We’re overwhelmed by an enormous educational backwardness
We urgently need to rethink our educational policies
in order to start overcoming the many deficiencies
preventing our society from being able to assume the
globalized planet’s increasingly complex challenges
and its new and different risks and opportunities.
We’ve identified five priority areas in education,
pointing out the problems and deficiencies
accumulated from one decade to the next
because successive governments have
incessantly employed similar solutions
despite the warning attributed to Einstein
that insanity is “doing the same thing
over and over again expecting different results.”
Centro de Investigación y Acción Educativa y Social
In 2006 a group of education professionals formulated a public proposal we called “Seven priorities of Nicaraguan education.” The objective was to buttress the education system’s central importance in the national agenda by presenting its major problems and challenges. This initiative led to the creation of the Center for Social and Educational Research and Action (CIASES), which has grown as an arena for critical thinking, interdisciplinary work and proposal-making.
Now, ten years after the founding of CIASES, we’re presenting an updated view of the educational system and new proposals, convinced that education is a national asset whose shortfalls affect us all, meaning that improving it is the responsibility not only of the government but also of society.
It’s all about joining forces
We know that the changes the education system needs to achieve optimal results are complex and long-term. We’ve formulated our ideas with the hope that they’ll be useful to both institutions and individuals, especially those dedicated to promoting and developing education in Nicaragua.
Education has a linked and indivisible dual condition. It is both a fundamental and inalienable human right, and a tool that helps people develop and achieve their maximum potential, independent of what they use it for.
In putting forward these ideas, we’ve returned to concerns and proposals previously expressed by both CIASES and other groups of professionals, communities and institutions with an eye on the Sustainable Development Goals Nicaragua adopted for 2030. The idea behind our work is to pool voices, perspectives and experiences; it is an invitation to unite in action to reach those goals. We will have achieved our objective if our efforts inspire a much-needed debate about education’s challenges in this first part of the 21st century.
A brief assessment
Nicaraguan education has been facing similar problems for decades. In 1969, researcher César Núñez said with respect to the national education model that “we have not found our saving formula. To the contrary, we have taken concoctions from notebooks that have mummified us.”
The fact that something very similar could be said now, in the second decade of the 21st century, tells us that Nicaragua urgently needs to rethink its educational policies and begin to resolve the enormous social backwardness that has been oppressing us so we can assume the challenges of a globalized, increasingly complex planet whose risks and opportunities are so different from those of the last century.
We recognize that in recent decades our educational system has had “shining milestones,” in the words of Gilberto Barrios. Nonetheless, we want to emphasize the analysis of the problems, as the bottom line is clearly unfavorable. The huge needs of Nicaragua’s children and young people oblige us not to settle for modest changes or be satisfied with good intentions, however sincere they may be. National education needs relevant results and we’ve dedicated our work to that search.
We’ve identified five priority areas for reforming Nicaraguan education, analyzing each of them from a historical perspective, showing how certain problems and deficiencies have accumulated or been repeated from one decade to the next, generation after generation. By the same token, similar solutions have been provided by one administration after another in an incessant repetition that must end if we are to achieve results and move beyond the warning attributed to Einstein that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”
PRIORITY NUMBER ONE: GUARANTEE EDUCATION FOR ALL
The need to “generalize primary instruction” was recognized for the first time in Nicaragua in the 1848 Constitution, but it was only established as obligatory and free in the Liberal Constitution of 1893. Since then, full access to school and the universalization of primary education has been a chimera.
According to the 2006 General Education Law (Law 582), universal schooling implies that all Nicaraguan children should begin their academic formation at 5 years of age or earlier, continuing uninterrupted until they complete sixth grade at the age of 12. Our current reality is far from achieving that.
Educational exclusion and illiteracy
Nicaragua has faced an uphill struggle to achieve this basic objective for the country’s development. The most nagging problem continues to be that many Nicaraguan children and adolescents never manage to even start school. According to the latest information from the Ministry of Education, in 2013 the net primary education rate was 91.2%, which means that some 69,000 boys and girls roughly between 6 and 11 years old were at risk of remaining illiterate in the coming decade. If things go on like that, adult literacy programs will continue to be an ongoing remedy for an ill we’re not curing at its roots, rather than temporary efforts.
