For more than 52 years, Palestinians completing 12th grade have faced a stressful, life-changing experience. Their admission to university has depended on how they do on a single, national exam. The “tawjihi,” the comprehensive matriculation exam designed to test knowledge and ability, has been a source of incredible pressure for students, their families and communities at large.
Young Palestinians cram for weeks before the exam and often lose sleep trying to be as prepared as possible, learning by heart the information that might be on the test. The results determine whether a student will be admitted to medical school or qualifies to study engineering. Thus, the test has become a huge part of Palestinian life.
Sabri Saidam, Palestinian minister of education and higher education, told Al-Monitor that he wants to revise the tawjihi, which he believes covers too much material and is based on rote memorization. In doing so, Saidam seeks to reduce the pressure on students and their families while also better evaluating students’ abilities.
In a comprehensive interview with Al-Monitor, Saidam, who was appointed in August 2015, also wants to use changes to the controversial test to introduce a much more effective education system. The test results often determine people's future and ultimately can bring great benefits to their families or keep them in poverty. Scholarships are available to students who get high grades. “This [testing] system divides society on the basis of the results of the tawjihi, which does not allow the students to express themselves and does not provide any space for analysis or interactive learning,” Saidam explained.
Saidam graduated in 2000 from the Imperial College London with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and in 2004, he took an intensive course in human development at Oxford with the United Nations Development Programme. He now intends to introduce a totally new educational system in Palestine, stating, “What we have done in the new system is combine various educational systems, such as the British A level, the IB [international baccalaureate] and the American SAT system as well as the traditional system.”
Saidam, a former minister of telecommunications and leader in the Palestinian National Internet Naming Authority, the e-government initiative launched in 2004, said he also wants to bring automation to the testing and grading process. “This is a new approach where the tests are totally computerized and each student will get a different set of questions. This should also automate the correction of the exams. We are working on creating a bank of 10,000 digitized test questions,” Saidam said.
The youth unemployment problems facing Palestine and the Arab region is high on his agenda. “We know that if you improve the educational inputs, this will be reflected in outputs, especially at the higher educational level,” Saidam said. He also wants to suspend or cancel certain specializations that are not needed in today’s job market or ones that have reached their limit. He noted, for example, that there is a glut of dentists in Palestine.
Saidam was born in 1971 in Damascus. His father Mamdouh, had been a Fatah Central Committee member, and his mother, Jamila, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The education minister was himself a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, until he was sworn in as the youngest Palestinian minister of education at the age of 44.
Saidam said he resigned from Fatah after being chosen to lead the ministry, because he wants to keep partisan politics out of the national consensus government led by Rami Hamdallah. “I wanted to avoid any mixing of political action and service-related work, and therefore the decision was biased toward work. Also, the level and amount of responsibility made it next to impossible for me to juggle the two positions. Nevertheless, I am still a bona fide member of the Fatah movement, for which I am proud,” he said.
In addition to changes to the tawjihi and the educational system, Saidam has introduced extracurricular activities for students through an open education day on Saturdays. He explained, “A hundred Palestinian schools, in cooperation with the private sector, will be providing 15 extracurricular opportunities in what we are introducing as unrestricted activities. We will be teaching drama, poetry, robotics, programming and sports. The goal is to broaden the horizon of the students.”
Palestine’s youngest and tech-savvy minister has even more ambitious plans for the youngest Palestinians, including getting rid of their heavy schoolbags. “We have other challenges, like a digitization program for grades 3 through 6. We want to replace the schoolbag with tablets,” Saidam said.
The full text of the interview follows.
Al-Monitor: You are planning to revolutionize the tawjihi, the high school matriculation exam. What led you to this decision, and how do you plan to implement it?
Saidam: Technology has developed a lot around the world, and along with this, we have seen a change in educational methodology. Palestine, which has always boasted educational accomplishments among the best in the developing countries, now needs to review its educational system and to raise the level of knowledge. We know that if you improve the educational inputs, this will be reflected in outputs, especially at the higher educational level. Therefore, it is important to merge vocational training with technical training and with general education. All this must necessarily be reflected in the tawjihi, which has remained the same for 52 years. During this period, this high school testing system has become a ‘calcified system.’
