The Moorish Wanderer

Proposals For a First Class Education (Part 1)

The trickiest of them all. Not that the successive Moroccan governments achieved something close to good results over the course of half a century, but any serious government, caring about the future of the the next generations as well as the current state of research and more generally the national level of culture -in all the broad definitions of the term-, will have to tackle head-on education.

A nightmare among many others, perhaps the worse of them all; Money is poured in a department that systematically fails to enact reforms. A bureaucratic department controlled by unions that are all too willing to engage in hostage taking, thus compromising the future of Moroccan children, and yet fail to stand up for their members, if indeed the teaching corps had any affiliation with these unions. By international standards, education in Morocco is wasteful, inefficient, and is effectively now a two-tiers system (through which your humble servant slipped by…). If there is one project on which a liberal/radical government has to deal with in priority, it is surely education.

The Failing Department. A radical overhaul is needed.

The current emergency program is a shambles. Not the least because it has been put hurriedly together, overseen by a minister who belongs to an opposition party set on shaming as much as possible the incumbent coalition. Whatever the Royal involvement with such a plan, it’s fate is sealed: it is going to blow over and go over the wall like the previous plans and strategies. We need something more radical; Something that would save money, on top of that. Let’s walk through some figures.

According to the UNPAN report, Morocco employs about 640.000 civil servants (2004 figures updated with the DVD). I did a piece on the civil service overall, so let’s get down to detailed numbers on education: of the half million civil servants, about 60%, that is about 380.000 workers at the education ministry. Not all of them are teachers, far from it. According to these numbers, the education department has 41.000 administrators, and the rest are indeed teachers of all grades. And yet, while payroll is relatively well distributed among them (roughly half the total public service workforce has half the expenditure budget) the administrative staff, the non-productive part of education that is, these 11% receive 30%, that is more than  three-quarters more relative to their size. This is a bad signal, and an inherently perverse payroll system.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the whole workforce, and the education ministry is certainly no exception, is ageing. Now, we might benefit from precious experience, but when about 60% are 40 years-old and more, with only less than half with enough experience -that is, more than 20 years service- it is quite obvious that we need an overhaul by getting new people in, and phasing out the old guard, which is going to be the case in the next couple of years. Any government policy has to take the demographic factor into account. And the human factor is going to be critical, though full of handicap for the promised policies. Contrary to other government policies, the effects are difficult to assess overtime.

Raymond Boudon published some years ago a book that asks perfectly valid questions, on issues that apply also to Morocco: in a nutshell, the sociologist asks whether there is any equilibrium that can be reached between a thrust for egalitarian education, and republican elitism. in other words, there is an inherent contradiction in pursuing the objective of 80% baccalauréat-graduates per class age, and the maintenance of Ecole Normale Supérieure, Polytechnique and other top-notch, ultra-selective institutions. Save perhaps for the republican ideal, Morocco is in the same quandary: we need everyone to benefit from free and good education, and yet we also need top-class research facilities, elite professors and graduate students. Between open education and selective mechanisms, it turns out it is difficult even to claim there is some equilibrium between seemingly irreconcilable ends of the same stick. That is why I would be in favour of introducing systematic testing, right from the start. Do allow me to explain the objective of such seemingly un-left wing proposal.

Do testing hurt the principle of equity? I don’t think so. In fact, the problem with school drop-outs, or indeed failure cases within the education system, is, in my opinion, partly due to that fact that teachers and pedagogical specialists do not take notice of them. A child in difficulty is not helped when pushed through grades, as the required knowledge gets tougher. The current system allows for tens of thousands of students to go through unchecked till the baccalaureate, or even to higher education. The result is unemployed graduates, even PhD holders on the dole.

Systematic testing creates, when appropriately applied, virtuous results: because they need to be standardized, it takes little time for pupils, students and teachers alike to spot the patterns, learn the ‘classics’. If artificial learning can be taught, it is much better than slip false notions and gargantuan useless information in the current system. Surprisingly enough, battery tests, again, when properly designed, can deliver reliable results, in seizing the level of knowledge and thinking our pupils and students can field when asked precise, standardized questions. Countries that adopted standardized tests have produced mitigated results: on the one hand, standardisation produced good results in specific subjects (maths and languages) but not so in others (although I gainsay whether history, geography and social studies questions could not be incorporated in the test as well). World rankings by international institutions show that countries that adopted testing as a primary tool perform relatively better, in any case broadly better, than others that prefer more egalitarian curricula (Finland is a special case, though selection does occur at later stages, which proves the initial point anyway. This testing policy however, in order to be more effective, needs to be conjugated with other measures -to be discussed later on or in another post- among others, better training for teachers, a greater autonomy in curriculum design for local authorities to enjoy, are important factors as well.

