Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Egypt’s Reading Revolution

by Isobel Coleman
November 15, 2012

Egyptian school students attend class at a school in a Giza neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, September 28, 2010 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian school students attend class at a school in a Giza neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, September 28, 2010 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

I have been visiting schools in Upper Egypt (the governorates of Qena and Aswan) this week doing research for a new book on education in the Middle East. With young people across the region protesting about a lack of opportunity, improving education is understandably a high priority. Over the last several decades, Egypt’s focus has been on increasing access to education. As its population has more than doubled since 1980, it has worked hard to keep pace with an enormous influx of new students, managing to enroll a higher percent of children in schools and to reduce the overall number of children out of school. In 2000, over 500,000 primary school age children were out of school. In 2009, the last year statistics were available, fewer than 200,000 primary school age children were not attending school. The percentage of girls enrolled in primary school has also increased, climbing from 87.4 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2009.

As population growth begins to level off, Egypt’s pressing challenge is to improve the quality of education. Its schools are plagued by high dropout rates and questionable learning outcomes. In 2003, less than 25 percent completed secondary school. According to official statistics, 85 percent of young people in Egypt were literate in 2006, but my interviews suggest that these numbers are grossly inflated. Teachers tell me that many students – in some cases a majority of the class – still cannot read by grade six.

I came to Qena and Aswan specifically to see a new program in action called EGRA – an early grade reading assessment that through a simple diagnostic test can pinpoint how well kids have achieved basic literacy. Not surprisingly, the results of a pilot program in four Egyptian governorates were shockingly bad. The next step put in a place was an early grade reading program (EGRP) that teaches students to read Arabic phonetically – that is, by sounding out letters and syllables to form complete words – and instructs teachers in an active learning style, one that engages the students in the learning process. In a 2011 evaluation of the program’s impact, students studying the new curriculum and pedagogy outperformed many times over their peers in control schools in reading syllables, whole words, and passages. The Ministry of Education has embraced the program wholeheartedly, and with support from USAID, is rolling the EGRP out nationally.

I have never seen teachers, administrators, and parents more excited about a new approach to learning, anywhere. Teachers tell me they don’t need to see the next set of test results to know that their students are making leaps in literacy. Already, they can see that the grade one and two students are reading better than those in grades three and four. Egypt needs some good news right now. The EGRP is fomenting its own revolution in schools – one with only upsides for students and the country as a whole.

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