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  Number 347 | Junio 2010
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Nicaragua

The New Education Strategy: A Quality Decision or an Electoral One?

This seasoned educator analyzes the main features of the new national education strategy, in the light of the challenges facing education in Nicaragua today.

Josefina Vijil

With the change of government in January 2007, the first decision made by Miguel de Castilla, the new education minister, was to abolish school autonomy. And the day after taking office, President Daniel Ortega himself decreed that education was again free and declared that same day National Education Day. For the next three-plus years, Education Minister De Castilla headed up an educational reform that began to crystallize in what was called the Ten-Year Plan 2011-2021, into which school directors, educators, the rest of the educational community and civil society organizations put a lot of effort for nearly a year. Last August, the now-government journalist William Grigsby Vado waxed exceedingly positive in detailing that reforms’ aims in the pages of envío. “If something implemented by this government remains,” he concluded, “I’m sure it will be the educational reform, which represents a structural change.” Yet, in April of this year, President Ortega suddenly retired De Castilla and the government announced a new national education strategy, with the ambitious goal of “refounding” the Ministry of Education.

A new rupture in
a chain of ruptures

The first thing we can say about this new strategy is that it marks a new rupture in a continual process of ruptures. Really, ruptures are the only continuity we have in Nicaragua. That’s why we don’t have an educational policy that bears solid fruit, providing the platform for social transformations. A continual process of ruptures makes it impossible to learn about, evaluate, modify and regulate the results of each educational action, all of which are tasks that make educational quality possible. Educational processes are never quick; they take time. Yet in Nicaragua we always move with a myopic vision, trying to address long-term processes with short-term actions. Because that doesn’t work in education, it explains the crisis into which the sector has now fallen.

Education in Nicaragua has many problems (quality, efficiency, pertinence…), but in my opinion two problems underlie all the others. The first is that it isn’t a national priority. We could find a lot evidence to back up that assertion, the most quantifiable being the national budget. The only renowned exception was the National Literacy Crusade of 1980; it was the only moment in which education was put ahead of everything and the entire country closed down to dedicate itself to that priority. The second problem is that education isn’t state policy. It has always been a policy of governments and often only of individuals. During the Bolaños government the change of ministers meant a continuous change of plans and programs. And the same thing’s happening again: Miguel de Castilla was ousted and Miriam Ráudez put in, and everything is changing.

Education vs. electoral politics

The ten-year plan designed by Minister De Castilla had various stages, which started with an assessment. The population was consulted about what it considered important, what the priorities should be, what the expectations were, and a study was made of what resources existed... The efforts for the next decade were planned on that basis. Now the government is saying it will see how to use what began emerging in that consultation and assessment. It also announced that it will take a new census of the country’s educational resources, even though a valid census was taken as recently as 2007, in which all state institutions and nongovernmental organizations working in education in all municipalities were X-rayed.

The new strategy is ignoring the ten-year plan and any educational policy designed by former Minister De Castilla. At the start of his term, he had talked about several educational policies: more education, better education, all educations, other education… The new strategy mentions none of these policies; it doesn’t say whether they will be taken on board or replaced. Nor does it mention the quality management model, which is where the De Castilla administration put the greatest emphasis. We’re seeing a new rupture, and given its nature, my interpretation is that the government isn’t thinking long term with the new strategy, but is putting its money on rapid impact projects. This isn’t a pedagogical strategy, it’s politics; and more precisely it’s a political-electoral strategy.

We could use different filters to analyze the new education policy. I’m going to use the one of characterizing the new educational system in the light of the challenges it faces, basing myself on the research of many Nicaraguan educators.

Education is a fundamental human right

My proposed starting point is to consider education as a fundamental human right, the key that gives us access to other rights. This is a consensus many of us in the world have already reached. This right implies that education must fulfill its purpose, which is that people learn, grow and change, that they become able to build their own body of knowledge. If this doesn’t happen, we’re not respecting that right. The object of education is to generate learning of different types: conceptual, attitudinal, procedural...

This means that the right to education isn’t simply the right to go sit in a classroom. It’s to go to that classroom to learn. If there’s no learning, the right to education isn’t being respected.

