Reforming Education In Jordan: Good Will, No Money, Less Discourse

Yesterday, I received that annual message from Orange Telecom, which I’m sure most of you have gotten by now. The love letter reads:

“Dear Customer, wither reference to the law of the additional Annual University fees, kindly note that 1JD will be deducted from your balance. Thank you for your cooperation.”

What is interesting about this message is that someone at Orange thought it was probably a good idea to be a bit transparent with the customers who have just found themselves inexplicably 1 dinar short this month. I wish this was the same kind of transparency we, as citizens, could expect from our government. No one is told why this money is deducted (1JD for most Jordanians is a lot), and more importantly, where it goes? How much is raised (judging by the incredibly high market penetration I assume it’s a lot)? Who is benefiting?

But I’ll get back to this in a while. Allow me just to back track a bit, because this week there was also another interesting message that we all may have heard, and this time it came from outside the country. From Davos in fact. Where upon Her Majesty Queen Rania, on a panel discussing global education, she said these words:

“There is no better equaliser in this world than education; it’s the greatest justice you can give people.” [source]

The great justice indeed. Without a doubt, Queen Rania has been relatively good on this issue. There are few people on the world stage today that are wielding their celebrity to tackle this issue, and that is something Queen Rania has definitely done. However, as a Jordanian, my focus tends to be homeward bound, and it forces me to wonder what’s been done locally.

Some wonderful initiatives have been set up and our lead by the Queen herself – be it the Madrasati initiative that attempted to bring private, public and civil society sectors together to improve the infrastructure of schools, or even the Teacher’s award that looks to honor the best educators in Jordan, which in itself is setting an experimental incentive for teachers in the country. The Queen has also built an elite private school in the center of the affluent west Amman, as has King Abdullah who also saw fit to allow registered Iraqi children to study in Jordanian public schools a few years back.

There is also quite a bit of royal involvement with Injaz – a USAID-funded project that has done a number of interesting things inside the classrooms of Jordanian public schools. The list goes on and on. The impact of all this is still out as it education is one sector that takes a significant amount of time to demonstrate actual change.

However, what we do know is that little has changed in the educational curricula, i.e. what students are actually studying. We know that the Tawjihi system is a mess. We know that university students who have just graduated can easily find a job teaching 7th graders in public schools even though they have no training in teaching methods and are actually graduates with with low aptitudes when it comes to their field of study. We know that some of the university programs that applicants with low Tawjihi scores can apply to, include Islamic studies as well as journalism and languages. We know that while officials boast about the number of higher educational institutions in the country and the rise in educational tourism, but that few have noted the dwindling numbers of Arab student enrollment or the fact that no Jordanian university has made it recently (if ever) to the globally-compiled list of the best 500 schools in the world. We know that public university classrooms are indeed overcrowded – as are public schools – and that the eligibility criteria is massively flawed. We know that upon graduation from Tawjihi there are students who receive royal grants that vary from the increasing of their GPA to financial scholarship to the reserving of a seat in a university program – and we know that these students can range from those whose parents are teachers, refugees or from the army as well as citizens applying through the royal court.

We know our national curricula lacks any room for critical thinking or even creativity, with the standard ministry textbook being widely accepted as gospel and pretty much the only source of information for Jordanian students expected to eventually compete in the information age as part of a knowledge-driven economy. We also know that while officials boast about Jordan’s high literacy rate that, in reality, measuring literacy in Jordan has never been an exact science (i.e. one that would produce realistic numbers) and, in fact, many, many students cannot read or write at a comprehensible level, while even more drop out in order to work medial jobs – typically in car maintenance.

But above all, we know that there is no money. Teachers are underpaid, schools are underfunded, programs are cut, and any chance of reforming the actual educational curricula, which as at the crux of the issue, is deemed almost hopeless due to the hefty price tag that comes with such a pursuit. In fact, according the minister Walid Maani, a five-year plan to overhaul the entire system will cost JD395 million, which we obviously do not have, and what little comes our way is typically donor-driven and thus unsustainable by mere definition.

