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Issues and challenges for education reforms in Bangladesh

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Education is a crucial sector in any nation. Being a major investment in human capital development, it plays the critical role in long-term productivity and growth at both micro and macro levels. This explains why the state of education in Bangladesh continues to be our national discourse at all levels. It is also important to realise that discussions on education and its reforms to make it contribute meaningfully to national development should gradually and systematically move away from a politicised to a more analytical approach for revamping the educational system. The book 'Education and National Development - Selected Papers from the 2008 and 2009 Conferences on Bangladesh at Harvard University' brings together a select set of articles, which attempt to explore the major concerns in the education sector in Bangladesh. Contributed by both Bangladeshi and Western scholars, the chapters were chosen from papers presented at two conferences, "Bangladesh in the 21st Century" and "Ideas and Innovations for the Development of Bangladesh: The Next Decade," held at Harvard University in 2008 and 2009.

The book begins with the article "Education Priorities for Human Resource Centered Development in Bangladesh", authored by Dr. Manzoor Ahmed (Emeritus Professor, BRAC University & formerly a Post-Doctoral fellow at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) and Dr. James H. Williams (George Washington University). This introductory chapter provides a broad overview of the current education scene of Bangladesh-from primary to tertiary education-and the wide range of issues they confront. The authors examine the present situation of the country's education and its challenges and prospects while exploring strategies, most importantly the need to develop human resources over the next two decades. Providing data and analysis relevant to all three levels of education - primary, secondary and tertiary - the authors argue that the current education system of Bangladesh is not equitable and that the quality and content of education do not serve the people in ways that can improve their lives; nor can its continuation help reduce poverty.

Cultivating a culture of research at the higher educational institutions (HEIs) that is contextually important and relevant is focused in the next article "Building Knowledge Enterprises and Learning Communities", by Professor Syed Saad Andaleeb (BRAC University). Dr. Andaleeb, formerly a Distinguished Professor of Marketing at Pennsylvania State University, emphasises that education is central to the development of a nation as it enables human beings to develop three things: consciousness, conscientiousness, and capability. He suggests that the HEIs in Bangladesh should serve their communities by strengthening contemporary learning where the role of research is fundamental. Professor Andaleeb warns us that unless the HEIs in Bangladesh take up this challenge and establish themselves as the heart and soul of modern learning that can be used to improve the lives of the citizens of Bangladesh, the nation will remain a "knowledge deprived society rooted in borrowed knowledge that is neither based on its [Bangladesh's] particular circumstances, nor wholly relevant."

In the third chapter, Dr. Selina Akhter (Bangladesh Civil service) and Dr. Ann Hodgkinson (University of Wollongong) examine the indirect benefits of women's education in developing countries with special attention to the case of Bangladesh. The imperative of a more inclusive education involving women that ought to modernise, democratise, and develop the nation has gained wide acceptance in Bangladesh in recent times. It is argued in this paper that educated women, through their role as mothers, indirectly contribute to the economic progress of their country. Even if educated women do not participate in the labour market, they indirectly generate long-term economic benefits by keeping the family size small, ensuring higher levels of school attainment among their children and providing better hygiene-education and nutritional benefits to their children.

The next chapter "Lack of Curricular Relevance in Secondary School Education in Bangladesh: An Evaluation" is contributed by Dr. Halimur R. Khan, an Associate Professor of Russian, currently working with the US Air Force Academy. Khan, also a graduate from Harvard Graduate School of Education, attempts to examine the high dropout rates, especially for girls, at the secondary school level and concludes that the most important and detrimental factor causing dropout is the lack of curricular relevance to the lives and activities of girls. He identifies four broad categories of problems and inadequacies in the current secondary school curriculum: i) lack of clarity and cohesion in goals, aims and objectives of learning; ii) inconsistencies and deficiencies in syllabi, textbooks and assessment; iii) lack of economic, social and cultural relevance of the curriculum; and iv) absence of effort to teach progressive cultural values. The author concludes his article with a cautionary note that unless the curriculum is made relevant immediately, children, especially girls, will continue to fall behind in their pursuit of equality in educational achievement, and ultimately society as well as nation will fail to help these girls achieve their dreams for a better life.

Professor Dr. Shafiqur M. Rahman (Allegheny College, USA) draws our attention to an age-old problem for students: why does science appear to be so difficult to learn? In the article "Adapting New Pedagogical Methods for Learning Science: An Opportunity for Bangladesh in the New Millennium", he explores better ways of learning science and investigates whether those ways can be adapted for developing countries where resources are not plentiful. Rahman examines new and more effective educational theories that have been developed in the West over the last few decades. Among these, he suggests, two can be easily and effectively used in Bangladesh to improve the learning of science: i) "Peer Instruction (PI)" developed by Eric Mazur of the Physics Department at Harvard University in the 1990s; and ii) "Just in Time Teaching (JiTT)" developed by Gregory Novak at Purdue University in the 1960s.

In his paper "Parental Choice of Qwami Madrassahs in Bangladesh", Professor Ali Riaz (Illinois State University, USA) attempts to examine the influential factors behind parental choice of sending their children to Qwami madrassahs that have long been part of the social landscape of Bangladesh. Qwami madrassahs have been at the centre of debate in both Bangladesh and the West. Many western analysts as well as the post-9/11media have a tendency to portray these privately owned institutions as incubators of terrorism and a threat to global security, even though the empirical evidence is weak. Professor Riaz's study provides insights into the understanding of the role of Qwami madrassah education that has grown phenomenally. Using an empirical study, the author finds that parents send their children to madrassahs for two main reasons: to earn Allah's grace and blessings and for a well-rewarded afterlife. An in-depth analysis of the data suggests that the perceived quality of education, proximity from home, and costs also play a key role.

In the article "Gender Stereotypes about College Majors: Prevalent Perceptions of Bangladeshi Undergraduates", Syeda Tonima Hadi (Independent University, Bangladesh and University of Hawaii at Manoa) examines an unexplored issue in education that has significant implications for the labour market as well as for social and education policy in Bangladesh. Her study reviews some 'social-structural' and 'interpersonal-interactive' factors imbedded in the socialisation process of Bangladeshi society, shaping individuals' attitudes to perceive different educational and career choices as being gender appropriate. Using 'gender role socialisation theories', Tonima argues that socialisation predetermines behaviours, perceptions and decisions of individuals in later life. The author concludes her article with a strong recommendation: "The Bangladesh labor force cannot afford to lose half of its resources - the women - if the nation aspires to achieve an equitable society: in fact, there should be no room for gender differences in the educational institutions in Bangladesh."

The final chapter of the book summarises the Panel Discussion on Education at the Conference - "Ideas and Innovations for the Development of Bangladesh: The Next Decade" held at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in October 2009. With the plenary theme 'Quality Assurance for a 21st Century Education System', the panel suggests various strategies that our education sector ought to adopt which can help reinvent Bangladesh socially, politically, economically, culturally, and even, spiritually.

S. M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.

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