"I was teaching in the first grade of middle school. I told one of the students to read a lesson from the book. He said nothing. I asked, 'Why aren’t you reading?'. One of students them stood up and said, 'Sir, he cannot read or write.’"
These are the words of a sociology teacher working in south Tehran. By all accounts, the issue of illiteracy and academic underdevelopment among Iranian students is now pervasive and far from limited to one area. Last week, Massoud Kabiri, a faculty member at the Institute for Educational Studies, told Tasnim News Agency that one third of students in Iran never gain proficiency in reading and writing. Furthermore, he said, a third of fourth-graders are unable to perform the four basic mathematical operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
To gain a better understanding of how this came about, IranWire spoke to Saeed Peyvandi, a member of the French National Center for Academic Research and a professor at the University of Laurent, who specializes in the sociology of education and science. We also sought the views of several Iranian parents and teachers.
Where Does Education in Iranian Schools Fall in Global Rankings?
The TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center is a research group, based at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in the US. For seven years running now it has observed trends in science abilities, mathematics and reading in the fourth and eighth grades in 64 countries around the world. By comparing them with eight sample education systems that are used as the benchmark, it then gives each country a ranking for the quality of education.
Reports from the TIMSS and PIRLS are published every four years. The last study covered 2019, before the global coronavirus pandemic. In an interview with Tasnim News Agency, Massoud Kabiri spoke in detail about the data related to Iran in the 2019 TIMSS report. "In fourth-grade mathematics,” he said, “Iran ranks 50th out of 58 countries with a score of 443 [against an international standard of 475]. In fourth-grade sciences, Iran was in 48th place, with a score of 441."
The average score of all countries in 2019 was 500, meaning Iran fell significantly short of standards across the board. Kabiri added that in 2019, Iran appeared to be performing better than it had in 2015, but despite this, Iran has never reached the global average of 475 in the last 24 years.
According to Kabiri, about 32 percent of fourth-graders scored less than 400 on the standardized math test, which means they are in a very poor position compared to their peers in other countries. Overall, he said, “Thirty-nine countries participated in the eighth-grade math test, with Iran ranked at 20. In eighth-grade science, Iran ranked 29 among 39 countries. In this test, 28 percent of Iranian students did not achieve the minimum score of 400. The average percentage of failure at the international level is 15.”
Parents: Religious Studies Leave No Time for Lessons
Leila is a translator and the author of several books published in Iran. She is also a mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 14, and is not at all satisfied with her children's educational attainment. For this 44-year-old, the success of her children is a priority, but she has now given up hope for their future education in Iran.
Despite the high cost of foundation schools, Leila's eldest daughter was unable to attend the courses she and her family were interested in her pursuing at university. Her younger daughter consistently attained lower grades in subjects such as Islamic studies, Arabic and the Quran, and now Leila worries that her little girl will not be able to get into public universities at all because the entrance exam system has been replaced by average grades attained in school.
On sharing her younger daughter's timetable to IranWire, Leila said: "See for yourself that to the same extent as they have mathematics, language, and science [classes], they are made ready for ‘defense’ and ‘religion’ and ‘the Quran’. In primary school, where children ought to be focusing more on the basic sciences in order to learn the fundamentals for later years, schools focus more on religion.
"My husband's niece was here a few days ago," she adds. "She is in the third grade. She wanted to call her mother. Because she always rings from phonebook, she did not know the number. I told her, 0912. The poor girl asked, what dos 912 mean? She is in the third grade, but she did not know how to write or read a three-digit number."
Mona is also an accountant and the mother of a 13-year-old girl. "There is something religious about all the children's lessons," she says. "For example, in my daughter’s seventh-grade English language book, most of the sentences are related to the Imams and the prophets. In their math classes, too, math problems are linked to religion and the Qur'an. In their science class, it is about the Imams: for example, what they have said about scientific discoveries.”
