Sunday, July 13, 2008

Libyan Education: Look to Misrata

The results of the Libyan national high school exams were announced recently, and the numbers are fascinating. In Libya there are nine different kinds of high-school specializations: Basic Sciences, Life Sciences, Engineering, Economics, Social Sciences, Arabic Language, English Language, Mass-Media Arts, and Fine Arts. I am only going to present and discuss the statistics of the top students in this post.

The education ministry published a list of the top-10 students in each specialization, a total of 90 students representing the cream of the national crop this year. With the exception of Media- and Fine-Arts students, the overall scores of these elite students exceed 90% and peak above 97%. In the Arts schools, the scores of the top-10 students dip as low as 67%. Ouch! Another noteworthy difference is the large variation in specialization size. Over 25,000 students took the exams in Life Sciences, but only 65 did in Fine Arts. Interestingly enough, only 10 students passed in Fine Arts, which is exactly enough to make the cynic in me wonder how many would have passed if there had been a tradition of picking the top seven instead of ten.

Gender Gap

The most striking aspect of the data is the gender distribution. In this arena, Libyan girls outnumber the boys by a huge margin.

The girls "cleaned up" across the top-10 board. Engineering is the only area where boys outnumber the girls in top-10 honors. It is possible that there are more boys than girls in Engineering.

It is fair to ask whether the top-10 stats mean girls outnumber or actually outperform boys. There are indeed more girls than boys in Libyan high schools, but that difference is not enough to account for the disparity. According to 2006 data at the Libyan General Information Agency, girls make up 58% of the high school population, but even when that bias is removed, the girls still outperform the boys at a ratio of almost three to one. Wow! In my book that kind of advantage warrants very serious consideration, especially since the numbers get turned completely upside-down in the workforce and in positions of leadership.

Across The Landscape

Libya is sub-divided into administrative districts, each one comprising a capital city and possibly other smaller cities and towns. According to the General Information Agency, there are now 22 districts, as opposed to 32 until a few years ago, but the information from the Libyan education ministry lists 23 school districts because they separate Ijdabia from al-Wahat. Mixups like these are normal in Libya, but let us continue to take things at face value.

The chart above shows the distribution of top-10 students over districts. Note that 8 of the 23 districts are not shown because they did not yield any top-10 students. Most of the unrepresented districts are relatively small in population, but the absence of districts like al-Batnan and al-Marj is quite worrisome because their student populations are actually larger than a third of the districts represented.

Generally, the larger districts have larger yields, and the girls dominate the whole landscape. But the numbers cry for a closer examination. In particular, what is up with Misrata? Is this a case of outnumbering the others or outperforming them? We need to normalize the data by district size, in order to put them all on the same footing. But Misrata's student population could not be larger than Benghazi or Tripoli, and therefore, the productivity of Misrata is actually even higher relative to the other larger districts. Unfortunately, I could not find numbers for final-year high school students in the various districts, so I used the number of students who took the 9th-grade exams this year as a basis for normalization. [Using total high-school population as a basis gave pretty much the same trends.] Now we can look at a measure of relative productivity (not raw yield) of the various districts, and the data are illustrated in the next chart.

Misrata stands out like a tassle on a conical hat. lol lol lol It is almost twice as productive as Tripoli, and more than three times as productive as Benghazi. The same can be seen in other ways: The district is represented in all but one category, and in 4 of the 9 categories, Misrata took at least half of the top-10 spots. Wow!

What is the secret in Misrata? Is it the Misrati genetics or work ethic or what? Obviously something is different about the social environment, or the culture, or the resources, or whatever, but it's big and it ain't no accident! Libyan education authorities ought to head straight to Misrata and LEARN what's behind the success and how it can be spread.

The Misrati phenomenon is probably a result of a number of different factors working in concert. But before getting to that magical mix, it is useful to step back and ask the broader question: Why do girls outperform boys by so much? OK, girls probably spend more time at home and have fewer activities and distractions to take them away from their school work. This lifestyle factor would be stronger in more conservative environments, i.e., smaller towns and villages. Another possible factor is the quality and quantity of resources, especially the human resources. In Libya, the biggest employer of women is--by far--the education sector, and this bias is even stronger in smaller cities where other employment markets are much smaller. Many bright Libyan girls grow up to be teachers in girls schools, teaching the next generation of bright girls to become teachers, and so on. After this cycle has gone for a couple of turns, we now have evolved a new sub-species of students (and teachers, undoubtedly) that outperform their male counterparts by a factor of three. Misrata's distinction perhaps is its optimal size: On the one hand, Misrata is small enough to maintain a conservative culture and absorb a larger proportion of its bright women into teaching jobs. On the other hand, Misrata is also big enough that it can yield enough teachers to make a difference. Or the reason may have nothing to do with evolutionary refinement, and it is simply more cheating in Misrata. I don't dismiss cheating altogether, but I doubt that it can be the dominant factor. In any case, there is a lot to be gained from investigating the case of Misrata.

Final Word

In the closest thing to fair competition that Libyan society has ever known, girls absolutely dominate. But in positions of leadership, public and private, and in positions of professional growth, Libyan women are almost completely absent. One does not have to look far from the education arena. Just consider how often you hear of a Libyan girl being sent abroad for graduate studies. Yes, we now do hear of it, which is great, but if eligibility were based solely on technical merits, shouldn't the overwhelming majority of those students be women? That's only a glimpse of the enormous waste of a tremendous resource. The Libyan human resource is bleeding, not from a minor injury, but literally from a brain injury. Think about it: What happens to 78% of Libya's top resource? Why don't we see that prevalence of women on university faculties, on hospital staff, corporate management, industrial management, you name it! The only silver lining to the cloud is that some of them become teachers and mothers. Libya is lucky to have them and dead wrong to leave then undervalued and underutilized. As we give a thousand deserved congratulations and best wishes to all the students, let's spare one word for the teachers, the unsung heroines from Misrata to Jkhirra: Bravo!


  1. salam it's a really nice spot on libyan education.. u think that girls r more well in libya bcuz boys r ther but most of libyan boys left school early so they lose the chance 4 educaton & a s we know boys r smarater

  2. by the way mr suliman i loved ur pic with traditional clothes alot

  3. very impressive post.

    I do like your reasoning for girls doing better than boys.
    congrats to Misrata :o)

  4. It's good to know that girls are doing great in engineering too and leaving boys behind. As Unifolks, they receive more online assignment help requests from girls rather than boys as girls are more particular about their studies than boys. And hence girls are scoring better grades in their academics.

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