Seeing America through the Middle East: How do we educate our children?

As an American student in Egypt, at any given moment you can experience the impact of Republican values. From the social conservatism to the laissez-faire approach toward the market. For all the GOP’s critiques of the Middle East, it is governed by the same guiding principles as the conservative party: traditionalism.

In America, as in any society, everyone wants to make the best choice for most everything, especially our future. Nothing is more important to our future than education. Currently, a frequent number of questions shape around our education system about how to structure it “best”. Public school or private school, school choice or just open enrollment, teacher pay, teacher unions, and many other issues all roll into this incredibly important policy question. When discussing education in the United States, there are a few metrics. For a while, test scores from around the world were well publicized and plastered over the news as a way to say that our system was sorely insufficient to compete on a global scale. Pieces circulated in Business Insider and BBC. But, as with most things in the media, it became forgotten. The conversation shifted to school choice and the use of open registration as a means to potentially mitigate some of the disparities faced by students whom are less financially privileged. From this dialogue on school choice came the counter argument that public school systems simply fail to prepare students. While there are many models that have been shaped to challenge this issue, Egypt overwhelmingly relies on private schools as alternatives.

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A BBC graphic depicting the countries that performed highest in the sciences according to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. The United States is nowhere near the top 10 – BBC

The U.S. AID office reports that, in Egypt, there is “near-universal access to primary education”, with intermediate and secondary schools expanding rapidly. However, the agency rightfully points out the population growth is putting major strain on the system. During my time there, I noticed a significant portion of people were attending “International Schools” in which the schools utilized curriculum from other countries and standardized coursework (such as IB classes) to teach students. These International schools compare closely to private schools in the U.S. Overwhelmingly both private and international schools cost exorbitant amounts (often more than $10,000 for one year) that many families can not afford, but come with the benefit of direct attention and, depending on your other options, actually learning anything at all.

When interviewed, one man, who graduated public school in 2008, and went on to study at a private university, said “both are scams. Maybe the difference is [that] in international they will use English more, teachers will handle the students in better way, I guess no yelling and cursing. The education system [just] doesn’t prepare the students for their future jobs.” While he went on to say he saw no major difference in the two experiences, he did emphasize that eventually traveling allowed him to adjust his perspective and see how truly unprepared the system left him.

Siblings, who graduated in 2013 and 2015 from the International School of Choueifat, had a somewhat different perspective. The older sibling pointed out just how much of a difference there can be for public schools, and that in public schools the “conditions can range from okay to abhorrent – broken desks, dirty bathrooms, etc. A lot of the time the students don’t even go to class, and [may be] told not to come except for once a week [for] private lessons.” She clarified to say that these lessons would be necessary because teachers get paid next to nothing, and respond by teaching very little in order to coax parents into paying for these private lessons. While these are the worst schools, they drive up demand for private schools. The younger sibling added to this dichotomy by discussing how colleges in Egyptian colleges distinguish these schools. “For public schools, it’s just the Thanaweya Amma scores that matter (which are like the SATs),” largely, colleges recognize this issue, and seek out students who do well on one standardized test in order to compensate. 

A previous Executive Director of Admissions at the American University in Cairo had strong considerations on the matter. In her time managing the system, the common institutional response was to consider how these students did compared to their peers. “Socially, students coming from public schools are always viewed as low profile while students in international schools are coming from the upper middle or high class in society.” For the vast majority of cases “we choose students based on their academic standards, GPA, SAT scores, [and] English placement.” While time is spent making “quotas for each diploma based on the rigorousness of the diploma” a strong consideration is put first toward the Egyptian National Secondary School certificate. This test, even when considered with other factors, can not be considered significantly different from the SAT. Looking at studies of the SAT in relationship to socioeconomic conditions in the US, there are grave concerns for how the wealthy face a distinct advantage in applying to these schools, even when held against the best student from a bad school. This type of disparity in a testing system used to get people into higher education can lead to inadvertent disparities without much care. By giving insufficient support to the free institutions and relying on private institutions to charge exorbitant amounts, there quickly presents a strong danger for the future.

While this system is seemingly far from the U.S. structure, there are clear lines of interest. As teacher wages and benefits begin to stagnate and educational spending continues to be cut or increases forgone, as is being proposed right now in President Trump’s budget, the teachers suffer which minimizes their abilities to focus on teaching. As alternatives gain popularity, the system becomes segregated by wealth, and ultimately everyone has lost either money, or the chance at gaining a true education. As we consider our spending options, and look at how choices previously have played out for others, we will do well to observe how beneficial a well built and funded public educational institution can be for everyone. 

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