We’ve made progress in schooling levels

To know where we’re stuck with respect to education today, the first thing we need to recognize is where we’ve made progress in the past three decades, despite all the problems. The Nicaragua we have today isn’t the same one we had 30 years ago. We have advanced. And it’s important to say so. We can see it in a whole set of indicators. I’ll mention only two: the net schooling rates and the education levels.

The net schooling rate for primary school is the percentage of children from 7-12 years old enrolled relative to the total population in that age range. In 1980 the net schooling rate for primary school was 70.42%. In 2008 it was up to 87.2%. I mention 2008 only because it’s the last year for which we have official statistics. Given that so many things are kept secret in this government, we don’t have more recent statistics; for example, we still don’t even know the enrollment data for 2009, much less this year.

The schooling level tells us the average years of schooling the population has. Today the younger Nicaraguan population already has more schooling than the older population. According to the 2005 Living Standard Measurement Survey (LSMS), the average years of schooling for people over 29 years old is 4.9 years, while for people between 15-24 it’s 7 years. Se we’ve clearly advanced in these three decades. It’s important to stress that we’re measuring this progress in a 30 year period, which is pretty much how long we need to measure results in education, knowing how long it takes to form a person.

We’ve also made progress in pedagogy

In Nicaragua, as in the world as a whole, we’ve made progress in understanding the learning process, in didactic comprehension, in methodology, in texts… We’ve experienced many advances in the construction of pedagogical knowledge, which I call “the house of pedagogy.” And there has also been an increase in innovative experiences in Nicaragua. For example, a program called “Find out” (Entérate) being implemented up in the north of the country is generalizing three successful experiences that get children to leave work and go to school. There are many other new experiences like this, as well.

Nonetheless, all these advances, particularly increased schooling, haven’t triggered what we hoped they would: a significant reduction in Nicaragua’s inequality gaps. Based on those same 2005 LSMS data, which are the latest we have, we still see that the schooling level of the poorest quintile of the population is only 2.5 years, while it’s 8.3 years for the richest quintile. The country has moved forward, but those who have gotten the most out of it are the middle and upper classes, whose youth are today finishing high school and going to university. While we had hoped that access to education would reduce that inequity, education has in fact reproduced the poverty and inequality.

We now know that reducing inequality doesn’t depend just on education, on school, that it is evidently a two-way street: a minimum of equity needs to exist in society for education to bear its fruits. As long as thousands of children have to work from a very young age, and some families can’t send their children to study, schooling won’t be enough. The preexisting equity or inequity in a society always affects educational activity. But internal elements in the educational system also prevent the inequality gaps from narrowing, and the main one is the lack of quality in the education we provide. As long as education in Nicaragua lacks quality, we’ll never start closing the inequality gaps we’re suffering.

Three crucial challenges

The progress we’ve made and the problems we face suggest three important challenges. The first is universal primary education for the entire Nicaraguan population: starting with the third preschool level and all six primary grades. The second is the expansion of access to secondary and technical education until they also become universal. And the third is achieving quality education. This third challenge is fundamental because it’s of no use to anybody to universalize primary and secondary education if what the children learn in all those years isn’t what they need to learn. Quality is fundamental to learning, as is learning is what is needed.

The target of universalizing primary school is one of the Millennium Development Goals that Nicaragua, along with the majority of other countries in the world, agreed to achieve by 2015. The target of universalizing secondary school is now being proposed officially by all Latin American countries except Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s General Education Law—the only normative framework we have—only establishes seven years of schooling as obligatory: one of preschool and the six of primary school.

The secondary schooling rate in our country (youths of from 13 to 18 years old) is only 45.5%. That’s a worrying indicator, because a great many studies in the world have shown that the minimum education threshold for being able to get the kind of job that permits one to climb out of poverty is 12 years of school. In fact, in studies we did in 2009, we heard youths tell us that to get hired for any job, including just sweeping, they were asked for a high school diploma. Many free trade zones—the sweatshops that assemble products for re-export—also ask for a complete secondary education as a hiring requisite.

