January 15, 2013

Reviving Public Schools in Lebanon

A school system develops a comprehensive plan for improvement.

As far as EDC’s Susan Ross can see, the public school system in Lebanon is faced with an unfortunate choice. “Which comes first—fixing dilapidated schools or preparing good teachers?” she asks. “They have to happen simultaneously.”

Addressing both issues is key to reversing the system’s long decline. And in collaboration with EDC, partners, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) is beginning to improve opportunities for thousands of Lebanese students. Called D-RASATI, Arabic for “my studies,” the collaboration is aiming for nothing less than comprehensive rehabilitation of Lebanon’s public school system, from the way teachers teach to the revitalization of the spaces in which students learn.

As Ross found out, the problems facing this Mediterranean country are daunting. Two-thirds of Lebanese students have left the system to seek opportunities in the country’s many private schools. Those who do attend public schools often learn in buildings still damaged from Lebanon’s long civil war, which ended in 1990. Science labs lack microscopes and classroom ceilings leak. Many schools do not even offer adequate shelter from the freezing winter temperatures that are common in parts of Lebanon.

Faced with a large mandate, D-RASATI first sought to rehabilitate the crumbling schools around the country. But information about which schools were in the worst condition was nonexistent. In fact, there was a lack of comprehensive data about any aspect of the public school system.

So before any renovations could be done, a first-of-its-kind survey of the nation’s public schools had to be conducted.

“It’s amazing how much the Ministry learned from that process,” says Ross. “They had no data on the number of schools, teachers, or students.”

The survey results were used to refine existing school building standards and to prioritize a group of nearly 300 schools that needed repairs. Next, the D-RASATI team assisted MEHE in ensuring that renovations were in line with these standards. Repairs at 37 schools followed in fall 2011, enabling many students to enjoy vastly improved classroom conditions. Rehabilitation of an additional 156 schools is currently underway.

The survey also pointed to a systemic issue: existing standards governing the minimum physical condition of school buildings had gone unenforced.

“In some cases, the learning conditions at schools may have put the kids at risk,” says Ross. “We focused on making buildings safe and comfortable, from ensuring good lighting to using classroom space in a way that could improve the teaching and learning process.”

Inside the walls

Rebuilding schools is one priority. But with the quality of instruction varying widely from class to class, more needs to be done to ensure that students are learning within the refreshed schools.

A significant charge for D-RASATI, then, is to work within the Ministry’s plan to professionalize the teaching force. This is beginning with the development of teaching and training standards, but it also includes extensive training for MEHE personnel who support teachers and the development of school-based teacher learning communities.

Teachers’ subject area knowledge is also getting a boost: the project is offering English lessons to teachers who use English as their language of instruction, and training many science specialists on how to use new lab equipment that the project will be providing to secondary schools.

Ross hopes that by the end of the project, teachers have much more opportunity and responsibility than under the current system.

“We hope that these new models of teacher training have really taken root and that the Ministry is expanding and scaling up those models,” she says.

As teacher preparation was being rethought, so too was the technology used in Lebanon’s schools. A new technology plan for the country’s schools was released in September 2012.

“The Ministry wanted a technology plan for the same reason everyone else does: they want their students to be more competitive,” says EDC’s Mary Burns, who helped author the plan. “But this is the first time that the Ministry has had an in-depth conversation about this.”

The new technology plan details how computers and other technology tools can best be used for instruction, assessment, and teacher development. And it does more than just call for an increased use of technology. It also creates a detailed road map for MEHE to follow over the next five years, including the establishment of a set of national technology standards, the formalization of teacher professional development opportunities, and the development of a performance monitoring plan.

It’s all new. And before D-RASATI, it was all largely unthinkable.

Burns shares an anecdote from one of her visits to Lebanon, when she and her MEHE colleagues were trying to assess the level of technology use in schools. “Teachers would tell us that their students didn’t need to use technology for learning—that they didn’t know how to use technology,” she says. “But then we asked the kids, and they shared the ways they all use Facebook to work on their homework together. The teachers were shocked by how much technology their students knew how to use.”

Ross says that these changes are small steps in the right direction, but that the journey to comprehensive change will be a long one.

“Technology itself isn’t the solution,” she says. “Good teaching is what you need, and technology is best used as a tool to support effective instruction in the classroom.”