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  Number 322 | Mayo 2008
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Nicaragua

Our Education System Is Increasing Poverty and Inequality

This lifelong educator analyzes the problems with the Nicaraguan education system, this government’s actions and the challenges ahead.

Josefina Vijil

In Nicaragua we’re all gradually beginning to agree on three ideas regarding education. The first already sounds like a cliché: education is a key factor for development. More and more people are agreeing with the second: not just any education helps development. In other words, it’s not enough to have a school where girls and boys go, sit down in a classroom and get a diploma, or for them to graduate from university. What’s needed is relevant, quality education. And the third idea expresses something sad: the education in today’s Nicaragua is of such low quality that instead of helping us get out of poverty and overcome the lack of equity, it’s actually reproducing poverty and inequality. Because with so few people well educated and so many badly educated, we’re feeding the inequity of a society where a few have many opportunities and many have none at all. For a long time now we‘ve been told that education is an instrument for social mobility, to help people get ahead and improve their lives and communities. But in today’s Nicaragua education just isn’t doing that.

Education isn’t a priority

Education doesn’t occur in the abstract; it always happens in a real situation, a concrete context. The hardest reality in Nicaragua today is the lack of equity, the poverty affecting the majority, the economic and social crisis. That’s the situation in which education is taking place. I think two main problems are at the root of all our current educational challenges. The first is that education isn’t a priority in this country and the second that it’s not state policy.

In Nicaragua, everyone says that education is a priority, but this is contradicted by the national budget, which is the first and most important objectively verifiable indicator of a country’s priorities. In 2008, the Education Ministry’s budget for basic and secondary education was just 3.7% of the gross domestic product, the same as in 2007, while even minimally resolving the innumerable problems we have in education would require investing at least 7%. In this area, nothing has changed with the new government, and according to projections we won’t get more than 3.9% in 2009. Nor does the private sector invest all that it should and could in education.

A substantial part of the total spending on education is invested in higher education. This has been used to question the constitutional stipulation that 6% of the ordinary and extraordinary national budget must go to the universities, although more is invested in university education in all countries because it costs more. In fact, Nicaragua needs to invest a lot in quality higher education if it’s to develop. But that quality doesn’t currently exist. There’s a need for a social audit that forces the universities to account for how they are investing our taxes. The solution isn’t to stop investing in universities, but rather to invest more in all of the educational subsystems and transform the universities into centers of research, science and production of knowledge. Nicaragua needs higher education institutions that do research, influence development and turn out trained professionals with a broad, comprehensive and humanist cultural vision. Are universities producing university graduates of the quality Nicaragua needs? And how much of the considerable investment is going to research, given that quality research is a key to the country’s development?

There are other serious imbalances in the budget. For example, less is invested in secondary school than primary school; there isn’t any investment in technical education; and there isn’t enough investment in infrastructure and teaching materials. Such is the neglect that we haven’t had any textbooks in Nicaragua since 2004 and we’ll soon have a legion of boys and girls who have gone through primary school without ever touching a textbook, who only studied with an exercise book and pencil.

No state policy and no national vision

In addition to insufficient investment, there’s also no coordination of efforts. One invests here, the other there and the other over there, with no concentrated“laser beam, ”no synergy of everyone focusing on the same area. And that’s where the other fundamental problem comes into play: education isn’t a state policy; it’s a policy tailored by individual governments and sometimes ministers. During the Bolaños government, education changed whenever the minister changed. We have no national vision of education expressed in state education policies. All we have is the General Education Law, passed two years ago when there was still no national vision of education.

So what do we want as a country? The average educational level of Nicaraguans is currently just 5.6 years of schooling, but with a very great level of inequity as the figure is 3.6 in the countryside and 7 in urban areas. Nicaraguan legislation currently stipulates 7 grades as obligatory: third level pre-school and the 6 primary school grades. Is this really what we want? Where are we heading if this is our goal as a country? Why aren’t we at least aspiring to the 12 years of schooling established by the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean as the minimal educational threshold to keep people above the poverty line? And if this is what we want, how will we coordinate the efforts to achieve it within the next 20 years? Because we’re surely not going to achieve it in 5.

