Beirut Spring’s guest economist disputes a wildly shared statistic
Guest post by Mohamad Alloush
When I first read the report about Lebanon’s education system being ranked 4th in quality of math and science education and 10th in overall education, my immediate thought was “where on earth was that statistic pulled out from?” I’ve had some firsthand exposure to the poorer public schools in this system and there are primary schools where more than a quarter of the students are still illiterate by the time they reach the fourth grade. I called bullshit and moved on.
But then everybody started sharing these numbers and voicing their pride about them. The Mountains! The Sea! AND now a world class education system? It was irritating to say the least, but even more so because it came from the most educated in our society.
Let me rewind a little to explain. I’m in the process of getting a PhD in economics and I’m mainly interested in education, skills, labor market, and development. I also worked for an international organization writing reports on education and labor in the region. So when I saw those numbers, I knew something just wasn’t right. So I took some time and skimmed through the report.
The Infamous Ranking
The report is a legitimate and thoughtful work on technology, labor, and work in the world. Our two tables of interest were put together using numbers from the 2012 Executive’s Opinion Survey. In a nutshell, this survey asks a number of executives in target countries around the world what their opinion was on certain issues in their country.
I looked the number up for Lebanon, and it turns out 48 executives in Lebanese companies of different sizes responded to this survey. The best part though is what comes next. The survey asks these executives in their opinion
- How well does the educational system in your country meet the needs of a competitive economy? Lebanon ranked 10th. Mind you, this is not what executives around the world think of Lebanon’s education system. It is what 48 Lebanese executives think of it.
- How would you assess the quality of math and science education in your country’s schools?
That’s where we rocked actually and came in an astounding 4th place.
When these numbers were being shared, they were titled “Quality of education system” and “Quality of math and science education” which is very misleading.
But what is the big deal you may ask? Why isn’t their opinion a good measure?
The Real Position of Lebanon’s Education System
When it comes to secondary enrollment rates and primary completion we come at a whopping 87th place. Over 10% of children drop out of primary school, and this number is much higher in poor public schools. In adult literacy, we rank 88th. In tertiary enrollment rates, we rank 40th without saying much about the quality. In a UNESCO education index that takes many different aspects of the system into account, in 2010, our ranking was 70. We were 97th in 2007.
In an international quality of education test (TIMSS 2011), students in Lebanon got an average score of 449 on math which is 51 points below average. In terms of ranking, we came in 25th place out of 43 participating countries. Better still, in terms of achieving certain benchmarks, only 1% of Lebanese students achieved the advanced benchmark (3% is the world median), 9%, 38%, & 73% achieved the high, intermediate, and low benchmarks respectively. The world medians are 17%, 46%, and 75%. In terms of quality, we are clearly below average.
I don’t mean to berate nameless people on this. But if we don’t realize that something is wrong, then we have no incentive to fix it.
It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you went to a good school. And so did many of your friends. And then you went on to go to decent universities. So when you saw those rankings, you thought about your own experience and thought that it makes sense. Those 48 executives answering the survey probably had a similar experience. Their opinions when presented next to real statistics only show a deep lack of civic awareness among our educated elite about inequality in our country. That, combined with the glorified and skewed image we have of ourselves and our country results in some very misleading perceptions that sadly help reinforce both of these things.
We need to understand the realities that different people face in our country. Maybe then, we will we be able to understand why two neighborhoods can fight for years for no real reason. Maybe then we will be able to understand why extremism is growing in certain places. Maybe then we will be able to understand why people can’t seem to let go of their sects. If we don’t understand it, we sure as hell can’t fix it.
On a different note: While discussing this with a friend, he jokingly reminded me of a website of self-reported penis sizes and how Lebanon is ranked in the top 10 there. Of course it is. Of course it is.
Mohamad Alloush is originally from Tripoli, Lebanon and an alumni of AUB. Currently he lives in the US and is an economics PhD student specializing in development, labor, and econometrics. He tweets at @mmalloush