Student absenteeism in Jordan is among the worst in the Arab region, with 57 percent of Jordanian students reporting skipping class, according to surveys that accompany the prominent international test, the Program for International Student Assessment.
In the survey, the students said they missed either a whole day of school or some classes at least once during the last two weeks. The absenteeism is a paradox at first glance, because the students also report being happy in the classroom.
That absenteeism rate is more than double the international average. This pushed Jordan’s ministry of education to call in May on schools to reduce student absences from 60 percent of the days students should be in school to 20 percent. But the penalties for schools or students that don’t comply aren’t clear.
Some observers believe that such a policy will not be enough. As in many Arab countries, Jordanian students often see private tutors, usually the same people as their public-school teachers. So some students feel like they don’t need to bother going to class, since their tutor will tell them what they really need to know.
“Private tutoring is a necessary evil,” said Batool Ali, an eighth-grade student who also said she needs to master many complex subjects. “Teachers explain very quickly because they want to finish the curriculum. But, most of the time, we can’t understand in the classroom and need to have some private lessons.”
Batool’s father is annoyed by the expense of his daughter’s private lessons. But he feels there is no other option. “I want to make sure that my daughter is understanding her lessons well and getting good marks,” he said. “I save a specific amount every month just for her private lessons.”
Ibrahim Khalil, an English secondary-school teacher, agreed that private tutoring is a widespread Jordanian phenomenon that hurts the students’ commitment to attend their schools. “We, teachers, do not have another choice especially with our low salaries,” he said. “We need to find another source of income.”
Because teachers focus on private tutoring, they are also often absent from classes. The education ministry documented 28,000 teacher absences last year, which meant students were deprived of 112,000 classes.
But Khalil refuses to blame teachers only, because he thinks teaching styles and curricula play a key role too.
“When we talk about school dropouts, we should not forget to talk about the traditional teaching style and exam,” he said. He mentioned new technology that he felt could provide tremendous information and engagement for students. But Jordanian teachers are still generally stuck using blackboards and chalk at schools, he said
Raya Said, a ninth grade student, justifies her frequent absences from school by saying there is no urgent need to attend. “I can get all the information and explanations I need by using the Internet,” she says, “and without going daily to school carrying my heavy schoolbag.”
Parents also have a role, says Haitham Ataiwrh, an official at the general education department of the ministry of education. Parents often don’t bother showing up for meetings with teachers and don’t worry about justifying their children’s absences.
But the government, he admitted, does not enforce any sanctions when students skip school. “The Jordanian constitution recognizes the free and compulsory nature of education, but we do not apply it effectively,” he said.
According to him, the development of curricula and training of teachers could play a key role in reducing the school dropout rate, because such reform could make what happens in classrooms more essential to students. But in the end, he says, the people who raise children are responsible for them.
“The role of the parents is still the cornerstone,” he said.