Education is always a long-term process and we won’t get anywhere if we continue responding with short-term policies. If we want everyone to have 12 years of schooling, for secondary school graduates to have technical options in addition to university and to provide an education that teaches people to think logically, we have to abandon a whole pile of distracters in the educational system and put together policies aimed at achieving those goals. But if we don’t know where we’re going or what we want... Why were educational policies imposed on us from outside during the nineties? Because we didn’t have—and still don’t have—our own vision. We have to develop a national vision that translates into state education policies that survive beyond individual governments and the changing of ministers and officials.

These two fundamental problems are obviously interrelated and have negative effects. If we don’t have any resources, the school infrastructure will suffer. Fifty-four percent of our schools don’t even have drinking water, which is fundamental for the development of the educational process. We have a deficit of around 20,000 classrooms and need at least $54 million in infrastructure investment just to build them. Many schools have no desks or chairs, and in many others first-graders learn to write on wrapping paper. The teachers draw them lines to write on, but who really learns that way? As there are no resources the teachers aren’t paid a decent salary and there’s still no commitment to increase their pay, despite the fact that Nicaragua’s current and future generations are in their hands.

Teachers have no incentives, limited
training and miserable working conditions

With such low salaries, who’d want to be a teacher in Nicaragua? Teachers don’t want their sons and daughters to learn to be teachers. Most of our teachers are single, abandoned mothers who work alone to provide a future for their children. It isn’t fair to assume they don’t have to earn much because they’re apostles, while top state branch officials pocket millions.

When are we going to give teachers a decent salary that actually promotes the teaching profession? A while ago now, the Program for the Promotion of Educational Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean suggested that countries need to design strategies for the best graduating students to opt for a teaching career. Listening to this from Nicaragua we explained that people here become teachers for the sole reason that they’re poor. They opt for teaching as a quick solution, because there are no technical education options to help them get a job. If they fall in love with teaching they’ll carry on, but if not they’ll find another job as soon as possible, or else go to Costa Rica where they can earn more working as housekeepers.

The professional development of our teachers is linked to promotion as well as remuneration, because the only way a teacher can get promoted is by leaving the classroom and taking an administrative position. There’s no way of forging a career inside the classroom. So how are we going to keep teachers in the classroom? Strictly speaking, Nicaragua has no teaching career ladder and teachers only get salaries through seniority, which is understood as synonymous with experience, and that’s absurd because having taught for more years doesn’t always mean having greater and better experience. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough salary incentives for work in such hard conditions as multigrade classrooms, developing innovative experiences, getting students to learn more, or having studied more and obtained greater levels of professional learning.

One of the biggest problems for first-grade teachers is that the children in their classrooms range from six-year-olds to over-age kids with moustaches. Data from several sources appears to show that around 40% of the country’s pupils are over the age for the level they’re studying.

It’s also quite a challenge for a teacher to manage one classroom with kids from different grades. The multi-grade classroom—which could develop a very good pedagogical methodology proven in other countries—is used in Nicaragua as a uni-teacher methodology. The teacher says “I’m with the first grade now,” and for the time being the second graders do nothing. Then she says “I’m going to work with the second graders now” and so on. The multi-grade methodology is supposed to be active not directive, based on guides and exercises in which children advance at different rhythms. But how’s a teacher that isn’t trained and doesn’t have the resources going to cope?

Along with the limited salary and lack of incentives for teachers, there’s also the challenge of how to train them. All Nicaraguan governments have invested more in on-the-job teacher training, in other words training them after they’ve started working. Up to now little importance has been given to their initial training, which is fundamental to their professional formation, so they can go to teacher training school and learn a methodology they can then put into practice to teach their pupils. There’s also no pedagogical accompaniment for teachers; what they get instead is supervision. Years ago a first-grade teacher from a school in Estelí told me that the inspector had turned up and made a very negative report about her: she hadn’t put the date on the blackboard, the classroom was untidy, the children weren’t quiet and they weren’t wearing their uniforms. But he had noted in his observations that all the children knew how to read and write. So what are we evaluating: whether teachers can keep their classes quiet or whether they achieve their learning objectives?

A very low-quality education
that doesn’t teach children to think

We have a very low-quality education as a result of all these limitations, challenges and problems. And the most important indicator of this is not the university entrance tests that frighten us every year, because they aren’t designed to measure the quality of secondary school, but rather to adjust the number of new students to the places available in the universities. A more worrying indicator is the fact that children aren’t learning reading comprehension and aren’t learning to write down their ideas or think logically. How are they going to learn to think logically if we don’t stress comprehension? And how are we going to stress this given the quality of education the teachers receive?