“Let’s admit it. It is a matter of money in the first place. We cannot make a single move without the necessary funds.” – Walid Maani

The problem is not just a lack of funding but that we are yet to truly come to terms with our status quo. Our national numbers do not seem to reflect the realities on the ground, which many of us are privy to observing or even experiencing first hand. The system is as strained as it can get, not only due to a population of which the overwhelming majority are students, but add to that the many non-Jordanian students, such as Iraqi refugees who now have access to public schools.

And while initiatives that look to upgrade the physical structures of the classroom are indeed important, I would argue that what’s being taught inside the classroom (and how it’s being taught) is just as important. We honor our teachers with competitive awards, but the reality of the situation seems to suggest that instead of awards, the government needs to stop hiring university graduates as teachers and, instead, send them to teaching school, as is the international experience.The lack of proper teaching methods as well as the proper experience is one of the main reasons there is no room for public discourse, critical thinking or creativity inside our classrooms and this due to the fact that teachers were never taught how to teach.

Moreover, what money we do have or have managed to garner, seems to be spent almost haphazardly. These 5-year plans seem to be geared towards upgrading our systems from their current conditions, when in truth, they should be geared towards making us globally competitive within 5 years. Naturally, this is no easy task, but it depends largely on where the money goes and how it is spent. With this in mind, it is perhaps time for the government to bring the public along for the ride. Education is pretty much the number one issue that communities worldwide are heavily involved in but unfortunately, in Jordan, like many other issues, it is one that the public has little involvement in. Even parent-teacher associations seem to be missing, and thus, for the most part, parents are completely uninvolved with their children’s learning and development – a major step that would render them the best advocates for what they are learning to begin with. For this to happen the willingness to be transparent needs to happen and that is something I, and perhaps most, are convinced the government is somewhat incapable of doing – even on the level of informing people where that 1JD goes.

The will seems to be there. The fact that education is highlighted in what I would argue is an unprecedented manner is an important first step. The fact that there is recognition from the very upper echelons of power is something. But it is not enough. The personal involvement of either a queen or a king is not enough to move this particular mountain. Celebrity isn’t going to do it this time; it is a task for communities and their open and consistent discourse with the authorities.

The saying in Jordan since I can remember is that people are the country’s only asset. I would argue that in the 21st century, a competitively educated people are the country’s only asset. For Jordan, education remains the country’s only silver bullet.


  • I have been a substitute at a local private school which has its own English curriculum from the US. Today there was an announcement that the government demands that their English curriculum be used in all schools regardless of what they are currently using. They would be sending out people to check that the Jordanian books are being used in the classroom. As far as I can tell, most private schools use their own curriculum which they have either adapted from abroad or use in the original state. Why is that, because the Jordanian ones stink, that is why no one wants to use them. If there were some better Arabic ones, I imagine private schools would switch to those as well. Come on Department of Education, you know you need help, so get it and give us all a break.

  • that is very a nice article. I agree that education is our only asset and that is needs to be fixed. I feel really sad and disappointed when I meet someone who just finished 7 long and difficult years preparing to be a doctor when in fact they don’t like it and they have no passion for it. It is terrible when we push our students to choose a field of study based on what they scored in an exam. That attitude needs to change, otherwise, we won’t have creativity or innovation. i think it is definitely a cycle: student has a passion for studying literature but chooses to be an engineer because his tawjihi score allowed him to and his parents insisted that he should, otherwise, he won’t earn a decent living. That is how you kill creativity in Jordan!

  • Beyond schools, universities are not mainly build to educate but rather to “develop” an area. In other words to employ and teach local and native residents. I think you can look at it as a version of the JTV which employs 1850 employees, of which 300 are gardeners and 150 are drivers. Or better yet, universities are microcosms of the Jordanian government and the ruling formula: employ,teach,give benefits to buy stability and to maintain the status quo. The problem is that they can’t afford it anymore..They can’t afford having a university in each and every province. They also can’t afford to teach both high quality and low quality students. You also can’t teach only the rich and leave the poor. So yeah, higher education needs radical reform. Maybe we only need three public universities. Maybe we need not-for-profit private universities.

    Plus, one has to challenge the assumption that education is the only way and the best way? If we make education the only goal then we are missing the bigger picture, education is only a part of the solution. Providing opportunities should be the umbrella under which development efforts are initiated and the lens through which we see both the present and the future. Opportunities for education, employment, growth,etc… What I am saying is that it is the formula that many of us would love to see and talk about. It is not simply that education is the only and direct cause behind becoming a developed society. Though it makes it a simpler task, it doesn’t make it any easier.