Meeting these three challenges is extremely important for Nicaragua at this moment of demographic change, when for the first time the economically active population outnumbers the dependent population of small children and the elderly. If we don’t use this moment to educate the population more and better so that tomorrow it will be the country’s productive base, neither our country nor our people can hope for a very promising future. And we can’t only view education from a utilitarian perspective; we need to understand that education has to do with people’s self-realization, their cognitive development, the development of their capacity to speak, offer opinions, propose, articulate, analyze… in other words, be fully participating citizens.

Responding to these challenges has always been essential, but it’s more so today than ever. While it has always been a tragedy to be illiterate, it wasn’t the same to be so in the 20th century as it is in the 21st century. Everything in today’s world is tied to being able to read and write and above all to what these two skills imply over the course of one’s life. Remaining outside of the educational socialization space means being socially excluded.

What’s needed to
universalize primary school?

Responding to the challenge of universalizing primary school involves a lot of things. First it means improving completion rates: that those who enter primary school go all the way through sixth grade. Nicaragua’s completion rates are very low. In 2007, only 45% of the children who had enrolled in primary school finished sixth grade, which amounts to only 37% of all children. Obviously the rates are better in the city than in the countryside: 63% and 23%, respectively.

If the first challenge is for those who enter to finish, they have to have the possibility of staying in school, which means seeing to it that work and their family’s economic needs don’t pull them out of school. We also have to see to it that they want to stay in school because they’re getting something out of it, learning something. What’s the point of them going to school if they don’t learn anything? And this requires quality in education.

Being able to go to school also involves having schools in all places where there are school-age children. There is still a norm in Nicaragua that if a community doesn’t have at least 25 children, a classroom won’t be opened. What use is free education to a child who lives in La Cruz de Río Grande, for example, if he or she has no school to go to?

Next, if there are classrooms, there have to be enough teachers. And there have to be better conditions in the classrooms. We don’t just need schools, but schools with classrooms in good condition, restrooms and clean drinking water. Believe it or not, 40% of the schools in Nicaragua don’t have potable water.

And all the modalities—such as teacher-student ratio, morning vs. afternoon sessions, weekend classes, multi-grade classes, etc.—have to be thought through to make the best match in line with needs, limitations and quality, based on proven results, so that later they don’t translate into disappointment for those who got their promotion, but didn’t learn anything.

Furthermore, education has to be truly free; which means more than just not paying enrollment fees. Right now, for example, this country has no possibilities of state scholarships so that the child from La Cruz de Río Grande can be a boarding student at a school somewhere else.

Finally, if we’re talking about universalizing primary school, we also have to expand access to preschool. Only 30% of Nicaragua’s children go to preschool. And it’s amply demonstrated worldwide that having gone through at least one preschool level makes a determinant difference to the child’s success in ensuing learning levels. We have to move the entrance door to school so that it’s no longer the first grade of primary school, but the third level of preschool.

What were the results of Minister Miguel de Castilla’s campaign for first grade? We don’t know because it hasn’t been evaluated, which is common in Nicaragua: efforts are made and afterwards no one finds out what the results were. In any event, the campaign was needed, positive and central. And all educators in Nicaragua supported it, because preschool and first grade are the most important in a child’s education. Prioritizing first grade always has a positive impact.

What would it take to expand access to
high school and technical education?

We also need a whole set of things if we’re to deal with the second challenge: expanding access to secondary school and technical education. First, supply needs to be significantly expanded. In a lot of departments in the country, the municipalities only have one high school, which is in the municipal seat, and some municipal seats don’t even offer technical education.

We also need alternative modalities for places where there can’t be a school, such as distance learning, accepting proficiency testing to satisfy some classes, school via television or other media… All modalities have to involve rigorous teaching that put learning at the center of everything because we don’t create schools in order to have a curriculum, but in order to have learning. We also have to offer scholarships to the young people who, for one reason or another, don’t have a high school nearby. There are options of this kind in Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia… but not in Nicaragua.

There’s also an element regarding secondary education that isn’t being discussed enough, not only in Nicaragua but in the world as a whole, although interestingly it’s being studied significantly in South America: high schools have to change because youth culture and young people’s needs have changed considerably in recent years. Despite that, we’re still saddled with a secondary school system conceived in the 19th century. Our high schools don’t know, for example, how to deal with pregnant adolescents, or view young people who work as well as studying as incidental, even though both these realities are increasingly common among youth. There are fundamental changes in the communication technologies that young people use that are drastically changing the youth culture, but schools still aren’t taking them into account. So we have to change secondary schools if we want to get a quality education. It’s going to be a long discussion, but we have to begin it.