We don’t teach students to think. Our education system doesn’t teach them to go beyond a description of reality, to think abstractly or analyze. We provide information but not a method for transforming it into knowledge, even a personal knowledge that serves for life, but absolutely nothing about how to analyze, research, pose questions and come up with answers. As a history teacher from Managua’s Central American University said, “The kids have a lot of clothes, but not a lot of wardrobe.” In other words they have a lot of information but little knowledge of methods for organizing it and transforming it into knowledge. What’s the use of having so much information if they don’t learn?

The education system prepares children for the kind of “best pupil” contests that measure rote learning. Society’s self-image still contains the idea that quality education provides a lot of information, a lot of erudition, and there’s still a belief that people who know how to say a lot of things, who know the names of the all the rivers in Nicaragua, all the country’s Presidents, are the ones who know the most, even if they can’t write a letter... And right now the world of work is changing at such an impressive rate that if we don’t focus on the basic learning tools—how to read, write and think; basic mathematical operations; how to pose questions and how to find the answers—we won’t go anywhere.

The lack of resources and of state policies and the low quality of education produce insufficient access to and limited retention in the education system. This means that not all of those who should go to school and stay on actually do. In Nicaragua, the education system’s biggest leakage is in first grade, where 21 out of every 100 children drop out and never come back. Because first grade has the highest dropout and repetition rates, that’s where we need the best teachers. We also need to encourage children to enter the educational system at least in third grade of preschool, rather than go directly into first grade.

The importance and the
problems of preschool education

A child’s educational future is traced out in early childhood, during his or her first six years. Preschool is fundamental, not so much because of the content, but rather the possibilities of stimulation, because if some cognitive processes and cerebral circuits don’t form during that period they never will. At the moment we’re fighting for compliance with the General Education Law, which establishes at least third level preschool (for children between the ages of five and six) as obligatory. Only 35 out of every 100 Nicaraguan children currently have access to this level, and it has been proven that children who receive preschool education are more likely to learn better than those who don’t. And those who don’t are also the poorest, thus perpetuating the lack of educational equity.

Most of the preschools in Nicaragua are community ones, which have great limitations. The average level of schooling among preschool teachers is just nine years, most have no specific training in preschool education and they’re very poorly paid (between 300 and 500 córdobas, or US$15.50 and $26 a month). Community preschool provides a temporary, not long-term solution. The state has to assume responsibility.

Problems at the primary and secondary level

There are also a lot of problems in primary and secondary school. Fifty percent of secondary school teachers are self-taught, with no specific training.

According to the law, it is obligatory to provide children 200 days of school and 1,000 hours of classes every year. But this doesn’t happen; I reckon we don’t even make 700 hours a year, and according to the Education Ministry, 500,000 children are outside of the school system altogether. As Nicaraguan statistics are not very reliable, we don’t know if the real figure is higher or lower, but we do know that there are a lot; too many students don’t go to school and have no educational option. And very few of those who do start actually finish. Just 50% of the children who enroll in primary school go all the way through to sixth grade. And this percentage is not evenly spread: the figure is 99% among the richest people.

The causes behind this include the lack of schools, the abysmal quality of the education provided, the lack of teachers and their poor salaries. In relation to the poor salaries, IMF conditions dictate the freezing of the public employee salary mass, thus ruling out any pay rise for teachers or increasing the number of teachers. And at this moment we need more teachers to cover the right of all citizens to an education.

Another cause is that the children and their families aren’t stupid; they know there’s no point in going to a school where they’re not going to learn anything and what they’re taught won’t help them at all. So the bad quality of the education, the lack of resources and the lack of a national educational vision stops many children who should be at school from attending and stops many who should stay on from doing so.

Another problem is that although the General Education Law talks about extra-school education, there’s only actually one school model. And if you don’t adapt to that model you don’t go. Our model is a school with classes from seven in the morning to noon during the week or all day Saturday for people wanting a fast-track primary education. There are certain alternative efforts, but they’re insufficient and not institutionalized. Where can young people from a rural district get a secondary education if there’s no secondary school there? And if they have to go to a private secondary school, how do they get a scholarship? We need to come up with alternative models. There are some alternatives, including a project for child workers run by Fe y Alegría in Somotillo. One of the first problems the teachers there discovered was that the children couldn’t sit still for more than 15 minutes. They’ve had to invent a methodology especially for those children, which is different from the one employed in traditional schools where everyone remains seated and in silence.