She continues: "In their sports classes, they keep saying that they must observe hijab in sports. In short, in all their lessons, they impose religion on children. But these children are no longer religious. Even though all this is repeated over and over, they no longer know about religious matters either, because they do not listen."
Mona, a 40-year-old mother who also runs an auditing firm, told IranWire that now that classes had shifted online, schools were also telling girls that their profile pictures needed to be veiled. "Over six months,” she says, “they did not call me once to tell me how her lessons were going or what to do to improve her math or science. But they immediately called me to say her profile picture should be a photo with hijab."
According to Mona, schools and individual schoolteachers have been pushing the children to focus more on the fields of religion and the Qur'an than on basic subjects such as science, spelling and mathematics. At the same time, she says, she believes some schools are massaging pupil results to cover this up.
"I see with my own eyes that my daughter, who is in the seventh grade, does not know how to do simple multiplication and division," she says. "But then in the report card, they gave her 18 out of 20 in mathematics. I know she does not deserve this mark. But it seems that teachers are giving concessions to children. The grades appear good, but the students can't solve the problems and they don't understand them. It seems as if they’ll just memorize them for a day and then forget them tomorrow."
A Systemic Issue
Saeed Peyvandi, a sociologist of education and educational sciences at the French National Center for Academic Research, is also aware of the foundering quality of teaching in Iranian schools. "The phenomenon of students' academic backwardness,” he told IranWire, “and the fact that some of them cannot learn well, or are not able to acquire the necessary skills at the end of a course, is related to the quality of education and the lack of educational mechanisms.
"An education system needs to organize extracurricular activities for children who, for a variety of reasons, including not being able to speak their mother tongue [in school] or family and financial problems, have to do extracurricular activities and extra activities, so that they can make up for their disadvantage.”
A 30 percent illiteracy rate among students in Iran, Peyvandi says, is a clear sign that the education system is failing its students. In the view of this professor, there are four key factors impeding youngsters’ learning in Iran.
“The first,” he said, “is that the teaching methods and school in general are not attractive to children, and not compatible with their moods or needs. Therefore, many of them simply do not study or drop out permanently, too soon. This is more common among students who live in poor families or in more remote areas.
"The second reason is financial hardship. Not all of the children are in the same position in terms of conditions. Given the problems they have at home, some do not always have the preparation and facilities to be able to respond to what the school requires of them for homework. That’s why education systems around the world have to come up with special measures for students who don’t have a good home environment and cannot count on family support."
The third factor, Saeed Peyvandi says, is facilities: "The reality is that in less developed areas we are dealing with very unfortunate schools and buildings that do not make children eager to come to school. Many leave school because the educational environment is unfavorable, or because of a lack of facilities and equipment."
The fourth factor, he says, is Iranian children’s estrangement from their education. “Children do not see themselves close to school for various reasons. As a result, they have difficulty learning. This is especially true of children who belong to religious and other minorities, or who are culturally different from the dominant culture of society and the education system.
“The dominant discourse of the education system is very retrospective, values-oriented and Shia-oriented. This is not only a symbolic act of government violence against citizens, but it is sometimes difficult for children to understand and digest.
“These four reasons cause about a quarter of Iranian children to never complete their compulsory education. They simply give up on their studies."
Ideological Curriculum is to Blame for Illiteracy
When asked about their views on the curriculum, Mona and Leila, two educated and middle-class mothers in Tehran, also encouraged IranWire to specifically ask Saeed Peyvandi about religious education.
“Where education is devoted to religious education, it can be the reason behind students' academic backwardness," Peyvandi in turn told IranWire. "Officially, about 15 percent of classroom time is spent on religious issues. This is about three times the time that was allocated to this topic before the Islamic Revolution, and more than twice the average time in countries that teach religious education."
Furthermore, he adds, the infusion of other subjects with religion means the 15 percent figure will be an understatement. Then there is the question of extracurricular activities. In Iran, Peyvandi says, youngsters are expected to attend some 160 ceremonies per year.