And what do we need to
improve educational quality?

Universalizing primary and secondary education will mean nothing if we don’t improve the quality of that education. What is quality? It’s not an abstract concept. It has features and names, and if we don’t manage to identify them we won’t get anywhere. Quality means learning to read, but not only to recognize letters and put them together. Reading is more than that: it’s understanding what we read, inferring the subtext, interpreting, drawing conclusions… We need to form reading students. It’s not enough to know how to read; you have to keep on reading in order to keep on learning, to educate yourself, to experience the pleasure of reading. Reading must be at the center of what education is about. Reading as a tool for growing, dreaming, transforming ourselves, transforming reality, or as Paulo Freire said, being able to decide on their “own word.”

Quality also means knowing how to write, which isn’t the same as just knowing how to make letters. It means knowing how to express one’s ideas, opinion and interpretation in writing. It’s another way to say one’s “own word.” Quality means knowing how to speak. If I don’t know how to express my word to put forward my ideas, all I’m doing is repeating the words and ideas of others. Quality also means knowing how to think logically. School has to teach us how to think logically, and we’re not doing it. Quality is responding to “why,” doing critical thinking, not repeating things because “the teacher told me.”

Quality also means learning mathematics, learning to solve problems and find alternative formulas. We need school to teach us to pose questions and find answers, an essential attitude to be able to do research. We have to teach not only knowledge but method. There’s a whole set of learning that’s about procedures, about instruments help us develop ourselves in life, and they’re absent from our schools: asking questions, writing an essay, making a summary…
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All these are features of quality. We have to learn a second language and learn technologies, but quality is something even more basic: it’s essential to being able to develop ourselves in the world, to have our own opinion, to be able to say “my word.” It’s not about getting a higher degree, but about getting higher learning. It’s assumed that when someone completes sixth grade or gets a high school degree that person has already constructed a set of learning. We have to ensure that such learning is what we seek by educating, not just getting that piece of paper, that degree.

How can we improve quality?

A set of conditions, of possibilities, is required to improve quality. It’s satisfactorily proven that the first condition is to have teachers who were themselves prepared with quality and are sufficiently well paid, with a solid initial formation and a consistent sense of service. Added to this should be a system of supervising their teaching work to help them and support them in the classroom, but also to sanction the worst and stimulate the best. Another necessary condition is that the teachers and students have sufficient and adequate didactic materials. We can’t be asking children to be readers if a book of stories has never passed through their hands or if there are no books in their house or even in the school. Nor can we ask a teacher to teach reading if she doesn’t read herself. No one can give what they don’t have.

To improve quality we must also put the different elements of the educational process in their proper place. We haven’t done that in Nicaragua. Today what’s at the center of the school is something called a curriculum. Who determines how a teacher is doing in her class? The curriculum. Until we grasp that the curriculum is just a tool to generate learning, we’ll continue to fall short on quality.

If we want quality we also have to increase the amount of time spent learning. The General Education Law says that children in Nicaragua must have at least a thousand class hours annually. But we don’t even hit 700. Class time is lost for all kinds of reasons: interminable recesses, lack of punctuality, often letting kids out of school early on Fridays …

Together with dedicating more time to learning and to the effort to complete the schooling cycles, we have to curtail shrinking enrollment. Today that shrinking is serious. While 87% of the boys and girls now enroll in primary school, this initial enrollment begins to fall away as they progress through the grades, which means a huge number of extra-age students and a whole lot who never finish. The same thing happens in high school. The completion rate for secondary schools is 55% for girls and only 40% for boys.

Neuroscience has advanced a lot in recent years together with related pedagogy disciplines that teach us that certain skills and kinds of knowledge must be learned at a certain age because they’ll either never be learned later or, at best, will be much harder to learn. We also know that repeating the course isn’t the best alternative, because children who repeat learn less and don’t recover what they didn’t learn at the right time. That’s why we need our best teachers in first grade. And normally they don’t send the best, but rather the youngest, to first grade.