All of these limitations add up to an inefficient system with limited resources, high dropout rates, poor quality and a lot of wasted money. And this feeds the lack of equity, reproducing and intensifying poverty. The education we currently have thus isn’t contributing to development, but rather is keeping us in poverty and increasing existing inequalities.

In Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast region the problems of quality, access, coverage and retention are even more acute. The first challenge is that the educational autonomy decreed for the Caribbean Coast still isn’t a reality because it isn’t ensured by either financing or state policies. One real advance has been establishing the Regional Autonomous Educational System (SEAR) with support from international cooperation. Another is the compliance in some places of legislation establishing that teaching should be given in the mother tongues of the different coast peoples during the first grades of primary school, with Spanish education kicking in during second or third grade.

What has been done to
resolve so many problems?

How can so many problems be resolved? We haven’t been able to negotiate another budget with the International Monetary Fund in Nicaragua. All government officials, including those of the current government, seem more like IMF officials than representatives of national interests. International cooperation has helped us, but that help has been geared to giving the government funds to invest in the budget in line with the plans drawn up by the Ministry of Education. Cooperation negotiates the goals and then measures the impact through indicators that are either achieved or not using its funding.

We’ve certainly made progress and there are now more schools and more children at school than before, but we’re still doing very badly in the most important areas. For many years cooperation’s goals have focused on primary education and access, not on the rest of the system or on quality.

Many of us educators have mentioned all of these problems in different forums, but the demands have to come from the people. The communities have to organize to make demands in these areas. It’s too easy to blame the international finance institutions for our current situation. We say they want to deprive us of education and keep us trapped in ignorance so they can impose their plans on us, but implementing the kind of patronage politics practiced by this government and most of the political class also requires a lack of education and a lot of ignorance. The current educational deficiencies work to the advantage of the political culture being maintained in Nicaragua. Educated people are never political clients because they think for themselves, speak out, give opinions and criticize. In short, because they are really citizens.

The new government and the end
of decentralization and autonomy

What has the new government done? As soon as the FSLN took office—the very next day, in fact—it abolished the school autonomy model established during the nineties, which made each school responsible for its own management with parental participation. Under the autonomy model, each school received a budgetary transfer from the state and decided how best to administer the money. It had to pay the electricity and water bills, as well as decide how much to pay the teachers, how much to invest in the classrooms and whether to bring in teachers for extra activities such as English or traditional dancing. Without going into any in-depth analysis, this model, like everything in life, had its pros and cons. The most negative aspect was undoubtedly the obligatory charging of students, which caused a notable reduction in enrollment between 1994 and 1998. Also negative was the way it linked student payments to teachers’ salaries, effectively turning teachers into bill collectors. However, the model was never evaluated and abolishing something without evaluating it and discovering what did or didn’t work and why or why not is of no help at all. Repeatedly wiping the slate clean and starting over has cost this country dear.

The plan to municipalize education never resulted in an actual model, in fact it was never implemented because it was applied as a pilot for an insufficient amount of time to draw any lessons. The main limitation was that only the administrative aspect was decentralized and the municipal governments didn’t want to assume the educational responsibilities if they weren’t going to have the resources. Unfortunately the debate on municipal decentralization ended up centered on budgetary aspects when it should have focused on education. I personally think municipal decentralization is a good idea because when the municipality has the power to decide on the educational situation it does a better job. It’s closer to the schools and communities than the central Ministry of Education.

The new government’s tendency is to re-centralize everything. Now even the pencils are bought in the central headquarters. We’re seeing the advance of a centralist and uniformizing tendency while one of the negative characteristics of school has always been that things are made uniform. Modern pedagogy is based precisely on rejecting this characteristic, proposing that not everyone learns at the same rhythm and in the same way. The current government’s tendency to centralize everything means that innovatory local initiatives that had been functioning for years are being cut. They’re clipping the wings of people who were doing interesting things. I believe we have to discuss models for municipalizing education and that education would move along much better if we had 154 excellent municipal education delegates in Nicaragua rather than 154 technicians based in the central Education Ministry headquarters.

Is education really free and accessible?

School autonomy was abolished when the free nature of education was decreed on January 11. That day was also declared National Education Day, again by presidential decree. Free education is one of the present government’s flagships. But is education really free in Nicaragua? What is the government’s definition of “free”? This is an issue we have to debate and problematize.

