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World Bank Says Middle East, North Africa Need Education Reform

A new World Bank report says countries in the Middle East and North Africa need to overhaul their education systems in order to thrive in the new global economy. The report says the region has made important progress in improving literacy and closing the gender gap, but needs to shift the emphasis to teaching key skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and languages. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

The World Bank says the quality of education in the Middle East and North Africa is not keeping up with the needs of the changing and increasingly globalized economy.

In a new report, the Bank says the region needs to reform its education sector if it wants to compete and reduce unemployment.

The World Bank says Middle Eastern and North African states have made important gains in the education sector. Enrollment in primary school, for example, is now nearly universal throughout the region. The countries have also made strong improvements in getting girls into classrooms, closing the gender gap in schools, especially at primary level.

But that is not enough.

Although countries in the Middle East and North Africa spend more per capita on education than other regions, they are still lagging behind in key areas, and the report says students are not being adequately prepared.

"What the report shows, however, is that the investment in education - which has been also higher in this region... than other regions in the world - have not had a big impact on the economy in terms of economic growth or in terms of creating employment," said Mourad Ezzine, the World Bank's regional education chief. "And this is where much of the effort in the future needs to be directed."

Unlike other parts of the world, he says, university graduates in many Arab and Middle Eastern suffer from high unemployment.

In the past, governments in the region have focused their educational reforms on what Ezzine calls "engineering" aspects, meaning the day-to-day mechanics such as the physical building of schools and recruiting of teachers. Now, according to the report, it is time to shift the focus toward what the schools are teaching and how they are teaching it.

For example, education systems in the Middle East and North Africa tend to focus too much on rote memorization.

"Critical thinking, problem-solving skills, complex communications are skills that are necessary for the knowledge economy or for performance in the global market, and the region ranks low in these skills. So everybody agrees on that, and all the countries are working on it," Ezzine said.

Ezzine says a key focus of the report is not just what needs to change, but how to change it.

"We need new policies, and here we come back to the issue of partnership between the public and private sector, and promoting accountability, essentially, and having the right incentives to change the behavior of the agents that participate in educational activities - teachers, headmasters," Ezzine said.

Public accountability, he says, means that parents, civic groups and the private sector would all have more of a voice in the education systems. The report says schools need to become more flexible and able to respond to the rapidly changing needs of the job market.

At the same time, Ezzine says the World Bank is aware that no one formula will fit every country in the region.

"We don't have recipes. We believe each country will have its own mix of engineering, incentives and accountability. But all the countries need to start experimenting with this and trying, getting inspiration probably for reforms in other countries, and evaluating the results," Ezzine said.

The report also notes Middle East and North African countries have extremely young populations, with a larger percentage of people under 18 than any other region on Earth. World Bank officials say it is clear that education will play a critical role in preparing young people in the Middle East for the changing demands of the future.