Naturally, financial resources are needed to respond to so many challenges. We can’t deal with all these pending challenges with the resources public education has now. What Nicaragua invests in education hasn’t varied substantially since 1994. From then to now we’ve been working with a percentage a little lower than 4% of the gross domestic product. We can’t hope to respond to the educational challenges we have with that investment level, which is reportedly lower than anywhere else in Central America.

How does the new education strategy
address these challenges?

Only by having before us all these challenges facing education in Nicaragua today can we properly analyze the new education strategy the government began publicizing in April of this year and is now starting to implement. It would take me several documents to analyze this strategy: the April 12 educational strategy, the April 19 education and training strategy and the May 17 early education proposal “Love for the littlest ones,” all of which were signed by Rosario Murillo and circulated on Internet.

The declared goal of our new educational strategy is to “strengthen consciousness and articulate an educational model where the revolutionary values of the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity—Christian values, socialist ideals and relations of solidarity prevail.” These values and ideals aren’t defined; they’re just enunciated. The objective is to “provide different educational options to facilitate the incorporation of Nicaraguans into the comprehensive education required for developement, giving priority to access to educational programs.” The documents define comprehensive education as that “which promotes Christian, patriotic and cultural moral values, socialist ideas and relations of solidarity.”

The strategy clearly prioritizes access to and permanence in school, to massify attendance and participation in educational programs. What mechanisms does it propose to achieve this? First, “Strengthen and link up to different governmental institutions and to sectors identified with the Citizens’ Power model.” It doesn’t mention other sectors of civil society. The other mechanisms proposed are: “Simplify the processes, optimize the resources assigned and distribute them equitably, prioritizing the poorest.” It is made clear in the strategy that the poorest will be the priority. The educational strategy is said to be based on “the feeling of solidarity people have” and states that this feeling will be “central to the success of the strategy.” The new strategy claims to respond “to the civic participation model, to strengthen direct democracy and restitute the rights of citizens.” It proposes that “this social transformation model must be specified in detail and made known” through the study curriculum. It defines teacher training as “the means for appropriating and explaining the advances of our revolution.”

With respect to
universalizing primary education

If the first challenge education in Nicaragua has today is to universalize primary education, the strategy proposes precisely that and establishes targets. It proposes reducing the illiteracy rate to its minimum expression in August of this year, with the whole urban population reaching sixth grade level by next year and the whole rural population achieving this the year after.

It also proposes to ensure children’s continuance in school. But for children to stay in school we need to move the entry door so they attend preschool before entering first grade. This will requires more preschools, better preschools and better paid preschool educators, i.e. compliance with what’s stipulated in the General Education Law. But none of this is projected in the new strategy.

It’s worrying that the document titled “Love for the Littlest Ones Early Education Campaign” says that since the design of preschool education is very costly and its coverage limited, it is necessary to “readjust first grade to receive children from their family and their community.” This directly affects educational quality. In the first place the preschool space is needed for constructing a whole set of learning skills that prepare children for primary school: affective development, psychomotor development, language development, introduction to basic skills, the phonetic sphere of teaching reading, etc. And in the second place, skipping this distracts from the primordial role of first grade, which is to teach reading. This is very serious if we accept that reading is one of the features of quality and it’s proven that learning to read soon and well ensures that children will learn everything else better and more fully.

The new strategy also proposes to reduce repetition to a minimum, although it doesn’t say how. The only mechanism that is intuited to achieve this is a change in the evaluation models.

With respect to
secondary and technical education

If a second challenge is to expand access to secondary and technical education, the new strategy proposes to expand the supply of schools so that in 2015 the entire Nicaraguan population will reach third year of high school. It also announced short annual technical education courses (6-9 months long) for 30,000 young people and workers. It proposes to eliminate student fees in the technical schools and expand the technical careers to graduate 20,000 new professionals in 2012.