In 1927 the Conservative government acknowledged that illiteracy was an alarming problem affecting 75% of the population. Six years later the Liberal government made a literacy campaign the centerpiece of its education policies. The same goal of full literacy was again taken up in 1952 as one of the main functions of the “rural school,” and in 1956 it was extended to the Río Coco communities as the National Literacy Campaign. The administration of President René Schick reinitiated that Literacy Campaign in 1964, recognizing that 64.4% of the nation’s population over 10 years old was illiterate, a figure that reached 80% in rural areas. A decade later, in 1975, the illiteracy rate was still an alarming 47.4%. By then, 83% of the rural population between 6 and 29 years old was not receiving any kind of education.
Nicaragua did have a bright moment with the 1980 National Literacy Crusade, which in five months reduced illiteracy to less than 13%. But this beautiful experience wasn’t accompanied by the structural changes needed to guarantee the goal of education for all. In 2006, 26 years after that epic campaign, illiteracy had climbed back up to 22.04%, giving new impetus to teaching literacy as a central educational policy through the campaign “I Can Do It.” Despite that effort, however, illiteracy currently affects 15.8%, according to Nicaragua’s International Foundation for the Global Economic Challenge (FIDEG).
Low schooling in the demographic dividend
The problems of access to education don’t end with the cyclical reproduction of illiteracy among those who never even start school. Even boys and girls who do enter the school system are faced with a number of problems, including enrolling later than they should. One in every seven students in urban areas and one in every three in rural areas start first grade after they are 8 years old. And many of those who enter at the proper age had no preschool education. Currently at least half of Nicaragua’s children don’t receive preschool education, according to Ministry of Education data.
Absenteeism, class repetition and dropping out are also endemic in the first two years of primary school. Only 16% of the country’s three-year-olds, 40% of its four-year-olds and 60% of its five-year-olds have gotten pre-primary education services, leading to lower average schooling and increasing the risk of children rejecting and dropping out of school before third grade.
As a result of all these problems, only 6 out of 10 students who enter first grade complete primary school and only half of those who go on to the first year of high school end up graduating.
Despite the policies formulated and the plans and actions of different administrations, the population’s schooling has not increased significantly. In 2009, the population in the 10 and over age range only got 5.9 years of studies on average, a figure that had only risen to 6.2 by 2016, broken down as 7.4 for the urban population and 4.8 for the rural one.
Both the scope and level of schooling is particularly important right now as Nicaragua is in a stage known as the “demographic dividend,” during which the number of adolescents and young adults who can work is greater than the number of economically dependent children and older adults. Society can only take full advantage of this period, which will end around 2035, if its youth is given access to adequate education and preparation.
PRIORITY NUMBER TWO: IMPROVE THE EDUCATIONAL QUALITY
The quality of Nicaragua’s education is insufficient to ensure human development. In 2006, the country began participating in UNESCO’s Latin American Learning Tests (CERCE 2006 and TERCE 2013), but our performance has been poor, showing that Nicaraguan schools aren’t teaching their students very much, causing our country to lag behind the other Central and Latin American countries.
The results of those two tests reveal that our third-grade students have made some progress in the reading exams, reducing the proportion of those below level 1 and increasing the proportion of those who achieve levels III and IV. Despite this improvement, however, 80% of third-grade students and the majority of sixth graders still placed in levels I and II, corresponding exclusively to a command only of basic reading skills.
In the math tests, nearly 80% of our third grade students were in levels I and II, again corresponding only to basic knowledge. Only 12% attained levels III and IV, managing fundamental operations and resolving problems. Even worse, 68% of sixth graders placed in level I and only 2% reached level IV. Our students performed at a lower level than their Central American peers in this subject.
In natural sciences, nearly 90% of those in sixth grade who took the test placed in levels I and II, those with the lowest level of knowledge.
Why are our students learning so little?
As in the case of access to the school system, there are many problems related to educational quality. One basic problem is that good learning always requires good teaching, and for the most part, teachers in Nicaragua are public servants who work arduously in difficult conditions. On average, their initial and in-service training does not enable them to provide quality education to children and adolescents by Latin American and Caribbean standards. Nicaragua is lagging behind in teacher training and leadership.
