Last week heralded a new era for education policymaking in the UAE. It marked the release of results from the country's first participation in a major international education study. This is a significant milestone for education that will set the stage for years to come.
From the name itself, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) implies that its purpose is to methodically examine educational progress. In all participating countries, students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 are assessed in mathematics and science. The Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which was simultaneously conducted in April 2011, evaluated students' literacy at Grade 4.
The data allow us to benchmark students' knowledge in mathematics and science against that of their peers in more than 60 countries around the world. Moreover, the extensive contextual data on teachers and schools collected in the study enable us to investigate the factors that affect educational outcomes.
So what do the results say? In general, students in the UAE exhibited knowledge and skills that exceed the regional average. They perform better in reading, mathematics and science than students in other Arab countries. But on a global level, the results are below the scale centre-point of 500. This is a high bar, but one that the education authorities in the UAE are determined to reach.
These findings now form a baseline to measure progress. Dubai participated in TIMSS in 2007 and the most recent results from 2011 allow the emirate to examine changes over four years. Early analysis of this trend reveals substantial progress in mathematics. Dubai experienced the third and fifth largest rise in mathematics achievement in the world among its Grade 4 and Grade 8 students respectively. No significant changes were observed in science, although some school types have significantly progressed.
Of course, TIMSS is about more than helping policymakers reform education. In many ways, assessments such as TIMSS and PIRLS are as helpful for schools as they are for a country or emirate as a whole. By analysing student data, schools can determine areas of strength and identify those in need of greater attention.
Also, students' attitudes to reading, mathematics and science as well as their educational expectations are important signs of their commitment to education. Our research in other countries has found these to be vital predictors of success in education and the labour market. Above-average engagement in all domains was found for Grade 4 students in Dubai. While lower engagement and enjoyment characterised Grade 8 students, they still placed great value on learning mathematics.
Students and parents were found to have some of the highest expectations in the world when asked about their intended level of education. This positive commitment to education, echoed nationally, is an invaluable asset for educators.
The Ministry of Education has announced an ambitious reform agenda aimed at elevating student achievement to match world standards by 2020. The Abu Dhabi Education Council is transforming public schooling through the New School Model together with sustained learning support for students. In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority continues its unique school inspections programme, providing objective measures of school quality and encouraging schools to develop through self-evaluation.
The effects of these ground-breaking initiatives do not appear overnight, however. Decades of research have proven the invaluable potential for enhancing education by using the findings arising from these major studies.
Decision-makers can look into the policy levers that affect outcomes such as early childhood education, grade retention and teacher quality. Achievement data can be used by schools to determine content and cognitive areas that can be further developed, such as geometry and life sciences. Reading metaphorical texts and encouraging reading for enjoyment are of utmost priority. Last not but not least, parental involvement and meaningful engagement in their children's education is another critical input.
Dr Mike Helal is the regional director of Parkville Global Advisory in the Middle East and North Africa, which is analysing international assessments and their implications throughout the UAE