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In Egypt's classrooms, lessons go only so far

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It's a vicious cycle, says Noha Hussein, whose 12-year-old daughter – a private school student – has been tutored since the third grade. "There's no teaching in schools," Ms. Hussein says. "The school assumes that the student is relying on outside tutoring, so the teacher himself says, 'Why teach?' "

A large-scale initiative, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is under way to support Egyptian educational reforms. But Mark Ginsburg, senior technical adviser with Egypt's Educational Reform Program, says none of the changes tackles tutoring directly.

"There are some serious problems with the current education system," he says. "I think tutoring is, in part, a symptom of those problems. It's also a symptom of less-than-adequate compensation for teachers."

Mr. Ginsburg says tutoring has its benefits for teachers, the income boost and businesslike competition foremost among them. Many teachers see tutoring as a way to even the score financially, as they are among the lowest paid degree-holding government employees.

Still, Mark Bray, director of UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning, says tutoring can be consuming. "It can get out of hand and it can destroy children's' lives," he says. "It can gobble up family incomes. It can make life just a constant rat race."

Experts estimate that private tutoring in Egypt consumes at least 20 percent of total household expenditures. Most parents resent having to shell out extra cash for lessons their children ought to learn in school.

But parents bent on their children earning a slot at medical or engineering colleges, often fuel the demand for tutoring. Yousry, an Alexandria high school teacher and tutor who wished to be identified only by his first name, says that, to many families, tutoring is like using steroids. "When I'm a student in this race, I have to take drugs," Yousry says, "something extra."

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