Other proposals it offers in secondary and technical education include the flexible modalities mentioned above, which are already functioning in some parts of the country; technical education for beneficiaries of government social programs, particularly Zero Hunger and Zero Usury; technical training scholarship programs for the children of those same beneficiaries; and technical assistance for the beneficiaries of these two programs with groups of volunteer social promoters. It further proposes to reorient mobile courses around families and community development; develop training modalities that provide labor skills for extra-age graduates; coordinate the universalizing of technical education with the Ministry of Education (MINED), incorporating technical modules from the first to third year of secondary school; universalize the teaching of English; and certify worker competencies.

The strategy is taking on some of the conditions to respond to these first two major challenges we have in primary and secondary school by implementing “an educational model with flexible hours, school calendar, teaching methods and educational attention modalities, strengthening programs that promote equity.” This plan is also already underway, with some people completing primary school and even getting their high school degree in an accelerated manner by going to certain educational centers that are offering rapid impact programs called “Sandino 1” and “Sandino 2.” As the curricular documents they are using, the job prospect profiles, the planned study time, the texts and the methodology used in these programs aren’t publicly known, we’ve been unable to analyze them. We don’t know what rigor these programs will have or where or when they will be validated to ensure that in two years the people enrolled will have learned everything they need to learn in primary and in another two years everything they need to learn in secondary. We only know they are already up and running.

With respect to quality education

With respect to the all important third challenge we mentioned earlier, that of quality education, the strategy document says virtually nothing.

When we analyze the new strategy, all we see are program proposals for accelerated programs in new educational modalities, technical education and labor skill building, with goals that all end in the 2011 electoral year, except for the third year of high school, which is proposed for 2015. There’s no mention of quality. Among the proposals we could link most closely to quality would be that of “totally achieving the curricular transformation.” Some of us educators understand this to mean they’re going to exchange the hefty tome of the current curriculum for another one. But others think the “patriotic, Christian, socialist, cultural values and those of respect for the rights of Mother Earth” mentioned but not defined in the new strategy will simply be introduced into the existing curriculum in a crosscutting manner. This wouldn’t change the unwieldy current curriculum much, because crosscutting is preached a lot but never assumed in Nicaragua. There are no ideas that cut across the curriculum. The concept doesn’t exist in Nicaragua except among nongovernmental organizations that work with international development agencies, for whom this is standard jargon. In practice, each crosscutting issue proposed turns into new content, which further fattens the amount of “knowledge” teachers have to “teach.”

Also linked to the issue of quality is the proposal to review and update the student evaluation methodology, although this does not include their learning, and to continue fostering student and youth movements to provide continuity to the student leveling. That’s pretty much it on the subject of quality.

What’s this about
transforming the curriculum?

I’d now like to refer to the curriculum, which they are talking about “transforming,” without mentioning when or how. The current curriculum has many defenders, but in my opinion it got off on the wrong foot. It began in 2004, when it was determined that it would be a “competency-based” curriculum, which is a concept that comes from the work world and was adopted in Nicaragua without debating what it would even mean to base the curriculum on competencies. As with so many things, it was adopted as fashionable, and even now nobody in the majority of schools is clear what competencies are and how to work with them.

In 2007, the new administration of De Castilla decided to consult civil society about the curriculum. He did it at a moment when, in my opinion, it was methodologically impossible to do, because we were dealing with an immense tome, with some enormous matrices that are hard to read and analyze. What happened in practice was that in most cases it was only half read, and the input, in lieu of rectifying the curriculum, tended to expand its rather than question or critique its contents. After the consultation, the contributions by civil society were never well systematized and the changes became additions, making the curriculum even thicker and more dispersed.

For example, let’s look at Unit 1 of the current multi-grade curriculum: “Learning and experimenting in my surroundings” for third grade, when children are 8-9 years old. Also bear in mind that these activities are for isolated rural children who have spent their entire educational experience in a multi-grade school, with overworked teachers with very limited teaching skills who have to divide their attention between at least two grades in the same classroom. “Suggested time: seven hours. Competencies: Analyze the importance of the natural sciences and establish differences between empirical knowledge and scientific knowledge, stressing its importance for the development of science and technology.

