A Lesson in Futility
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Photo by: Mohsen Allam
A new law raises teachers’ salaries, but critics say it won’t even make a dent in a badly damaged public education system
By Ethar El-Katatney (with additional reporting by Riham El-Houshi)
The public school education system is a shambles. That’s a given. Teachers don’t teach, the exams are memorized and the ‘smartest’ person is the one who can recite by rote and spew out the most information in an exam.
Another unfortunate truth is that if your parents can’t afford private lessons, you’re toast. It’s commonly known that many public-school teachers don’t give their all in class and will only properly teach during private lessons. Greedy hustlers. How could they? Well, consider this: A public school teacher makes, on average, LE 150 a month. That’s how much they get to spend on their own children, education, food, rent, transportation, clothing and other living expenses. What need do they have to give private lessons?
The education system has been a source of frustration and disappointment for years, regularly ripped to shreds in the press and consistently cropping up on the Ministry of Education’s agenda as something that “has to change.” So what has the government come up with to help alleviate the many problems that cripple our public education system?
When 50 percent is Nothing
In May, the Ministry of State for Administrative Development proposed a law that at the time called for the firing of teachers who give private lessons. In return for giving up their cash cow, teachers would get — wait for it — a humongous 50 percent increase of their current base salary. Might sound impressive, but it actually amounts to approximately LE 70 per month on average. That ought to set them up for life.
After debating the proposed law, which would apply only to teachers and not administrative staff, the People’s Assembly’s (PA) Education Committee agreed to send it to the floor for a vote in late May. Members of the PA were duly unimpressed: Many regarded the proposal as harsh, noting that an average LE 70 raise was too low to justify a teacher abandoning private lessons.
Not everyone was critical of the proposal. Zeinab Radwan, deputy speaker of the PA, a member of the National Council of Women and the former dean of the Faculty of Science at Fayoum University, believes that this raise should “motivate teachers so that they give students their all in the classroom, and neither of them have to resort to private lessons.”
Radwan, who helped draft the law, believes that teachers who give private classes should be punished.
On June 18, the Education Committee decided to eliminate all clauses related to private lessons before passing the proposed law on for a vote by the PA as a whole. However, according to Nagwa El-Ashi, first deputy minister in the Ministry of Education, “even though private lessons have not been criminalized, there is an article in the new law which states that teachers who give private lessons will be questioned and sent to a disciplinary committee.”
Abbas El-Sayyid, a payroll employee at a public school, explained to Egypt Today that base salaries, which start at LE 102 for teachers in his school, drop even further after deductions. These include, but aren’t limited to: 10 percent for pension, 3 percent for “services” (and when questioned, he admitted that he did not know what the services were exactly), 0.5 percent for health insurance and LE 3 for the teacher’s syndicate. And don’t forget the taxes, calculated by subtracting LE 50 from the basic salary and multiplying the result by 6/1000; taxes usually amount to no more than 1.5 pounds. Altogether, a teacher who makes LE 150 per month sees at least LE 25 disappear from his salary.
This is why, during an Education Committee meeting on the proposed law, the Teacher’s Syndicate demanded that the base salary be raised to LE 500 before the raise and benefits (such as maternity leave or financial compensation for unused vacation days) were added to it. Currently, an experienced teacher could make up to LE 400 with experience and social benefits factored in.
At that same meeting, Minister of State for Administrative Development Ahmed Darwish refused the syndicate’s demand, saying that salaries would amount to about LE 547 after social compensation and raises. The Ministry of Finance told the committee that its budget for the new project was LE 1.55 billion.
The PA agreed in principle to the new law in mid-June and recommended that it be implemented in public, private and Al-Azhar schools, where teachers could begin receiving their new salaries as early as the start of this school year. However, the institution of Al-Azhar is independent from the Ministry of Education, meaning that the law couldn’t be enforced because Azhar schools don’t fall within the ministry’s jurisdiction.