Teachers are poorly trained… The problem of self-educated teachers is a longstanding one. In 1952 a law was decreed to regulate the training of non-certified educators, most of whom worked in rural schools. Later, in 1967, professionalization courses were established for such teachers as an extension of the teacher training schools, in the context of the reform of the agricultural school programs and the diversification of middle-school education.
As early as 1935 the Organizational Teaching Law determined that entering the teaching career required a teaching title from a teacher training school in Nicaragua or any other Central American country. More than eight decades later, the requirement for teaching in primary schools is a teacher training school education, with a high school education level. In reality, the situation is even worse, with 2014 Ministry of Education data indicating that 24% of primary and secondary school teachers do not even meet that required training, while the majority of Latin American countries are now requiring four years of university preparation for both primary and secondary school teachers.
…poorly paid... Our educators are underpaid and not sufficiently appreciated for the important work and the role they perform. As a consequence, the teaching career holds little attraction, especially for the most outstanding high school graduates, who should be the best prospects for teaching.
According to the Informe del Estado de la Región (State of the Region Report), the monthly salary for preschool, primary and secondary teachers in Nicaragua is the lowest in Central America: “Teachers are in the highest income distribution levels in [almost] all the region’s countries, with 94% in the top two income deciles in El Salvador, 73% in Costa Rica and Honduras, and 56% in Panama. Only in Nicaragua are they in the second quintile, evidencing a lower economic and social position than in the rest of the region.”
…and with little pedagogical training. The teachers’ difficulties translate into pedagogical problems. Teaching is a complex professional activity aimed at promoting the development of students’ multiple potentials and shaping their behaviors and ways of thinking. With only modest or insufficient training, Nicaragua’s teachers find it hard to innovate pedagogies, adapt the curriculum to their students’ needs, produce creative educational resources or enrich the contents of the official programs.
These structural problems had already been identified in an investigation by the US Agency for International Development that resulted in the 1965-1975 Education Improvement Plan prepared by a joint Nicaraguan and US team headed by Grace Scott. The study showed that many teachers lacked teaching materials, which, added to their lack of competence and insufficient supervision, prevented the children from benefitting from the study texts provided by foreign cooperation. Scott proposed that by 1975 a minimum of 75% of the secondary teachers be adequately trained to teach the subject for which they had been hired, establishing a salary scale that would act as an incentive.
Another factor with a determining influence on the low quality of education is the absenteeism of both students and teachers. Although there are no precise statistics, teachers and researchers have insistently pointed out that many boys and girls regularly miss several days of classes a week, especially in marginal rural and urban areas, which obviously reduces the classroom learning time. Moreover, teachers dedicate valuable classroom hours to activities such as taking attendance at the start of class, transcribing, organizing the students into groups to do simple routine tasks, and filling out questionnaires based on questions requiring students to parrot back textual responses. Teachers are also repeatedly required to participate in all manner of extra-school activities, which reduces their effective time for educational work.
Generalized traditional teaching methods
Outmoded traditional teaching methods are still commonly used in our country, impoverishing the quality of education. Nicaraguan students are frequently limited to listening and memorizing. One of the most common activities is copying in their notebooks what the teacher writes on the board or the contents of some book. There are few opportunities to read something then write about or discuss it. Routine and memorized knowledge don’t stimulate the active and reflexive participation children need in order to learn. As a result, all they gain through these activities is temporary knowledge that’s insufficuent for comprehension.
The inadequate curriculum and its lack of educational relevance, with information and teaching methods unrelated to the students’ needs and interests, translate into a huge waste of time and money that ends up demoralizing them. This frustration was underscored as far back as 1968 by Guillermo Rothschuh Tablada, a teacher who declared that “neither the universities nor the national institutes nor primary schools make room in their official plans and programs for new ways of studying to find a decent way forward for 20th-century man. None of these institutions teach an unobstructed path for finding ourselves.”
Perhaps the most dramatic consequence of the low educational quality resulting from insufficient teacher training is students’ loss of motivation or interest in learning and educational activity. Teachers in turn end up frustrated when their efforts go unrewarded, as do the students’ families, who can’t see the fruit of their enormous sacrifice.
These deficiencies in educational quality notably reduce the capacities of individuals to contribute to society, materially and spiritually impoverish them, and prevent them from fully employing their potential to learn and transform their reality for their full development. Poor educational quality closes the opportunities that education should open.