Competencies: Cross-cutting themes: Practice a productive culture making use of the technologies that permit the optimizing of resources and achieve the goals and objectives proposed. Achievement indicators: Establish differences between empirical knowledge and scientific knowledge; Recognize the utility of technological instruments in the home, school and community; Practice security measures in the use of technological instruments. Suggested activities: Discuss with your team what you understand by technology, science and nature; Prepare a synoptic chart that reflects what you understand by natural sciences and their importance; Prepare a summary of the importance of the study of the natural sciences; As a team, prepare a list of activities you do in school and at home where you explain how you learned to do them; Investigate in the natural sciences textbook the part related to empirical and scientific knowledge...” And so it goes.

So, what do you think? The teachers are obliged to use this, and to meet together to analyze this! When they get to the classroom, what do they do? Is this instrument guiding anything? Could you give a class with this? Well, this is the curriculum we have! And it explains in part why we are where we are…

To top it off, there has been an effort in recent years to provide some schools with some books. Not all and not in sufficient quantities, but it’s progress because there wasn’t a single book in Nicaragua until 2004, when some were finally provided. But reading those books makes one cry. They’re very directive, very similar to what’s proposed in a curriculum like the current one.

The “profiles” of graduating students at the different educational levels were prepared with this curriculum. Let’s look at the profile for a primary school graduate. Charac¬teristics such as these are required in the profile of a child finishing primary school at around 12 years old: “Recognize the importance of donating blood to save lives… Practice and promote compliance with road laws and safety norms to prevent accidents, protect your life and that of others… Practice and promote activities that lead to the development of a tourist culture… Identify your vocational interests for the selection of your future profession or trade…” In sixth grade! Some 57 characteristics are mentioned, but none have to do with the essential thing: knowing how to read, how to write, how to think logically, how to solve problems… The profile of the preschool graduate is similar; it seems surreal.

As an educator, I don’t think curricular changes should be a priority, or that so much time and effort should be dedicated to that task. What I think we need is a curricular framework that clearly determines the learning indispensable to each student—in other words, where educational quality should be grounded—which is later adopted by each teacher in his or her classroom or by groups of teachers in each school capable of adjusting it to their reality. That task requires high-quality teachers and mechanisms and advisory capacity by the Ministry of Education, and will only happen once there’s a process of comprehensive decentralization that assigns the best educational leaders to the territories. Only by bringing the decision-making and pedagogical consultation close to the classroom will this be possible.

What about the education budget as a whole?

What does the strategy say about financial resources for education? It says very unequivocally that the resources “must be the same ones assigned now, but used rationally and efficiently and based on budgetary execution capacity.”

The only response to meet the needed series of conditions I mentioned above if the strategy is to fulfill all its announced targets for primary, secondary and technical education is the accelerated preparation of new educators

But there are already prepared teachers who could work, although admittedly not as many as are needed. Right now, we have teachers who graduated from teacher training schools and are out of work largely because of a lack of budget to pay them a living wage. The system’s capacity to replace itself was more or less 800 teachers a year and not all are working. Not a single position opened up last year, and this year only a few did, while the teacher training schools enrolled no newly entering educators this year.

So what does the strategy say about teachers?

When we analyzed the conditions that make significant change possible in education, we mentioned that the central issue is the educators and their preparation. It is through the educators that the vicious circle that impedes educational quality can be broken. That being the case, when referring to teacher preparation, the strategy speaks of “designing and putting into practice training plans [that form] creative teaching personnel committed to our strategy, and [promoting] respect for and recognition of the social responsibility of educators.”

It doesn’t talk about a salary increase. All it mentions are “national policies that help resolve some felt needs of the educators” and proposes that the different authorities “provide personalized and efficient attention to the educators.” It also mentions “designing and putting into practice evaluation and systematic follow-up of the performance of the educators.” That’s it. No other element is mentioned.

According to information from the new MINED teacher training director, 1,800 multi-grade schools have no fifth and sixth grade because they have no teachers. She says the Cabinets of Citizen’s Power in these rural areas are already selecting young students who have their high school diploma or have at least passed ninth grade and pushing them to enter teacher training school. The idea is reportedly to crank them out them as fifth and sixth grade educators in a rapid course of only two months and with a curriculum they drew up in only one week! They have said that later they will give them a professionalization course.

