Rachel Christina credits the dedicated project staff in Egypt with energizing the country’s efforts to improve education. “They are very smart, creative, committed people,” she says. “I want to honor them for their wonderful work.”
A Rhode Island native, Christina’s desire to work in international education was ignited by her parents. Both were university professors, and her father developed K–12 bilingual education programs. “They toted me along to Spain when I was a year old,” she says. “It was onward and upward from there.”
Christina pursued her passions, earning a BA in theater arts, an MA in international peace studies, an MEd in international and comparative education, and a PhD in education policy studies. Before joining EDC, she designed programs for Kyrgyzstan and Egypt for Save the Children, worked for RAND Education, served on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, and published a study of early childhood education called “Tend the Olive, Water the Vine” (IAP, 2006).
Christina says she is gratified by her work in Egypt. “I know there is a direct, positive impact on the lives of children,” she says. “There’s nothing like the grins kids get on their faces when they are loving learning. EDC’s work produces a lot of those grins.”
Egypt Education Reform Program staff know their work is effective when students’ love for learning is expressed with a symbol that transcends language and culture: a smile. The five-year, multifaceted partnership with the government of Egypt was recently extended into 2010. Rachel Christina is senior project director.
Could you describe a typical Egyptian classroom?
In the largest urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria, you see up to 80 students with one teacher, in a very crowded classroom. Students clamber over the desks to get from one place to another. There is very little technology and few books and teaching resources. Instruction is centered around a blackboard and chalk. The rural classrooms are less densely populated but also have high poverty and not enough resources.
How do teachers work in that environment?
There hasn’t been a lot of flexibility. The curriculum has been very rigid and focused on memorization, recitation, and testing—the traditional model. The classrooms have been teacher directed with no focus on encouraging students’ creativity or critical thinking.
Where are improvements being made?
The Egyptian government has committed to a really ambitious and forward-looking program of education reform. They want to see students who are able to participate at high levels of civic engagement and who are prepared for the global workforce of the 21st century. Students need to be able to think critically, communicate, and problem solve.
EDC was asked to focus on the quality of teaching and learning within schools in seven Egyptian governorates, which are the equivalent of U.S. states. We developed training for teachers, principals, and supervisors that allows teachers to rise to the new national standards and be supported by educational leaders as they work to improve.
In addition to training, we have developed and distributed supplementary instructional materials and resources to the schools that encourage students to engage with each other and with the activities. We also developed an evaluation instrument that will allow the government to track teacher performance over time and support better quality of instruction in the schools.
How have teachers responded to the training?
Most Egyptian teachers are terrific in terms of their openness and willingness to try new things and do things differently. It’s exciting for them to see students engaging with the lessons in new ways, even working with very limited resources.
For example, on one school visit, I was invited to attend a “trade show” in an elementary social studies class, where students had used simple materials—cardboard boxes, plastic bags, pieces of string—to make models of local products, which they then advertised to their classmates for a lesson that discussed local industry and production. It’s been wonderful to see the teachers step back and let students explore and develop ideas and learn collaboratively from each other.
What are your hopes for Egyptian schools?
There’s a very high level of commitment among teachers and administrators. The project’s technical support team is currently training government staff to take these new models to scale across Egypt. We’ve contributed to the teaching standards and to the evaluation mechanisms for the country’s new teacher career ladder, and it’s very exciting.
Really dynamic things are happening in the schools. Teachers, parents, and communities are working together to improve educational quality and the environment in schools. Students are excited about learning in ways you wouldn’t have seen years ago. Many of these schools have made enormous strides. I’m optimistic that we’ve helped create a legacy in Egypt that the government can carry forward.
The Egypt Education Reform Program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. EDC works as a subcontractor to American Institutes for Research, along with partner World Education.
Originally published on January 29, 2010