In the Arab world, there has been increased awareness on the instrumentality of education in fostering human and economic development (e.g. Yamani, 2006), and a realization that quality education contributes to the economic growth of a society and its overall human development (Barro & Salai-Martin, 2003). Consequently, in recognition of a dire shortage of teachers, policy makers and different stakeholders throughout the Arab world are strongly investing in teacher’s enrollment in a bid to secure access to basic primary education and literacy for all (Hammound, 2005).
Making headway in this field is the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS, 2006), which has methodically investigated teacher shortages around the world, and developed indicators to assess the quality of teaching practices, the educational policies in place to counter the shortage of teachers, and the way that these factors relate to students’ academic achievements. UNESCO’s 2010 Global Monitoring Report has echoed increasing concerns that the shortage of teaching professionals worldwide is inhibiting the attainment of Universal Primary Education (UPE) by 2015, a global campaign advocated by UNESCO’s Education for All, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (Bruns & Rakotomalala, 2003).
With the rising number of students enrolling in primary education, and the inadequate funds allocated by governments and states to the education sector, the picture looks grim. UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics office has previously estimated the need of no less than 1.6 million teaching positions worldwide to warrant quality education by 2015, with that number rising to 3.3 million by 2030 (UIS, 2013).
Teacher shortages have negative impacts on primary school children accessing education. They can also push schools to lower their academic standards when recruiting teachers, in their quest to fill the gaps that result from teacher turnover and retirement (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1997). Hence, understanding the underpinning reasons behind a lack of teachers, a phenomenon particularly prominent in the Arab region, is pivotal.
This paper investigates the scarcity of teachers in the Arab world, the underlying causes behind such an acute educational challenge, the policy implications, and the possible interventions. To do this, it heavily relies on data collected and analyzed by the UIS, the primary source of data in this field, and one of the few available reliable agencies observing and monitoring teacher staffing. Due to a lack of clear empirical findings that examine the reasons behind teacher shortages in the region, references will also be made to previously established conceptual paradigms that examine this phenomenon.
Studies examining the scarcity of qualified teachers have primarily attributed this educational challenge to three obstacles: burgeoning school age population, teachers reaching retirement age, and challenges in teacher retention (Darling-Hammond, 2000). Like many countries worldwide, in the quest to achieve universal primary education, the Arab world is struggling to supply enough qualified teachers. Over the past few decades, many studies have warned of a possible crisis that the field of education is – and will – encounter unless better policies and interventions are designed and implemented (Weaver, 1983; Darling-Hammond, 1984). The lack of empirical representative data on qualified teacher’s shortage to date, however, has prevented an in-depth understanding of the repercussions of teachers’ shortages, deterring the development of appropriate policies and practices that tackle the supply and demand side of teachers. At present, the general shortage of teachers across the entire educational spectrum is also overshadowing other critical emerging gaps such as shortcomings in specific teaching subjects (especially mathematics, physics and business) and a noted shortage in school administrators (Grimmett & Echols, 2000).
Reaching the set goals of ensuring primary education for school children remains the prime responsibility of governments and education authorities. UNESCO has recently provided figures for the number of teachers needed to meet the anticipated learning goals and access to education by 2030. According to UIS statistics (UIS,2013), for the Arab World to achieve UPE in 2030, the total number of teachers needed in the classrooms and schools is 213, 000 in 2015, 345, 000 in 2020, 399, 000 in 2025 and 454, 000 in 2030, in addition to filling the vacancies that result from teacher attrition. Due to staggering population growths, and growing school age populations, the Arab world is facing a chronic shortage of teaching positions, a situation calling for immediate national, regional and institutional policies that ensure better access to education and quality teaching.
Standing behind only sub-Saharan Africa, Arab states are expected to introduce 500, 000 new teaching positions and fill about 1.4 million vacancies that will result from retirement, illness and high offset attrition rates (UIS, 2013). Complicating the situation are estimates that by 2030, Arab states need to accommodate an additional 7.7 million children in primary education (UIS, 2014). Extensive studies measuring the impact of a shortage of teachers in economic terms are lacking, but in a recent study (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014), teacher attrition rate was estimated at around 2.2 billion US dollars annually.
There are however some positive trends in sight. The latest projected data indicated that Mauritania and Yemen are expected to close the teaching gap by 2015, with Mauritania aiming for an anticipated 40 pupils per teacher. Palestine is also expected to meet the need of more teachers in 2015, with a ratio of 24 students per teacher (UIS, 2014), but it will not reach the goal of providing primary education for all school age Palestinian children until 2023. Djibouti, on the other hand, will fail to meet UPE even after 2030, due to the high rate of school age children who are not enrolled in primary education. Its teacher gap is expected to be met after 2030 with estimated 34 students per teacher.
Overall, Arab states will need to introduce an estimated half a million teaching positions, in addition to those that have to be filled as a result of attrition in the workplace. While most Arab states have failed to reach the goal of universal primary education by 2015, policy makers in the region have started to make noticeable progress towards meeting educational goals. For example, recent figures indicate that the Arab states expenditure on education is estimated to be around 18.6% of total governments’ spending, compared to 14.2% for the global average (Melly, 2013), a remarkable increase from the previously estimated allocation of 5.4% of the Gross National Product on education, which matches the expenditure on education in North America, and which is higher than the global average estimated at 4.9% (UNESCO, 2000).
Investment in the education sector in the region is expected to increase even further. In 2011, Arab states spent 4.8% of their Gross National Product GNP on education and 18.1% of their total government expenditure, these numbers are now expected to rise to 6% of GNP and 20% of total expenditure in order to meet the new Education for All goals (EFA, Global monitoring Report, 2013-2014). Still, pouring more investment in the education sector, including schools, universities and vocational training centers, does not necessarily lead to better performance, nor does it lead to achievement or improvement in access to education. Countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and Kuwait have significantly increased their budgetary allocations towards improving education access, yet, further investment is needed towards quality teacher recruitment; continuous training and research; and teacher practice to ensure quality education.
That recruiting qualified teachers will have a positive impact on student achievement is proven (Borman & Kimball, 2005). To illustrate, different studies indicate that teachers that have obtained specialized degrees and certificates in their teaching subjects attain higher students achievement rates compared to those who are not qualified in the specific subject they are teaching. Failing to fill teaching positions, or recruiting unqualified teaching staff, will eventually result in perpetuating unequal learning outcomes, in addition to contributing to lower enrollment rates of children into primary schools. For example, across the region, by 2010 there were an estimated 5 million children out of schools in the whole 22 Arab states (UIS, 2012). On the other hand, Arab states are progressing with primary ratio of 89% in comparison to 79% in 1999 particularly in Morocco where out of school age children dropped by 68% between 2006 and 2011 (EFA, Global monitoring Report, 2013-2014).
A lack of empirical and comparative studies that tap into the relation between shortage of qualified teachers and unequal education in the Arab region makes it difficult to devise appropriate policy interventions. This study relies on data collected by UN bodies in an attempt to spotlight the repercussions of the existing, and anticipated, “epidemic”. Given the criticality in ensuring access to education to school age populations, and the need to close the gaps between high vs. low achieving countries, the thesis under investigation would need further theoretical and empirical investigations in order to solidify a policy discourse. There is however profound evidence of an imminent need to devise policies, on different levels, that safeguard access to education and quality learning, and, in turn, to ensure these educational policies feature high in national agendas.
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