Al-Monitor: What do you mean by this term?
Saidam: It means that the [tawjihi] depends more on rote memorization and reading comprehension skills. The test produces high levels of stress and social pressure and feeds into a class system. This system divides society on the basis of the results of the tawjihi, which does not allow for the students to express themselves and does not provide any space for analysis or interactive learning. This is why Palestine has chosen to focus more on the character of the students in order to bring out in them leadership and creative skills and to give them an opportunity to initiate ideas within a team and to learn how to better manage time, in addition to keeping the reading part of the test within a limited scope so that students can reflect on their knowledge and accumulated experiences.
Al-Monitor: So the tawjihi will continue, but the questions will change?
Saidam: No, the tested topics will be reduced a lot, and instead, the students will have two years to achieve what we call “accomplishment portfolios.” These portfolios cover a variety of topics, and teachers choose them based on the student's character and abilities. When the student reaches the 12th grade, he decides which portfolio he wants to be tested on, and this portfolio will include mandatory and basic subjects. So if the student is studying a science, math or engineering stream, he will have to take some scientific subjects. What we have done in the new system is combine various educational systems, such as the British A level, the IB [international baccalaureate] and the American SAT system as well as the traditional system.
In order to reduce the pressure on students, we will stop making the test results public, as local newspapers annually compete on publishing the names and grades of passing students. Every student will have a number and can personally check his results on the ministry’s website. We are also planning to create a question bank. This is a new approach where the tests are totally computerized, and each student will get a different set of questions. This should also automate the correction of the exams. We are working on creating a bank of 10,000 digitized test questions. Obviously, it will need to be organized in terms of knowledge areas and evaluations so that there is fairness. Calculating the results will also need to be digitized, and we need to provide all schools with the necessary technical facilities, which should all be centrally networked.
Al-Monitor: Wouldn’t it be easier if universities considered entrance exams in addition to the grades of the last four years, instead of just this one test?
Saidam: The problem is that such tests are costly for universities. We will continue to supervise the tawjihi; this will not change. What we want to do is reduce the pressure that is a killer to creativity. This change is happening in parallel with our efforts to change the curriculum, and we are still studying how the subject sections will change. Do we continue the scientific, literary, agricultural and commercial streams, or do we allow the student an opportunity to choose from a wide-ranging assortment of programs?
Al-Monitor: What can be done to raise the level of research and critical thinking among Palestinians?
Saidam: This is of course our goal. Our accomplishment portfolios and the freedom that will be given to students to choose will mean that they will be tested on critical thinking, interactive education and even learning through games.
Al-Monitor: Youths constitute the majority of the population of Palestine and, therefore, are among the highest unemployed. How will these changes in the educational system improve the unemployment problem plaguing Palestine and Arab countries?
Saidam: We are now discussing in the Palestinian Higher Education Council this particular issue, and that is why we want to reduce some of the unnecessary specialization or suspend those topics that are not needed in the job market. For example, we have a glut of dentists in our society these days. We need to teach our students skills that they can use to get a job.
Al-Monitor: You come from a technical and IT [information technology] background. What is happening on this front in the educational system?
Saidam: This is a huge challenge for us. We need to intensify Palestinian energies, especially in areas such as robot making and [developing] applications for mobile phones. To do this, we are working hard on investing in human resources. Palestinians are not happy with the level we are at in this area. People are yearning for a lot in this area but are never satisfied.
Al-Monitor: When you became minister of education, you resigned from Fatah's Revolutionary Council. Why did you resign, and do you think there is a conflict of interest between the two?
Saidam: The goal was to allow the national consensus government to do its work outside the political sphere, which was left to the various political factions led by Fatah. I wanted to separate my partisan role from this pivotal role. So I wanted to avoid any mixing of political action and service-related work, and therefore the decision was biased toward work. Also, the level and amount of responsibility made it next to impossible for me to juggle the two positions. Nevertheless, I am still a bona fide member of the Fatah movement, for which I am proud.
Al-Monitor: Gaza is part of the Ministry of Education’s work domain, even though the Palestinian government has no power in Gaza. What have you done to deal with the problems of education in Gaza?