First of all, it has to be said that education costs a lot. You have to pay for well-trained teachers, teaching materials, infrastructure, services, etc. The question is who pays for all that: the state or the family? At the moment a good part of the costs are being paid for by the teachers who subsidize education through their miserable salaries, with the families also pitching in with an important share.

What does Nicaraguan legislation have to say about this? The General Education Law says that education is free and obligatory for basic education, defined as the third level of preschool and the six years of primary school. But the Law adds that this applies “in state schools.”It also says that secondary education is free, although not obligatory, and that this applies “in state schools.”

This aspect is one of the most problematic parts of the General Education Law, because if we understand education to be a right, then its free nature should be defined in relation to the individual, not the school. If education is a right, the state has an obligation to provide it to everyone. If there’s a state-run school in the given community, those lucky enough to live there can go and not pay, but those living where there isn’t one either don’t have access to education or have to pay for it. Not having to pay school fees means nothing to young people living out in the bush if they’ve never had access to school because there’s no model that allows them to attend, no school nearby or they have no possibility of going somewhere else to study.

Young people from isolated rural areas who finished primary school need the chance for scholarships or boarding options—as do Bolivia or Honduras—that allow them to continue studying away from where they live. And if they already have families—because kids match up very young in the countryside—there should be programs that allow them to spend a week boarding and the next week working back in their community.

Those young people should also have access to technical courses. Technical education is very scarce in Nicaragua. There are only 17,000 technical students in the whole country, and less than 1% of the country’s economically active population is technically qualified. The supply is ridiculously low; there is no budget for technical education. But when you ask families what kind of education they’d like for their children, most, particularly those in rural sectors, say technical education and vocational training. Education has to respond to people’s needs and in this country there’s an unmet demand for technical education.

There’s a profound relationship between the obligatory nature of school and free education. According to one author [Néstor López in Las nuevas leyes de educación en América Latina: una lectura a la luz del panorama social y educativa de la región, IIPE-UNESCO/CLADE, 2007] who analyzed different educational legislation in Latin America, “Determining that a certain level is free obliges the government to guarantee the supply of education at that level for the whole population and for that to be reflected in all of the laws.” The author explains that in many countries the state guarantees the universal supply of education, even at non-obligatory levels, citing the examples of Argentina and Chile where preschool isn’t obligatory but the state supplies it for those who want to go. Finally, he points out the great contradiction in our country: “Nicaragua is the only case in which the opposite happens: education is obligatory from the initial level, but the state still does not guarantee universal access at that level.”

If that’s the way things are, how are we going to raise the banner of free education if there aren’t enough schools or teachers to cover the whole population, enough different models to cover people who can’t attend the model being offered and if many families can’t send their children to school because they don’t have enough money to pay the costs involved? We have to be clear about this: education is not free. All we have at the moment is that no fees are being charged in state schools. Period. And that’s good; albeit a very limited one, it’s a success.

Four conditions for providing free education

There are other reasons to question the free nature of education. Many research studies indicate that families have to spend more to send a child to school than the state invests. They have to invest in transport, one of the highest costs in Nicaragua; in school utensils, which are also very expensive; and in uniforms and proper shoes, which may not be obligatory but if children who go to school without them feel very bad, they may stop going. Then there’s the opportunity cost: what it means for the family if the child stops working to attend school. These costs are very high and are one of the reasons the enrollment boom failed to materialize in 2007 after free education was decreed. The government expected enrollment to rise sharply, but it never happened. It actually dropped by 1% at primary-school level, rose a little at preschool level and increased by 1.6% in secondary schools. And while more children did perhaps enroll initially, they quickly dropped out because they couldn’t sustain the costs.

If we want education to be free, then in addition to guaranteeing schools and teachers for areas with children and young people, we also need to guarantee compensatory programs to subsidize the poorest. For a certain period of time the Social Protection Network was piloted in certain zones of Nicaragua. This was an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) program implemented in many Latin American countries that was highly questioned both here and elsewhere. It involved providing aid to the family in exchange for the child going to school, being appropriately fed—something controlled by measuring the child’s weight and height—and having access to health services. It was a good precedent for similar programs that need to be promoted, overcoming its limitations. In some countries where the program involved a lot of political patronage, the program generated conflicts, with particularly serious ones in Mexico, especially in indigenous communities.

