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When Saudi adolescents teach their less successful peers one-to-one

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Creating jobs for youths in Saudi Arabia is a government priority. Authorities should consider a recently developed educational program, where capable Saudi adolescents teach their less successful peers one-to-one. It will be a cost-effective way of creating jobs for tutors and students, and it will also develop a sense of civic duty among Saudi youth.

The quandary presently faced by all governments is that educational programs are far more effective per dollar spent when applied to children under the age of eight. By the time a pupil reaches adolescence, if they are still struggling with job-relevant skills like literacy and mathematics, education research suggests little can be done, and the available options are themselves incredibly expensive.

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Consequently, policymakers are left with a difficult choice: write the strugglers off as part of a cold-hearted economic decision, or break the bank trying to rehabilitate them, at a time when budget deficits and public debts are already at historically high levels.

The challenge of getting wayward Saudi teens back on track is considerable, and one that the Saudi government has not shied away from. Over the last five years, authorities have been aggressively reforming education and labor markets in an attempt to improve youth job prospects, while complementing these efforts with billions of dollars of investments in new sectors. Yet there is no getting around the fact that there are very few proven cost-effective options for rehabilitating teenagers falling behind at school.

For this reason, the Saudi government should consider the findings of a recent study by Northwestern University’s Professor Jonathan Guryan and his colleagues. Apparently, when it comes to educational interventions targeting struggling adolescents, part of the reason for the paucity of effective options is that researchers have tried the wrong thing.

For example, a popular method is to train teachers in new methods. The drawback with this approach is that doing it at scale is expensive, because few people have the inclination, or the capacity to acquire the skills required to instruct a class of 30 children.

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in Jeddah on May 24, 2015. (File photo: AFP)
Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in Jeddah on May 24, 2015. (File photo: AFP)

The out-of-the-box solution to this problem is to devise a new teaching model that is much cheaper to implement. Professor Guryan conducted a successful trial on over 5,000 high school children in Chicago, where graduating students performing well, trained to teach mathematics to their struggling, younger peers one-to-one, and then paid to do it for an entire academic year.

Crucially, since the skills taught were much narrower (how to teach someone one-to-one and not how to teach 30 people simultaneously), the training cost was a fraction of that required for a professional teacher, and the tutors’ salary was modest, too. The final cost of one-to-one tutoring was under $4,000 per student per year. More importantly, the impact on ability in mathematics was sizeable, instantly transforming the program into one of the most cost-effective options available to policymakers.

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, the benefits to adopting this program are multidimensional. In addition to helping struggling teens improve their mathematics abilities, thereby improving their long-term job prospects, the program also gave the tutors a salary, and valuable work experience for a year. Moreover, it also builds a sense of societal cohesion, as the more able adolescents feel a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate, and play an active role in remedying the problems.

Ideally, a team of Saudi educational experts would be involved in rolling out the program and would propose scientifically testable changes. This would contribute to developing a version tailored to Saudi Arabia’s unique needs, while also helping make the Kingdom's policy more evidence-based.

In 2003, education expert and economics Nobel Prize winner Professor James Heckman remarked: “The return to [human capital] investment in the young is apparently quite high; the return to investment in the old and less able is quite low.” While that conclusion may have been true at the turn of the millennium, Saudi Arabia can prove it wrong today. Thousands of less able Saudi adolescents stand to benefit.

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