PRIORITY NUMBER THREE: INVEST MORE IN EDUCATION
Nicaragua has allocated a little less than the equivalent of 4% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to sustain basic and middle education, which isn’t enough to break the vicious circle of poverty, as it is proven that no country can significantly reduce poverty or develop without quality education.
Insufficient investment is made in public education to finance overcoming the problems we’ve described, much less transform the educational system. We need more schools, more and better trained teachers, more pedagogical resources and better conditions that favor learning. Investing more in education over a sustained period is fundamental in any national development model.
The low budget allocation for education has been a constant. In 1930, the education budget represented 3.4% of the overall budget, placing it eighth among all the categories financed. President José María Moncada himself recognized that this was insufficient to give the sector the attention it needed. By 1961 that percentage had risen to 14.3% and by 1967 to 17.8%, in part due to US aid in the framework of the Alliance for Progress. The evolution since them has been insignificant: in 1999 Nicaragua earmarked 14.57% of public spending [not to be confused with the percentage of the GDP] to preschool, primary and secondary education, and last year the figure was 17.06%, an improvement to be sure, but still below what it was 50 years ago.
Las Estadísticas de Centroamérica 2014 (Central American Statistics 2014), produced for the Informe del Estado de la Región, confirms the scant priority historically assigned to basic and middle education in Nicaragua’s budget. That year Costa Rica invested US$700 per person in education, while Belize and Panama invested some US$300. In contrast, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are well below that, with roughly US$100 per person; and regrettably, Nicaragua is bringing up the rear with only US$70 per person.
PRIORITY NUMBER FOUR: END THE SYSTEM’S INEQUITIES
Worse yet, the consequences of all these educational problems and deficiencies aren’t distributed equally throughout society. Children and adolescents who live in poverty or extreme poverty in the countryside or the Caribbean Coast are left with the most inadequate education. The educational system isn’t a factor of social improvement for any of them; it rather reproduces the social inequities in which they already live.
The exclusion of the youngest
Children under six years old are the least prioritized population group within this educational exclusion. Investment in infants and young children is mainly geared to their care and health, which are unquestionably areas of major importance, but pre-primary education has been neglected even though that age range provides the greatest opportunities to establish a firm basis for their development. While there is an early childhood policy and a well-formulated curriculum for early childhood education, actual educational programs are hard to find. Most are recently-created, low-coverage community or non-formal services run by volunteer educators with little more than a primary education facing very complex tasks.
In 1975, only around 4% of the country’s 255,000 children between 4 and 6 years old attended preschool centers. Nearly four decades later, in 2013, only just over half of our 5- to 6-year-olds were receiving pre-primary education, while only 13% of those under 5 were receiving educational services, in their case from the Ministry of the Family. According to the Household Living Standard Measurement (EMNV) Survey for 2014, only 14% of the 3-year-olds in the poorest quintile were getting educational attention compared to 35% of those of the same age from the higher-income population groups.
Less and poorer education in rural areas
Where one lives creates another important equity gap. The facilities to access high school education have a marked urban skew. With the education on offer to rural children smaller and of lower quality, it is extremely difficult for rural adolescents and young adults to get a high school degree.
It is useful to recall the case of the Estelí Teacher Training School, founded in 1957 precisely to prepare rural teachers. The idea was positive, but it didn’t work out because most of its graduates never went back to their home towns to become rural teachers, quite possibly turned off by the low salaries or harsh living conditions in the countryside, which are very different from those of urban centers such as Estelí. The Teacher Training School continued functioning, but without its initial objective of preparing rural teachers.
This neglect of rural areas is widely known. In 1975, 83% of Nicaragua’s school-aged rural children received no public education service, with private education barely covering 0.8% of the rural population. Only 5.3% of the students who entered first grade went on to finish primary (sixth grade) and over half of them took seven to nine years to do it, failing several times. Some 66% of rural teachers taught two different grades in classrooms chock-a-block with an average of 49 students. Four decades later, rural education is still the furthest behind in the system, with very significant gaps in access to secondary school. Only 64% of rural youths aged 15 to 19 ever finish primary school and only 26% of those go on to complete high school.
Rural education is also the least relevant, since the curriculum and educational materials are identical to those used in urban schools, despite the notorious differences between the city and the countryside in Nicaragua. One alternative, which is multi-grade didactics, successfully applied in some Latin American countries, isn’t getting the priority it merits in today’s Nicaragua.