Another of the program’s underlying problems was that while it guaranteed that children could go to school, it only intervened in the area of coverage, not in the quality of the education being provided. What good is sitting in a classroom if the education is not of sufficient quality? In Nicaragua, the program achieved some very high levels of enrollment in the poorest zones, but after the program left the enrollment levels dropped again. It wasn’t sustainable, because some kind of subsidy is needed. If we want our children to be educated free of charge—particularly the poorest ones—then we need to debate long-term compensatory programs that allow the family to assume the other costs of education.

We can’t talk about free education in Nicaragua unless we meet four conditions: 1) ensuring there are schools and teachers in all communities to guarantee the supply of education to the whole population; 2) providing compensatory programs for the poorest population, who will drop out if we don’t help them; 3) guaranteeing enough alternative programs for those who cannot access the existing supply; and, 4) making the education relevant, which means of a quality that responds to the needs of those receiving it.

Another important issue is the obligatory nature of education. The community has to fight for a bigger budget and as a country we have to fight for higher schooling levels. We are perhaps the only country in Latin America that only declares seven years of obligatory schooling, when the international tendency is between 12 and 15.

We have to exploit the demographic bonus

According to the 2005 census, the composition of the Nicaraguan population has changed for the first time in a long while. We always had a pyramidal structure with a very broad base corresponding to the 0-15 population group, and very few elderly people at the top of the pyramid. We were a country of children and very young people. But there were some surprises in the 2005 census, which is the only planning instrument available to us, although many people don’t trust it. According to the census, the structure of the Nicaraguan population has narrowed into a Christmas tree-like structure. The birth rate has dropped and the biggest population group is now the over sixes. This phenomenon is known as the “demographic bonus.” In a short while, this studying-age population will be a working-age population and could therefore produce income and be less dependent. Many countries, including the “Asian tigers,” exploited their “demographic bonus” to develop: during the “bonus” years they invested a lot in educating that population group and the country started to develop when those better-educated people entered the work force.

And now the 2005 census is showing that Nicaragua has that same opportunity. We could exploit it to invest in education and develop as a country. But if we don’t, we won’t develop and in several years that omission will generate a serious problem. Because if those people don’t study or they get a low-quality education and therefore obtain poor jobs, they’ll be dependent when they grow old, without enough savings and no social security, and they’ll become a very heavy social burden.

How are we responding to this opportunity today? The educational options for this population, in which we have to invest immediately, are very limited. The Nicaraguan population with some access to education is under the age of 13. After 13 the proportion of our population that receives education is very small indeed and we don’t provide options for these people. Not enough students are going to primary school, we don’t provide enough secondary education and we barely provide any technical education. If Nicaragua doesn’t exploit this moment then the opportunity of the “demographic bonus” will turn into a time bomb.

We mustn’t lose heart

In 2008 the Ministry of Education declared that we’d resolved the issue of free education, were close to resolving the issue of access and now were going to sort out the quality. But you can’t resolve the problems one by one; everything is inter-related in education; it’s all part of a system. If education is really free, more people will want to go to school and there will more be more pressure to provide a quality education. And when there’s a better-quality education there will be not only be more access, but also lower dropout and repetition levels. All the different elements interact.

We could easily lose heart knowing the enormous scale of the problems we have to resolve and knowing that education is a system and that we can’t resolve all the problems by addressing them one at a time because they’re all interconnected. But we mustn’t succumb to that temptation because all of us can do something to improve education from where we are. A great Venezuelan pedagogue wrote some “pedagogical parables,” including this one I always recall: A woman went out every morning to walk along the beach. One morning she was surprised to see that during the night a storm had lifted millions and millions of starfish from the sea and strewn them across the beach. Then in the distance she saw a man picking up a starfish and returning it to the sea. Then he picked up another one and another and another… So she went up to the man and asked him, ‘Do you realize the enormous task you have undertaken? You’re never going to finish; you’ll never return all these starfish even if you work 24 hours a day for the rest of your life…’ And the man looked at her, smiled and answered, “That’s true, but for this starfish everything will be different today…”

It’s with that spirit that we have to take on the task of education. Maybe we won’t change the national situation, but whatever we can do around us to help build something different will make a difference for some starfish.

Educator Josefina Vijil started out as a schoolgirl literacy volunteer in the 1980 Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade and is now a doctor of pedagogy.

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