  • In my opinion the most practical solution for all of the educational woes in Jordan would be a serious effort on the part of Jordanian philanthropists, community activists, and concerned parents sitting together and start thinking about the establishment of new alternative to both public and private schools. The alternative would consist of erecting Charter Schools.
    Charter schools are government funded privately managed alternative to public schools, they started to emerge in the United States in the early nineties, they are based on a charter that the pioneer would sign for three to five years, and if they can’t produce during the specified charter period the charter would be revoked.

    I have had only one year experience with charter schools, I’m thoroughly convinced that it is something that would really work in a country like Jordan. The over all test results coming out of the charter schools didn’t show spectacular achievements when compared to the test scores taken by the students at public schools. Needless to say that in certain subjects such as math and science, reading and writing, charter schools test results have shown a significant improvements over the same period.

    I’m not going to lecture you about the pros and cons of Charter schools, this is something for interested parties to pursue, I’m only commenting on Nas’s post above.

  • @Mohanned: I’m not so sure the universities were intended as economic developers. yes, they do tend to do that as would any institution of their sizes. the rise in numerous private universities is testament to the fact that universities are built because of more simpler economics: demand requires supply. i agree that education needs to come hand-in-hand with other aspects, however, education is the one thing that usually creates and sustains those aspects. education breeds innovation which breeds businesses and industries, which of course means jobs, etc, etc.

    @Hatem: I’m not too keen on any government erecting parallel systems.

  • ” education is the one thing that usually creates and sustains those aspects. education breeds innovation which breeds businesses and industries, which of course means jobs, etc, etc.”

    I disagree,to a degree, with that premise. It doesn’t create, it provides opportunities. To view education and the positive things you mentioned as a cause-effect relationship is just too simplistic. There are just too many factors that need to come together for a society to become a developed society, unless we are willing to wait for a generational change, something that I am betting we can’t afford to do, to wait that is.

    As for universities as development projects, I heard that argument from policy makers and a university president. Education is secondary to “development”,employment, and stability for many universities in our provinces. If they are serious about higher education reform, then maybe they should raise the standard of living for professors. They would stop the brain drain, but I believe it is in their interest for such drain to continue.

  • I definitely agree that Jordan is ripe for an overhaul of its educational system. And I think the curriculum is the first place to start. Frankly, I don’t like the existing required curricula for Arabic. And, I don’t like that we’re forced to teach deen from a book written by a different denomination. I’m not really sure why the government CARES what book we use for religion. But that’s just me. If the government begins to think that they can provide better English curricula than the Beans’ current English as a First Language curriculum, we’re just going to have a throw down, teehee.

    I fully agree that conversation is needed with the community to help move education to a position tht is responsive to needs and world-class. As for the charter schools idea, until you can ensure that the best private organizaiton would be selected (not based on size or name of owners or…) I think that would be a tragedy. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • LOL… This government is damn stupid if it wants all schools to use their curriculum for English! I mean there are schools that are using MUCH higher standards than what these guys want. What do they have to say about that ?