That didn’t sit well with the more than 22,000 teachers at Al-Azhar schools in Cairo, Sohag, Gharbeya, Assiut and Aswan; in June they went on strike, refusing to mark preparatory and secondary students’ final exams until their demands that the law be applied to them was met.
Sheikh Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi promised to put the law into effect, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm, but teachers still remained on strike. In early July, President Hosni Mubarak stepped in and issued a presidential decree making the teacher’s law, with its privileges, applicable to Al-Azhar schoolteachers. The Cabinet agreed to implement the decree, effectively ending the three-day strike. Cabinet spokesperson Magdy Rady told the press that 151,549 Al-Azhar teachers would benefit from the new law; implementation for Al-Azhar alone will cost LE 272 million for the first stage and LE 274.3 million for the second stage.
In August, the PA approved a special raise for workers in the education sector who were not going to benefit from the new teachers’ law, such as school inspectors, whose salaries will now more closely match those of teachers.
The Education Ministry’s El-Ashi says that in the future, there will be additional raises for teachers; she noted, however, that a timeline for those raises had not been announced. She assured et that it is only in the primary phase of the law’s application that teachers will receive a 50 percent increase.
She adds that the new law “is not just financial. It is ethical, disciplinary, and professional.” New articles in the law stipulate that “fresh graduates will be appointed as teaching assistants for a year at least,” explains El-Ashi. “Then they will be tested in an academy that is still undergoing establishment. If they pass the academy’s tests, they can sign full-time contracts.” New teachers will have a probationary period of up to three years in which to pass the tests. “If they fail three years in a row, they cannot be certified teachers.
“By setting new standards and guidelines by which a teacher can be chosen, [we are] raising the standard of teaching as a profession.”
Radwan adds that the new law will also guarantee jobs to teachers who are recent graduates and lessen teachers’ workload.
More money, same system
It’s obvious that Al-Azhar teachers believe that the new law is going to offer them something more and will help raise their standard of living. But will a LE 60, LE 70 or even LE 150 raise really change the lives of the professors or cure our ailing education system?
Koraim Abdel Hamid, an Arabic teacher at a school in Heliopolis, has been teaching for 22 years. Very well-paid by public school standards, Hamid has a LE 300 base salary and takes home LE 396 with social benefits factored in. He believes that the planned raise won’t bring about the changes needed. “A teacher resorts to private lessons because his financial situation is terrible,” he says. “His salary is barely enough for food for him and his family.”
Kamel Sayid is a school inspector and earns a hefty LE 358 and is married to a teacher. He laments, “It’s the twelfth [of the month] and my wife’s salary and my own ran out the day before yesterday.”
Incentives usually succeed at getting people to work harder at their jobs, but the proposed raise is almost insulting. It’s interesting to note that, according to Radwan, the Ministry of Finance was at first against the increase in salaries, claiming that it did not have the budget, but was eventually convinced by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
This is not to say that more money for teachers is a bad thing. Parents are struggling to pay for private lessons, which in theory shouldn’t even exist because public school teachers are prohibited from taking on private students. It’s true that some teachers under-perform in the classroom, but when you look at the huge discrepancy between household income and the cost of living, can you really blame them?
Still, higher salaries won’t change the fact that the teachers are overworked: A public school classroom usually has an average of 80 students. Quality of education plummets as more bodies are packed into the classroom.
The public education system is divided into three stages: basic education, encompassing the primary and preparatory stages, secondary education and post-secondary education. Only the first stage is compulsory by law, and it is here when a teacher forces private lessons on a student, since it is these same teachers who mark the exams and issue final grades. Since there is no monitoring of the teachers, it is a sad fact that some teachers purposely fail students who did not take private lessons with them.
In the secondary stage, exams and grades are not determined by the teachers and students have a multitude of resources such as books and television to help them study. Families still resort to private classes because the Thanaweya Amma (Egyptian high school certificate) curve has become so high. Students can score above 100 percent (by acquiring bonus points for excelling in language, sports or other subjects) and still not get into their faculty of choice. Private lessons are seen as a key step in getting the required percentage for the university and faculty of choice.