The new strategy is seeking these rapid impact programs to meet all the targets set for 2010, 2011 and 2012, with only one as far off as 2015. How will it be possible to universalize primary education for the entire urban population in 2011? The net schooling rate in primary education hasn’t moved much in recent years precisely because those who still don’t go to school are those have a really hard time going. They are the ones with more problems, who need more personalized attention, more resources and better teachers. If they didn’t go before, how are they going to go now?

How will such a complicated problem as the last two years of multi-grade school be resolved with teachers, who even if they have nine years of schooling themselves, or perhaps finished high school, are still burdened with educational weaknesses from the poor quality of that experience? Being a high school graduate is no guarantee of having constructed the knowledge and abilities needed to provide quality education to primary students. This accelerated educator preparation plan is very worrying.

Preparing teachers isn’t like
force-ripening an avocado

Together with the Central American University (UCA), the Center for Social Educational Research and Action (CIASES) and Fe y Alegría, which runs private schools, we have spent the past four years validating a model of initial preparation for rural teachers with a specialty in multi-grade. Based on an assessment of rural education, we designed, validated and improved a curriculum, the materials and the education process and this year are graduating 15 of the 16 educators who enrolled after teaching them for two and a half years. Overall we’ve been doing this work for four years and it’s cost us a fortune! How are they going to do it all with thousands of young inexperienced people with only a high school degree in only two months? Those 16 teachers came to us with enormous deficiencies, even though all of them are high school graduates. Their initial preparation as educators has to be to fill these gulfs, including provoking cultural changes in them.

Educating, as Freire said, involves a cultural change, a change of mindset. And you don’t get that by force-ripening the educators as if they were an avocado you can stick in a paper bag for a few days. All these changes come about by deconstructing what we thought was right, constructing new knowledge then figuring out how best to put it in practice. We long ago abandoned the pedagogical notion that educating was filling an empty head with knowledge. Educating is reconstructing previous knowledge. Not even 4-year-olds come to school with an empty head. They already know something. If we don’t start with what children already know, they won’t learn and we will therefore fail in their education.

Speaking one’s own word, as Freire proposed, involves a long-term process. The “cultural dialogue” that education consists of, that Freire talks about, takes time, a long time. I could mention many other pedagogues who propose the same thing, but I mention Freire, in whom I believe, because he has enormous legitimacy on the Left.

How can a cultural dialogue take place in two months? The teacher training director has declared that the plan to speed-train the teachers will be centered on “didactics.” Hearing that shook me even more, because the main problem of a child in Nicaragua who doesn’t learn to read isn’t the didactics being used, but the fact that the teacher doesn’t know how to read—which isn’t the same as being unable to read. It’s of no use to know how to teach math if the person teaching it doesn’t know or use math. We have to work on all aspects, not just didactics, in the basic preparation of teachers. And how are they going to do that in two months? How are they going to prepare these teachers to get their students to learn something and promote them out of primary school?

The major issue is one of time limits

When we try to address the challenge of universalizing primary school, we should be talking about at least 10 years, because it has to be done with “a good hand.” How can that be accomplished in barely a year and a half? I think one of the major differences between what Miguel de Castilla planned and what they are proposing now is time limits. As the educator he is, Miguel designed policies we may or may not agree with—and I personally didn’t agree with many of his ideas—but they were long-term policies for education and focused on central aspects to achieve educational quality. Now none of that is being taken into account.

In Nicaragua, we still have to educate about education. There’s a tendency to look only for the piece of paper, the title, because it can get you a job, or at least social prestige. It’s important to change that logic. I get really nervous when I see in the polls that 60% of the population values what this government has done in education. Maybe they only see education as going and sitting in a classroom and still don’t understand the features of quality in education. I recall in a study Fe y Alegría did some years ago that many people described “quality in education” as meaning children no longer went out in to the street during recess because the school closed the gates.

There are many things to be done to improve educational quality, but the fundamental pillar of quality education will always be the teachers. Mountains of studies have shown that what makes the difference in learning is a good teacher. A good or bad teacher is the best indicator of the quality of the education. But the new strategy doesn’t seem to have grasped that.

Josefina Vigil has a doctorate in pedagogy, has been a classroom teacher for years and also trains teachers.

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