  • A Bunch of whirling thoughts but prime among them is “That whole thing about education being the key is such an elitist crap that i’m honestly sick of hearing it being touted around just so that they can buy time”
    Yes, education does help raise the level of conversation amongst people in a civil society and create a vibrant and developing economy but all that requires people to already lead a comfortable life in the first place and not worry about what their next pay check will cover. That will always be a luxury for the majority of Jordanians.
    So the idea that education is the solution for all of jordans problems is purely folly .
    That being said formative education is very important, and “god” knows we have our problems when it comes to that. The curricula, the teachers, the facilities, the system, the criteria for measuring success, the culture, the students, the parents, and just about everything that exists in the educational system is problematic at this point and just keeps on pushing the ball down the hill.
    I think one of the first things they would need to do is figure out where the hell does those 1.6-4.5 billion (the numbers range from 4.9-13.5% of GDP) are being spent and how can you cut some of the bloat and a restructuring of the ministry and its institution would be in order.
    You only look younger when you do a face lift, and any form of reform to the educational system is just a face lift if the people that are responsible for the change don’t or can’t maintain it.
    After that then you can start talking about initiatives and such because without having concrete information and statistics on where the problem actually IS rather than what we THINK IT IS we can’t honestly expect any reform to be successful.
    You want to start knocking the education blocks into place you need to start elsewhere as well. You need to expand the populations horizons about the opportunities available to them, encourage vocational education and instill the idea that there is nothing shameful about being a blue collar worker… I find it very ironic that people aren’t ashamed of begging or looting the trash but the suggestion of being a house guard or a sanitary man is an insult.
    You want to reform education allow the youth the monetary means by which they can declare their independence earlier on and be able to choose what they are passionate about, the only way to do that is to foster their sense of independence from their parents (good luck pushing that one through without being labeled an agent of the anti Christ that wants to destroy the family)
    You want to reform education you need to understand that we can’t rely on a 18th century understanding of education to bring us to the 21st century. For a developing country 21 years until you are adequately productive is a really long time to wait and too slow of a process to change when over half of your population is not even 20. You need to rethink and switch gears much quicker than 21 years.
    That last point is the main issue about education… is that it just takes too long if you expect change to occur and by the time we are deliberating how best to reform education we are forgetting that unemployment might soon engulf us making this entire discussion irrelevant and further degrade the system in place because people will be scrapping around for an income that doesn’t exist 2025 will certainly be the crux of it all. So unless we figure out how to do more with less than now it will only get tougher and tougher later on.

    ps. we do have charter schools in jordan, jubilee is the most famous of which and its an idea that has been implemented here in jordan for a while but at the end of the day charter schools are good as an experiment but i don’t know of any of the charter school systems that have been replicated successfully. as with anything it depends on the people involved.

  • It is kind of good that we are seeing such discussions taking place now where we no longer are worried about getting our children into schools and are actually concerned about the quality of education we are providing. I agree, we need an educational reform, and I can see that is started through the Madrasati initiative and the idea of engaging public section and local communities in the education process.

    Bamabam is making a really good point about a developing country with 21 years for individuals to start being productive… that is too much loss of potential that should be addressed in the same passion we are addressing women involvement in the work force.

    “Yes, education does help raise the level of conversation amongst people in a civil society and create a vibrant and developing economy but all that requires people to already lead a comfortable life in the first place and not worry about what their next pay check will cover. That will always be a luxury for the majority of Jordanians.”

    This started to sounds like who came first? The hen or the egg? The way I see it is that education do help people maintain a better life. While I agree that most people in Jordan don’t necessary lead a comfortable life, it is clear – through statistics – that our kids do go to schools. The issue here, at this level of Jordan’s development – is to improve the quality of our education which I see is happening through such open discussions and the involvement of the public section.

  • Well-written.
    There is something wrong with the system at every level, but there are priorities that need to be fixed more urgently than others.

    At the school level, I think the emphasis should be on improving the quality of teachers, for they are the ones that can make a real difference in the learning experience of children, more than curriculum and more than classroom structure.

    At the higher education level, I really like Mohanned’s idea of non-for-profit universities. These would have the potential of promoting critical thinking, away from the influence of rotten bureaucracies. But I’m not really sure how realistic that is in Jordan at this time.

    Charter schools and elite private schools are only solutions for those who can attend them. They do not address the problem at a national level.

    One last thing, it is interesting that any reform has to have a personal involvement of the King or the Queen, and that there is this rhetoric in the media that implies that all the credit belongs to HM for anything good that ever happens or could possibly happen in Jordan. I will leave it at that..

  • starting from the very very heavy bag young children carry to school and stoping at dissapointed teachers with very very low income we have a long way to go ,
    i have one thing to say to the people who took my one jd
    iam willing to pay 5jd every month for each child that i have (4 kids ),if and only IF i knew that this will gaurentee them a chance in one of the goverment universities or at least an equal opportinitie for attending it ,so think of it jd collecters ,its a good bussiness
    and by the way thanks nas 4 the article

  • Excellent article. I have been following your site for quite some time and have always intended to leave messages but never actually got around to it.

