PIRLS and BOYS

In early December L’Economiste ran a front page editorial by Mohamed Benabid, which was bitter in its condemnation of Moroccan public schools. Everyone knows, he writes, that the public school system in Morocco is a disaster. This is so despite the hugely increased spending on public education in the country; and today the crisis of education has broken bounds and invited itself to the table of another crisis, that of exports and competitivity. Benabid concludes that the crisis in education is one of sector governance and strategy: we’ve been reflecting on the future of the school system for a quarter of a century, without any real idea of how to handle it.

Ouch. What prompted this tirade was the publication of the 2011 PIRLS and TIMMS results. These are two international tests, the first in literacy and the second in mathematics, which calibrate achievement by children in countries that take part, and give some kind of objective assessment of whether education policies are having the impact intended. The results are not kind to Morocco. Out of 45 countries testing its 4th graders in literacy, Morocco comes 45th; of the 4 levels of literacy assigned, only 21% of 4th graders reach or pass the lowest (as against 95% for the international median), a figure that rises to 61% when the same test is applied two years later, in the 6th grade. It isn’t possible to compare meaningfully with previous years (Morocco has done the PIRLS, in 2001, 2006 and 2011) as “average achievement is not reliably measured because the percentage of students with achievement too low for estimation exceeds 25%.” The maths results are similar: 49th out of 50 countries (beating Yemen) at 4th grade; and 48th (Yemen and Ghana) at 6th grade. Ouch again.

So what’s going on? This is an education system that has had 2.7 billion euros poured into it since 2009 under the Plan d’Urgence: somehow the problems seem to defy the very real and substantial efforts of the educational planners and funders. I find PIRLS particularly interesting and particularly depressing, in two dimensions. The first is the interplay with overall literacy statistics; the second is the interplay with gender.

World Bank figures on literacy in Morocco show 56.1% literacy – a steadily but slowly rising line of achievement which still leaves the kingdom 186th out of 205 countries measured, the lowest scoring of all MENA countries, and two points below Mauretania. The youth literacy rate in the same sources is 79.5%, suggesting on the face of it that illiteracy is an age-related problem that is being squeezed, albeit slowly, out of the system by increased primary enrollment and steady attrition.

But this doesn’t square with the PIRLS results. If only 61% of 6th graders reach the lowest measurable literacy level (designed for grade 4), and more than 25% are at too low a level to measure at all (leaving perhaps 14% somewhere between the barely measurable and the lowest achievement level), then a 79.5% youth literacy rate cannot be right. Unless of course significantly less demanding standards than PIRLS’s are being applied in the World Bank statistics: and this of course is what is happening.

PIRLS is an attempt to measure the ability to interpret simple written texts in terms both of content and context. As the PIRLS literature describes the test: “PIRLS devotes half of the assessment to reading for literary experience and half to reading to acquire and use information. It also assesses reading comprehension processes across the two purposes for reading.” The World Bank criterion is simpler: “the percentage of the population age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

In what sense is the single-statement test actually a measure of literacy? Or perhaps more fairly we might ask: what does literacy mean, and what should it mean? The single-statement tells us that someone can manage a simple, pre-determined task, its terms of reference defined by the familiar. To be able to manage it is – of course – a very real achievement in a non-literate environment and should not be belittled; but is it adaptable to other circumstances (an application form, a public notice or a newspaper)? And is it a contributor to individual and collective prosperity? Above all, is it accumulative – does it provide an active tool for the progressive acquisition and retention of knowledge? I am not clear that the literacy rate stated by the World Bank is an indicator of any such thing.

PIRLS measures the ability to use written text, and is a serious attempt to answer the last question. It measures not a static and familiar skill, but a versatile skill that can be redeployed in other circumstances than that it which it was learned. Literacy of this sort does provide an active tool for the progressive acquisition and retention of knowledge, and so it is a genuine, live instrument which will, in the hands of some children at least, equip them to build cultural and knowledge capital in Morocco.

My second point concerns gender, and again there is a contradiction between PIRLS and national statistics, this time dramatic and diametrical: PIRLS finds girls more than 10% ahead of boys at grade 4, and 8.5% ahead at grade 6. But in the national statistics we find that 68.9% of men and 43.9% of women are literate.

Once again, this could be age-skewed, so the better comparison is with the figures for young people aged 15-24 (still potentially age-skewed, but much less so). Here the difference between girls and boys is 81.5% – which means that for every 100 literate boys, there are only 81.5 literate girls. But at grade 4 there were 110 literate girls for every 100 literate boys; and at grade 6, there were 108.5 literate girls for every 100 literate boys. Something dreadful is happening to girls between the age of ten and 20, and leaching away their early literacy. A girls’ out-performance over boys of +10% at grade 4 has changed to an under-performance of -18.5% by (let’s say) the age of 20. And this isn’t just to do with school attendance: official figures for primary school completion, to the end of grade 6, are 85.8% for boys and 81.8% for girls. If all children by grade 6 had learned to read this would mean 105 literate boys for every 100 literate girls, which PIRLS suggests strongly isn’t the case.

There’s something fishy here. There’s a wonderful moment in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers, when the learned old abbot tries to discourage the heroine from learning to read on the basis that reading “makes girls’ brains overheat.” Perhaps that’s it, and girls each their intellectual ceiling between the beginning of grade 6 and the end, and their brains fry. But I rather doubt it. The collapse of female achievement after elementary education is cataclysmic.

And this takes us back to Mohamed Benabid’s remark that the crisis of education has broken bounds and invited itself to the table of another crisis, that of exports and competitivity. If the literacy aim of primary education is simply to increase the proportion of children who can read and write a single sentence, it can have little bearing to speak of on the economy. Even 56% literacy puts Morocco far down the world chart in terms of a skilled workforce, and for a country that must build its prosperity on its proximity to Europe and its situation at the gateway to Africa, this is not enough. Those 56% may have adequate reading skills to be effective manual and semi-skilled workers (though the language deficit is also crucial, as the import of anglophone Indian labourers into the Tangier Free Zone illustrated recently); but if Morocco is to become, as it must, the offshoring centre of southern Europe, the outer end of Europe’s key manufacturing supply-lines, and the gateway to Africa, then a different and higher kind of literacy is needed. And the half of the potential workforce that is made up of women needs to be brought fully into the circle of literacy, productivity and potential employment. The situation echoes poignantly the AHDR of 2005, which summarizes, on women and education, thus:

Despite the tremendous spread of girls’ education in Arab countries, women continue to suffer more than men do from a lack of opportunities to acquire knowledge. This occurs despite the fact that girls excel in knowledge pursuits, outstripping boys in competitive academic performance.

In terms of basic indicators, the Arab region has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy. It also displays one of the lowest rates of enrolment at the various levels of education …

International data indicate that girls in the Arab region perform better in school than boys. Drop out rates for girls are lower than those for boys in all the countries for which data are available. …

Girls, go out and overheat your brains.


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