Learning in the Face of Adversity: The UNRWA Education Program for Palestine Refugees

Husein Abdul-Hamid, Harry Anthony Patrinos, Joel Reyes, Jo Kelcey, and Andrea Diaz Varela

World Bank Studies, 2016


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operates nearly 700 schools educating more than 500,000 students each year in West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In 2007 UNRWA students outperformed their peers at public schools by the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning, despite their socioeconomic disadvantages, having teachers with the same years of service and degrees, and lower/less predictable school funding. This mixed methods study investigates the reasons for success at UNRWA schools.

Using econometric techniques to analyze test scores and observed pedagogical practices, the study finds that better learning outcomes in UNRWA schools are largely explained by: (a) students’ self-confidence; (b) parental support and involvement; (c) teachers’ confidence, job satisfaction, and ongoing professional development and training; and (d) pedagogical practices.

Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) tools were used to identify policies and practices that contributed to these results. Importantly, UNRWA is more successful at recruiting high-quality teachers and establishes clear expectations for their work. UNRWA teachers have more mandated ongoing professional development, receive guidance and mentoring, and are supported by capable school principals. UNRWA also has fewer management layers and is more accountable for student outcomes. Additionally, UNRWA schools promote high-quality teaching and classroom time: there is less wasted time; teacher practices reflect a confidence to teach various subjects through a variety of methods; teachers implement more interactive learning activities and assignments; and students participate at higher levels through structured activities.

Moreover, UNRWA schools successfully create a culture of learning. UNRWA teachers model positive wellbeing, and support students’ competence in the face of adversity through academic guidance and socio-emotional support. Additionally, UNRWA’s close partnership with the refugee community creates shared accountability for learning outcomes.