Saidam: We are back into building schools in the Gaza Strip, and we have been doing the standard tests in Gaza, including the tawjihi, for some time. We accredit programs and universities and license institutions in a centralized manner. But all other issues have a political meaning. For example, Al-Aqsa University — which is a government university — has been making changes that the ministry is not happy with. We have tried a few times to reach some understandings, but we have not succeeded. So [in Gaza], some areas fall prey to political polarization, while in service-related areas, things are moving smoothly despite major challenges and political differences. Since the last Cabinet reshuffle in August 2015, we have not had any Cabinet member visit Gaza. But there are some positive signs coming from the various attempts at reconciliation from different sources. But Palestinian society has for some time stopped putting any hope in talks and prefers instead to see results rather than declarations.
Al-Monitor: International donor funding to Palestine has been reduced in recent years. How has that affected the Ministry of Education, and what are your priorities for funding when you are forced to make budget cuts?
Saidam: When the Palestine Liberation Organization started joining various international organizations, such as the International Criminal Court in April 2015, this caused a drop in international funding, from $1.2 billion to $680 million annually. This, of course, was reflected in the budgets of the ministries. In our field, this caused a setback in school expansion and other projects, but the overwhelming community desire for education in Palestinian schools has ensured that the Ministry of Education allotment is one-fifth of the entire budget. This is an unprecedented amount of money being earmarked for education. Still, we were affected in that the development budget was cut back, even though the number of our people and our teachers is increasing annually, which means we need to build more schools and add more classrooms.
Al-Monitor: What are the major problems facing your ministry [vis-a-vis] the Israeli forces?
Saidam: When this school year began, we had decided beforehand that this would be the year for development, but we have quickly found ourselves in the middle of crises and confrontations. While we are insisting on the theme of development, we have added another theme — crisis management. This is a sensitive issue, as we are trying to keep the educational process going despite the fact that children are being targeted in cold blood and arbitrary summary judgments are being carried out while schools and universities are being regularly raided by the Israeli army. We are convinced that the occupiers won’t engage mercifully with education. Despite all these challenges, we insist on moving on with our goals.
Al-Monitor: A landmark, US-funded report has shown that Palestinian textbooks don’t vilify Jews. What’s your opinion? Will this report end the constant claims that Palestinian textbooks incite children to violence?
Saidam: So many things have been blamed on the Palestinian Authority in regard to so-called incitement in textbooks. This was a feverish campaign [waged] from different fronts, but the report has contributed to shedding light on the reality of things. Another book, by Nurit Peled-Elhanan, was published in Israel examining how Palestine is referred to in Israeli textbooks. This book also contributed to exonerating the Palestinian curriculum in the face of the continued attacks. They always try to shift the debate and put the ball of incitement into the Palestinian court.
Al-Monitor: You participated in the Tajaawob on Wheels project by the Tajaawob NGO [nongovernmental organization], which had the aim of bringing officials closer to the people, where you traveled throughout Palestine. How has that experience influenced your work?
Saidam: The experience was very enriching. It was a huge discovery for me to meet with people on the ground and learn about all the challenges that we are facing. I can say, as minister of education, that I take my job to teach and to learn seriously, and I learned about the needs and saw the discipline [of the people] at the same time. I tried to encourage people to work despite the difficult conditions and to impress on them the concept of steadfastness in the face of occupation. This was a unique experience, standing with our people and supporting them in their time of need. It was also great for me to understand that I should be careful not to limit my knowledge to the office, but to also go into the field.
Al-Monitor: What are the next steps by the ministry to encourage youths to persevere in their education, keeping in mind the current circumstances?
Saidam: Our schools will start opening Saturdays for open activities. A hundred Palestinian schools, in cooperation with the private sector, will be providing 15 extracurricular opportunities in what we are introducing as unrestricted activities. We will be teaching drama, poetry, robotics, programming and sports. The goal is to broaden the horizon of the students. While this is an elective program, we also want to use it to help teachers financially. We have other challenges, like a digitization program for grades 3 through 6. We want to replace the schoolbag with tablets, certify electronic education and help pass a number of laws that will encourage creativity and improve the educational environment while increasing the efficiency of our teachers.