    I just wanted to put my 2 cents in, as someone that just started on the teaching experience. I completely agree with what you said in regards to the quality of teachers. By hiring university graduates and just expecting them teach without having any exposure to actually teaching is a huge flaw that can literally bring the downfall of any attempt of an education system. I started teaching as volunteer work and lets just say that 5 months into it I am finally getting the hang of actually teaching material that I already know. This means of course being aware of what methods work and gets the material through to the student so they can actually use it and integrate it into their being (isnt that what education is supposed to be??) That 5 months is of course actually quite good given the fact that some people are never actually conscious of their need to improve and be effective. I know a teacher that has been teaching for quite some time and its literally a walk in and walk out kinda class. It might as well be a lunch break.

    My point is that people do need to be aware that education is not just wrote memorization, or prestige, of something to show off to your relatives. It is meant to further the progress of not only yourself, but society as a whole. It is that open minded thinking that comes with education that allows people to think about why they are doing things and would be the best alternative solution if they should not be doing things? It lends society an moral compass that is not just written and accepted but instead carried out with full intent. This is the ROOT of the problem. See the hiring of university students to just teach without any training is actually a symptom of the problem-that education is not viewed for what it really should be. Therefore, we can not expect to just train the teachers (of course that is an important part!) but we need to address the core issue-which is society itself.

    The irony is that would involve education to get people that have a say in society to make any valuable moves. Hmm.

  • I could write a book on what reforms are needed in the Jordanian school system. In my position as a Peace Corps English teacher in a public school in a village in Jerash (2004-2006) and a brief and horrifying stint in a prestigious private school that shall remain unnamed, I saw a whole slew of changes that needed to be made, starting with the replacement of a shame culture in the classroom with a culture of positive reinforcement.

    Most importantly, I think, prestige figures into the answer. In the “developed” world, people enter the field of teaching (in large part) because they have a passion for it, as I did. We believe that all children can and deserve the opportunity to learn, and we often work twice the hours we are paid for to make sure that children really are learning. In contrast, most female teachers I and my friends know in Jordan, in both public and private schools, are teachers because their families or their Tawjihi scores prevent them from pursuing any other kind employment, no matter how badly they may want a different career. For most male teachers, teaching is what they do until they can get “real” jobs. Even more than improving teacher training, which I admit is a huge need, teaching needs to be properly valued, in prestige and salary. There is a long tradition in Arab and Islamic (and Christian and Jewish and secular) history of honoring teachers. It pains me to see that disappear in the modern age.

    May I also say that I read the English Tawjihi exam, and as a native speaker, I was unable to answer some of the questions because they were so terribly grammatically inaccurate. Other questions were so culturally biased as to make them impossible for village and low-income students to answer.

    However, I wrote extensively in graduate school about the progress that has been made in Jordanian education in the past decade, and I want to point out that, though it is happening far too slowly, there is noticeable change. The English textbooks that were introduced in 2004 and 2005, and the Arabic textbooks that were introduced in 2005 showed tiny little baby steps towards critical and creative thinking in the schools, even if teachers had no idea how to teach the new curriculum. More importantly, I saw a remarkable difference among teachers who completed university after about 2001. Though they had no idea how to use them in the classroom, they had at least some theoretical knowledge of multiple intelligences, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Bloom’s taxonomy. There does seem to be recognition somewhere in the university system that more teacher training is needed. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

  • Also, JK, I would like to point out that the mothers I knew in the villages really did value education in exactly the way that you describe. They saw it not only as a matter of prestige, but particularly in the case of daughters, a way of improving not only the student’s quality of life, but the quality of all the lives that student touches. I don’t just mean financially. I mean that better education could get a girl a better husband, a better job, fewer children, and more disposable income to take care of herself with. It would also make her someone worthy of respect in her family and community, someone who would be able to fight for her own rights and those of her children.

    In contrast, the parents I knew in the private school where I worked didn’t give a damn about education. I knew I had to leave when I realized that in order to balance the demands of the parents and the administration (which was primarily concerned with profit and reputation), I would have to completely disregard what was in the best interest of my students, academically and emotionally.

  • Thats a good point, especially with women-people that get “education” handed to them do not realize what a gift it truly is.

    My mother always told me what her parents told her (she is not from Jordan, but work with me!) “We do not have the money to buy you whatever you want…but we do have enough for your education. That is the gift we give to you.”

    She is now extremely successful…and all she started with was her education.

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