? This study was prepared using the following tools, techniques, and data collection:
- Econometric techniques were used to analyze learning achievement data, including international (TIMSS and PISA) and national student assessment data.
- The Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) tools and rubrics were used to assess different system components, such as teacher effectiveness, school autonomy, and student assessments.
- Stallings classroom observations provided a structured method to compare teachers’ and students’ interactions.
Qualitative data collected through interviews captured the lived experiences of a sample of UNRWA students.
These tools were applied through a concurrent research process (Figure 1), constituted through a mixed methods research design that led to integrated findings.
It is important to recognize the methodological and practical limitations of this study to establish its relevance to other education systems and contexts of adversity. The UNRWA system covers five regions, of which this study examines three: West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. Thus, the findings represent factors that appear to be working within a system, but they do not imply that the system as a whole is achieving positive results. That would require additional data collection and analysis for Lebanon and Syria. Nor do the findings attempt to negate or discount the incidence of falling standards in UNRWA schools in recent years. Moreover, the international assessment data point to UNRWA’s performance in relation to the public system in some of the host countries. But the data do not cover the inputs and processes in public school systems, which may differ from those in UNRWA schools, so they cannot be used to pass judgment on what these public systems may face.
When one controls for the lower socio-economic status of refugees, the results are quite striking—equivalent to one full year of additional schooling. Moreover, these results have been achieved at a lower cost per pupil.
The report identifies several reasons for this impressive performance:
This is achieved as a result of the way these schools recruit, prepare, and support teachers; because of instructional practices and pedagogy in the classroom; and because of school leadership, accountability, and mutual support. This has created a distinguished learning community centered on the student. Of note:
- UNRWA selects, prepares, and supports its education staff to pursue high learning outcomes.
- Time-on-task is high in UNRWA schools, and this time is used more effectively than in public schools.
- UNRWA schools have a world-class assessment and accountability system.
- 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 report also notes some narrowing of the performance gap in recent years. While it doesn’t assess the reasons for this, it seems likely that it is a product of both improvement in national educational systems and the Agency’s continuing budgetary crisis.
Previous TIMSS studies have shown the Jordanian and Palestian education systems to be at or slightly above the average for Arab countries. Many countries in the Middle East typically score relatively poorly on standardized international tests of math and science knowledge, in large part because of poor teacher training, outmoded teaching techniques and curriculum, and poor management.