What do Newark in New Jersey, Oprah, and Marc Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, have to do with schools in the UAE?
Recently, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, appeared on Oprah to accept a $100 million grant from the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, to help his city's struggling public schools, under the condition that Mr Booker lead Newark's educational transformation. But Mr Booker's expertise is in law, not in education. He is not a product of Newark's public schools and he is not even native to the city. Why has he been chosen to fix a system that has been neglected since the 1980s, when educational programmes began to be cut and children were left out of the equation of the future of their hometown?
The Booker-Zuckerberg solution of throwing money at a problem and hiring outsiders to address them at schools might sound familiar to parents in this part of the world. But whether it's in the US or the UAE, money won't fix schools when there are endemic social and structural problems that aren't addressed.
If the actual physical conditions of schools in the UAE, both public and private, and the role of teachers aren't taken into account, then it will be hard to ensure that children are getting the best education possible. Owners of private schools as well as their principals often play fast and loose with teachers' contracts and the labour law, focusing instead on accruing fees from parents. The education of children is compromised in the process.
School owners have focused on accruing funds for long enough. It is difficult to see how more cash is the answer. Educational reform means addressing a junk drawer of social, curricular and financial issues.
In the US, charter schools have been seen as a short-cut to school reform. These schools get both public and private money. They are accountable to the goals of their own "charter" but not the same standards in terms of testing or student achievement. But test scores for these schools have not been substantially better than public schools and giving charter schools more money has not solved the problems of the vast majority of students who remain in the public school system. They have, however, deepened the divide between the haves and have-nots in the educational system.
The UAE also struggles with a two-tiered education system, both in how it is divided along private and public lines and how more attention appears to be paid to schools in Abu Dhabi and Dubai than in the other emirates.
The recent inspections of schools by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai have shown that public schools can excel as well. However, their inspections and the incentive they provided for schools to improve their operations were limited to Dubai.
"It's not just about the students in public schools; every child being educated in the UAE matters," Abdullah al Karam, the chairman of the KHDA has said. I believe him. But what happens to students who are not on the Abu Dhabi Education Council or KHDA's radar? Who is going to ensure that these students, their parents, and teachers are getting a fair deal for their money, time, and effort?
There are teachers at private schools who are forced to pay hefty residence visas (schools pocket the refund) and can get fired on a whim. How can this be motivation for great teaching? Some of these teachers can't afford school fees for their own children. While they are out teaching, their kids are often left at home alone. This has a direct affect on the quality of their lives and learning. What about them?
It says in the Quran that after struggle, there is ease.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the announcement last monththat the Ministry of Education (MOE) will soon begin inspections of private schools outside of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This can only be a positive step for the better.
I hope that the MOE will take up the tall task of improving teachers' working conditions and ensuring that every child in the UAE has an opportunity to learn and grow.
Nobody from Facebook will be calling the MOE up to offer a bag of cash. That may be just as well, as long as they look for some help right here at home rather than from superheroes from abroad. Experience, they say, is the best teacher. And there are plenty of educators and administrators in the UAE who have experience and understanding to drive improvements in schools.
Maryam Ismail is an educator who divides her time between the UAE and the US