In any case, I would advise not to use the same test framework for every grade; At primary school, it is not so much the accumulated knowledge than the understanding of the surrounding world that matters. Indeed, the curriculum to pupils from 5 to 12 years old should focus on logical thinking – a prelude to mathematics and sciences- as well as a combo of national language/foreign languages. By national languages, I mean one of the local versions of Tamazight and Arabic (with no prejudice to one language or the other).

As for foreign languages, just as my colleague pointed out, we need to break away from the crippling French influence. Therefore, English should be promoted as the first foreign language, and an optional one could be considered -French, but also Spanish, Russian, German or Chinese are all viable options-. The third part of the primary curriculum is an eminently qualitative one: ‘social interaction’ or the ability to interact intelligently with their environment. Personality building is not something the regular curriculum bothers to take a look at; And yet, the best performing school systems are the ones trying their best to create all the favourable conditions for personality to foster. Why not make it a primary objective for schools to attain? Alongside standard tests, schools would provide their pupils with a motley of activities that would allow them to express themselves. That, I agree is a tall order; For one, how can the education department measure such objective? In the grey world of cost-benefits analysis, if sums of money were to be spend on specialists’ training or building facilities (in this particular case, primary schools) how can the department assess the effectiveness of such policies? I am afraid there’s going to be some degree of reliance on psychological surveys, although one can be optimistic about the benefits they are bound to bring in assessing each school’s contribution. IQ has reliable tests to be measured, EQ also does have its own tests, albeit not as precise as one might have hoped for the department to use, but still reliable tools on the whole.

Secondary and High-school, while retaining the framework of standard-tests, would gradually shift towards more academic achievements: Languages of course, but also Mathematics should, in my opinion, be the main taught subjects in secondary school. Alongside these subjects, students can be allowed to undertake other subjects, whether in natural or social sciences, or indeed more literal subjects, or individual projects that would involve technical courses too. Diversity should be a public service. In any case, curriculum are, under the federalism option, a prerogative of regional bodies, and apart from federally mandated subjects, regional boards are allowed to offer whatever subjects they see fit for the younger generations to undertake.

In order to implement such policies, there is a need for sweeping measures, the cardinal one being to change substantially the teaching corps. Here we are in with a chance of success, as much of the teachers have many years of service and, according to the figures laid before, most of them are bound to retirement in the 5 to 7 years. In the meantime, the government might as well redesign the teaching curriculum: either by extending the training period -making it a Master’s degree in Education Science plus a minor, a Bachelor of Arts or Science in the intended major- in order to renew the total workforce, which should be restrained to the number of 200.000 over the next 5 years, as the teaching corps would be entirely renewed. Such a number would provide a ratio of pupils per teacher of 11 to 1, close to Finnish standards. The human resources strategy should also include slowing down on bureaucracy by reducing the number of non-teaching staff to the ratio of 1 administrator for 20 teachers, thus attaining a number around 20.000 administrators, 2/3 of which should be local or regional staff, and the rest would be in charge at the federal education department.

As far as the total costing goes, and based on the 2009 budget figures, Salaries to teachers should be higher, and a reallocation of 4 billions from the MAD 34 billion payroll expenses would upgrade the median salary of a teacher to MAD 17.000. On the other hand, there is a need to double the investment credits over five years to reach MAD 12 billion, which should be ample enough not to build new schools, but to improve the existing infrastructure to higher standards, especially in remote or marginal areas (among others, Casablanca, Taza, Tadla and Layun need more money for their ventures). The increase in education spendings, though modest, is not there for allowance-spree, but as an effort to provide the existing infrastructure with better facilities, and for the teaching corps, the means to attract younger and more enthusiastic workforce with a better pay and increased responsibility over their schools and their pupils.