According to Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and an expert on the nation’s education system, private lessons are the least of the problems in an inherently flawed system. In a previous interview with et, Abdel Fattah pointed out that a critical problem with the education policy is that it depends solely on transmitting knowledge to the students.
“Ideas are not examined scientifically or objectively. Students receive incomplete theories out of historical and social context and end up with a superficial and distorted body of knowledge,” Abdel Fattah explained. “This produces a system completely dependent on memorization and repetition and an assessment strategy based on reproducing superficial knowledge as opposed to an ability to apply theories. It will never cultivate a critical and creative mind, but one conditioned to follow a preordained corpus of knowledge.”
Teaching veteran Abdel Hamid believes that teachers are qualified to teach and that the training they receive makes them competent, but that view, however, is not shared by Shaimaa Samir, a currently unemployed graduate of the Teachers’ College. After her experience, Samir believes that the system of creating teachers is deeply flawed.
Abroad, most would-be teachers study their subject area for four years in university and then studies for at least two more years to become fully qualified as a teacher. This does not apply in Egypt, where in the Teachers’ College, you spend four years studying both the subject you’re going to teach and how to teach it. “[We are taught] how to set curriculums, and the methods of teaching the subject, as well as the subject of specialization,” Samir says, “but it’s in a short period of time [and] so we don’t manage to capture it all.”
Samir got a public school teaching job shortly after graduation but soon quit. She recalls the heavy workload and how the school assigned her primary classes even though she specialized in secondary school education. She was not trained in how to teach children.
There is also no such thing as tenure in the public school education system. Teachers get a one-year contract and are fired at the end of each year; then their contract is renewed at the beginning of the next year — that’s if they’re lucky — you need a wasta (connection) in some schools to get hired.
It’s clear that the public education system’s problem isn’t just the pitiful salaries. Focusing on money shows that the policy makers lack a clear vision of how to solve the problems. Laws are only effective when they target the root of the problem, and the new law definitely does not.
Money is an incentive, but even if each teacher were to get more than enough to live comfortably, would that fix everything? What would make them teach properly? Even if they did teach to the best of their abilities, is it enough? How do we judge their performance? Are they monitored or evaluated in any way?
This new law puts a tiny bandage on a seriously injured education system. It’s like putting whipped cream on top of a burnt cake and telling you to eat it. We have to find real solutions to the problems, and not offer a half-baked attempt that isn’t likely to succeed.
Radwan insists that the new law is just the first cog in the wheel, and that the Ministry of Education is working very hard to reform the education system from all angles.
“[The ministry will improve it] in terms of enhancing the child’s psychological state as well as his education. In terms of all school activities. In terms of equipment, desks, chairs, computers, so that we can make the system as a whole reach a higher level and be on par with countries abroad.” She adds that the National Council for Women is working to create parent-teacher conferences to open avenues of communication.
All are good objectives, but these promises have been often repeated over the years.
El-Ashi explains that “there are many aspects to the education process: the student, the classroom, the equipment, the curricula. We are dealing with one aspect here, the teacher, by making him feel that his financial level and professional standard have improved.” It is only the first step though, and she believes that “when the curricula are developed, the teachers are better trained and certified, and when the concentration of students within a classroom is lessened by building more schools, this all motivates the teacher.”
As flawed as the law may be, it still promises struggling teachers some new funds. But where is it? Supposed to be implemented in July, it still hasn’t materialized. Latest reports say that the raise, to be given in a separate check, will be issued to everyone starting September. As of press time, checks were being issued sporadically and unsystematically. Of the LE 1.55 billion allocated to raises, only LE 110 million has been released so far, and the timeline for more installments has yet to be announced.
Teachers spend as much time with our children as we do, and their work shapes the minds of the next generation. And now, after their newly padded paychecks, they still get paid less than the people who clean our toilets. et