“In Iran,” he says, “if we calculate the time allotted to religious education in all its forms, this will reach about 25 percent of the total classroom time. Thus, the useful time that children have for effective learning, and especially for learning that is attractive to them, becomes much more limited."
Inappropriate Subjects Taught to Children
Saeed Peyvandi also notes that many of the issues raised in formal religious education classes are “very heavy, especially for young children in elementary school". Learning the Quran from the first grade introduces concepts such as jihad (interpreted in the Islamic Republic as holy warfare) and martyrdom: concepts that are “indigestible” to children aged six or seven.
This, he adds, “probably creates a space in which the children do not get along very well with school or do not find the school compatible with their feelings. Through this type of religious education, the school assumes an austere posture that does not suit the spiritual and age-specific needs of the children.
“Therefore the religious teachings they learn, both in terms of the time they lose and the basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic that they miss out on, but also because of the gloomy, intense atmosphere that religious and ideological education creates, have a negative impact on the development of children and adolescents in Iran.”
That said, he believes it is difficult to compare Iran with other Muslim countries or other countries with an emphasis on religious education, such as Catholic countries, “because Iran is the only country in which all educational activities have a religious and ideological component, with the ultimate aim of brainwashing.
“Iran's education system wants to impose a certain identity on all children from above, and in an authoritarian way, while Iranian society, just like all other societies, is made up of very different identities, beliefs and forms of religiosity, and non-religious beliefs.
"In Muslim countries, children spend hours in religious education. But this remains pure religious education and other classes are relatively independent; and there is no mixing between the secular and religious subjects. In Iran, however, in addition to the devotion of more time to religious instruction, the ideology of political Islam is widespread in other courses and extracurricular programs, such as in the morning rituals. Therefore, Iran is a very special case in this regard."
According to Saeed Peyvandi, pre-classroom teacher training and on-the-job training are also ineffective. "While teachers are being trained, they too are becoming more ideologically-controlled. They are pointed more toward religious issues than learning, new teaching methods or how to work with children with disabilities. Therefore, they do not learn how to work with children with educational difficulties, and do not have the necessary intellectual and methodological skills to deal with any problems."
" Many families may not have the education or knowledge to help their children themselves. Therefore, the educational process should be prepared in such a way that children from any social group and any type of background can learn in the school environment.”
Coronavirus: A Catastrophe of Unknown Proportions
The doors of Iranian schools closed on Saturday, February 22. 2021 for the second time in 12 months, and many are still closed now. With distanced education through mobile phones or tablets, many families are worried about the future of a generation of Iranian pupils who were of school age during this period, especially those in first to third grades.
"All the data published in the Iranian media and sometimes by education officials show that we are facing an unprecedented educational crisis during the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran," Saeed Peyvandi told IranWire.
He blamed pre-existing unpreparedness for the situation, saying: "Neither were our teachers sufficiently trained for such an event, nor were the students were prepared, and most importantly, a significant proportion of students cannot connect to the network or were not provided with the necessary equipment to get online. Iranian education officials themselves have admitted that about one third of Iranian students do not have devices through which they can access distanced education. This is a huge number, and the devastating consequences of this situation will only be seen in two or three years."
Despite this, Peyvandi says, the Islamic Republic has not stopped brainwashing its students in the time of corona. “There are numerous religious programs on the Shad Network [remote learning portal],” he says, “and other virtual tools, including television programs, which add to the incomprehensible and indigestible weight of the curriculum."
In some remote areas where e-learning is not possible due to poverty and underdevelopment, education departments have forcibly brought teachers back into classrooms. But even in those areas, the classes are not being taken seriously.
The Covid-19 crisis in Iran will probably be resolved with the help of a vaccine in another year or two. But what will remain is the devastating and irreversible effects of distanced learning and the illiteracy of students, who are increasingly bent under the weight of the Iranian government's religious and ideological teachings.