This week’s Economist magazine has a special report on Egypt which made me wonder if the United States is now following the pattern of less-developed countries. The Economist blames Egypt’s education system for much of the country’s economic stagnation. Egypt’s literacy rate has increased from 25% fifty years ago to 72% today—progress which still leaves it trailing developed countries. Both business growth and government efficiency are hampered by a lack of skilled Egyptian workers. Other problems that stem from a low level of education in the country include a high number of traffic accidents caused by people not understanding basic traffic laws, and a high mortality rate in hospitals due to staff not knowing basic rules of hygiene.
Egypt initiated a plan to increase education beginning in 1952. But the result has been to change from a system that provided an excellent education for a small percentage of the population to a system that provides a mediocre education to the majority of citizens. To control costs, class sizes in public schools expanded to more than 60 students. Low teacher pay resulted in better teachers migrating to the Gulf states for higher wages. Other teachers supplemented their income by admitting to parents that children could learn little in their public school classes and offering private tutoring after hours.
Egyptian curriculum was rewritten to emphasize “nationalistic values.” Critical thinking was abandoned in favor of rote learning for tests. A survey by the Egyptian government this year found that 88% of households read no books, and 75% read no newspapers or magazines. For the minority of Egyptians who do read, 79% concentrate on religious subjects. Young Egyptians use the internet, but religion is the favorite topic, sports are second and scientific subjects are down the list.
I find this information disturbing, because I see American culture following the same trail. The No Child Left Behind mandates have placed a premium on teaching for tests in our country. Trying to make every child perform at grade level is leaving bright students bored and underachieving. And it is our naturally gifted students who have the potential to innovate and solve our country’s problems in the future.
Extremists in our country are pushing for state school curriculums to reflect their own “nationalistic values”—adjusting history to reflect their political bias (Texas), insisting that creationism be taught in science classes (Kansas).
I don’t know the current statistics for book, magazine and newspaper readers in our country, but I do know it’s on a decline. And while internet use is high, how much of what is accessed online is educational or even factual?