Lebanon 4th in the World in Maths and Science Education? Not Really

Beirut Spring’s guest economist disputes a wildly shared statistic

— Hold the flag waving —

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

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  • http://N/A William

    Are you coming back to lebanon after you get done or we can classify you as brain drain and lured by what US companies will offer you.

    • gcb1

      As a Lebanese expatriate entering graduate school in economics, so long as my skills can’t be applied in Lebanon (due to a variety of social and political reasons), I have no incentive to return there.

  • http://beirutista.blogspot.com Danielle

    What I don’t understand is how and why do opinions are quantified into statistics in a major international economics study?! Rubbish

  • http://oussama-hayek.blogspot.com/ OH

    Excellent post.

  • http://www.now.mmedia.me Matt Nash

    Excellent post. Thank you so much. This sort of thing happens often. Remember when the were implementing the smoking ban? The restaurant association was pushing a “study” about the impact of the ban. Again, when I read it, it turns out the “study” was an opinion survey of restaurant owners, and there were only around 25 people queried (hardly a representative sample). Yet many news outlets lead readers to believe there was more science behind the “study”….. We always have to be diligent when reading/reporting on these things. Thanks for the clarification.

  • http://marwasocialmedia.wordpress.com marwa

    Although I was really one of the people that felt happy when I first saw the post, I didn’t share it because it looked like a clipped self reported excel table. Now after going through the whole report, it makes me feel so stupid especially that I work in that field and I know how people who used to send their children to Lebanon to study, has started shifting towards other countries because of both the quality and reputation of our Education system.

  • Jad Yaghi

    awesome analysis – thanks for pulling the data together. I was cringing everytime a friend shared these stats while every nerve in my brain was screaming bullshit. you’ve given me (and hopefully others) the ammunition to hopefully puncture and severely deflate the ego of many lebanese – in the hope that we can start tackling (or even understanding) the massive inequality in our country.

    • Mohamad Alloush

      Thank you Jad. It’s funny, even flawed statistics can give you some information. In this case, the information is not about the quality of of schooling system, it’s about very skewed perception we have of it and of inequality in our country.

  • Charles

    Mohamad! Great post and excellent analysis!

    The private Lebanese education does an excellent job fulfilling the needs of Lebanese executives who live comfortable lives and pay no attention to others who are not in their circles.

    The problem is not just the education system. It is also a problem of a government and elite that care little about employment, equality, and the elevation of the majority of the population.

    • gcb1

      The government has no incentive to care about employment and equality, so long as the masses don’t hold politicians accountable and only vote along sectarian lines.

  • Shiwa7ad

    I join my voice to that of the other posters praising the post of Mohamad, which is thorough, convincing, and well-argued. I would also like to add further criticisms of the current educational system at Lebanon, especially at the high school and undergraduate level. Through volunteer work (more than 1000 hours, over a bit less than a decade) I am familiar with the academic level of schools in the Greater Beirut area and I have the necessary knowledge to evaluate this level at least in mathematics and physics. The level at public schools is certainly below what could be deemed acceptable. Often the teachers are not sufficiently knowledgeable to teach, and sometimes even the Lebanese textbooks contain mistakes that reveal the lack of understanding of the subject by the authors (I have examples if you want, but I wanted to limit the geekiness of the post). It is not that the official currculum is not sufficient, it’s just that it’s not taught well. What about private schools ? Well you’ll be surprised to learn that many, and probably even the majority of private schools are worse than the public schools, especially the private schools with modest tuition. Some parents believe that by paying a little bit more, they can afford a better education for their children. Unfortunately, my experience is that you have to pay *a lot* more to actually get a better education. OK, so what about the elite high schools? IC, Jamhour, SABIS, ACS, etc ? Well, undoubtedly, you do get a better education there and the academic level is much stronger, they use foreign textbooks, and much of the curriculum is foreign. But even so, they are overpriced and overrated. You get an education that’s at the level of a slightly above average European public high school, while paying ten thousand or even 15 or 20 thousand dollars a year in tuition (if you’re preparing the international baccalaureate, for instance). No high school in Lebanon gets close to the foreign elite high schools (such as Louis le Grand and Henri IV in France, or Thomas Jefferson magnet school in the US) nor do they even seriously try to. They advertise the high rate of students who successfully apply to college, but quite frankly when they charge such an amount of money, they really should aim somewhat higher.
    It has been my experience that the top students at the Lebanese schools (including the elite schools) are “better than their schools”, meaning that these students do not owe their good academic level to their school, but rather, to their mastery of English (or French) , their access to books and the internet, and their intellectual curiosity. Actually I have the strong impression that the educational system in Lebanon is harmful rather than helpful to these top students.
    Finally I think that asking Lebanese executives to evaluate the academic level in mathematics is just laughable. Probably no one among them remembers how to solve a quadratic or correctly interpret a confidence interval (Again, I speak from experience).

    • Mohamad Alloush

      Thank you for this comment! It is very informative and a great addition to this post. About 10 years ago (I think it was 2004), a large sample of physics teachers who teach 12th grade students in both public and private schools were given an exam of basic university level physics. Their average was under 40/100.

      There are clear problems in our education system, and point that out was one of my goals here. At the same time, the fact that a large number of people do not realize that we have serious problems is equally troubling.

  • romeo

    This post made me do some introspection on my own educational experience in Lebanon.

    I went through a middle-class school system. Neither elite nor poor. Just average.

    I now realize that I really am self-educated :-)

    I still have no real understanding of some basic math concepts in calculus, trigonometry, etc.

    The teachers sucked. I thought they were idiots. They ignored my situation. And life continued.

    On the other hand, I was fascinated by everything related to life sciences.

    I would spend hours at Librairie Antoine in Hamra reading French magazines such as “Science et Vie”. I could not afford to buy them.

    Whatever I knew then, came from popular science magazines and deeper research that I initiated myself *outside of school*.

    Then I “slipped” into university in order to escape the lack of opportunities for kids with no local business connections.

    Then I “slipped” into graduate studies abroad to escape the lack of opportunities for adults with no local business connections.

    I am now considered a “successful immigrant” in a foreign land that adopted me.

    And you wonder why there is brain drain.

    And you wonder how many kids that are less fortunate, I left behind.


    PS. thanks Mohamad!