Educational backwardness in the Caribbean regions
Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast populations, which also have the country’s greatest poverty levels, are among those receiving the poorest education. The problems there are vastly increased by the geographic dispersion of the communities, communication and access difficulties, and the linguistic and cultural plurality. The gaps are expressed in low student performance and academic lags at both the primary and secondary levels.
While 22.8% of the primary school population in Managua is older than the established age, the figure is 59.3% in the North Caribbean and 47.3% in the South Caribbean. As for the high school population, 63.2% and 58% are behind the established age in the North and South Caribbean, respectively, compared to 37% in Managua, according to 2014 EMNV data.
There has been talk of promoting educational changes and improvements in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region since the 1940s. It was an old Liberal promise that was taken up again in the 1960s with the short-lived “Fundamental Education Project,” which had virtually no impact as the government didn’t work to improve the population’s living conditions or access to the communities. Sealing its failure, the budget was badly managed, the community leadership didn’t participate and there were no incentives to encourage teachers to work in those zones.
In the 1990s and first years of the following decade, the Regional Autonomous Education System was designed specifically for the Caribbean; it was made official in the General Education Law promulgated in 2006. Educational materials were prepared in the coast’s multiple native languages to ensure students’ right to education in their mother tongue and bilingual teachers were trained to use them. Those projects have been discontinued and educational policies more in line with the cultural and linguistic conditions of the rest of the country are currently being applied in both regions.
A certain resistance to initial education in students’ maternal language in the Caribbean regions can be observed among the national education authorities. Despite all the studies that have been done, they continue to prioritize education in Spanish. Even where some efforts have been made, the teaching of reading and writing in the Coast’s native languages suffers from inadequate and deficient teacher training and an extremely limited supply and variety of texts in those languages.
Child workers with few options
Vulnerable urban populations, particularly working children and adolescents, don’t go to school because there are few educational opportunities corresponding to their needs and interests.
Nicaragua’s education system operates with a single modality: the conventional school. Alternative modalities are virtually nonexistent. The lack of any variety responding to the reality of thousands of youths who can’t adjust their time and ways of life to the traditional school modality deprives them of the opportunity to enjoy their right to quality education.
Gender barriers in education
The country’s female population, be they children or adults, also arguably get the education system’s shortest stick. The care-giving work they do as household helpers or early-age mothers, mainly in rural areas, effectively subjects them to a double day of work. They have to make a greater effort to complete primary school and move on to higher levels. It is perhaps for this very reason that females have developed strong resilience, dropping out less frequently and thus ending up with more years of schooling.
PRIORITY NUMBER FIVE: ENSURE LASTING PUBLIC POLICIES
Multiple educational plan and policy proposals have been formulated in Nicaragua. Generally speaking, they haven’t provided the underpinnings of a long-term educational effort nor have they endured beyond the administrations that put them forward, as they’ve lacked social consensus, the political will to defend them and the financial support and mechanisms to evaluate their implementation or the fulfillment of the goals and objectives proposed for each period. Independent of their quality, then, they have had little impact on improving the education system’s performance.
Despite everyone agreeing about the importance of education, it’s not yet one of society’s areas of consensus. To the contrary, as Indiana University School of Education’s Professor Emeritus Robert Arnove described in 1994, education continues being “contested terrain” in which contradictions inherent to Nicaraguan society’s ideological and political struggle get played out.
The education system has thus followed a pendular pattern in line with the orientation and interests of the government of the day, and even those of the educational administration itself. Over the centuries it has swung from a Conservative religious confessional model to Liberal secularism, from education with utilitarian purposes to the promotion of social change, and from a centralized administration to a decentralized one and back again. Such extreme and abrupt changes severely limit public school educators’ accumulation of experiences, knowledge and resources, denying them stability, state policies and administration of the education system based on social consensus and national interests.
Educator Rothschuh Tablada underscored the following in his description of this reality in the 1960s: “All regimes have prepared their henchmen, their most skilled defenders, their most tenacious propagandists in Nicaragua’s schools, as well before the ad agencies had designed their own ploys and tricks in favor of an individual or piece of merchandise, classroom teachers were already offering the students certain paths, defined routes, acting as broadcasters that were almost quasi-phonographs, repeating and repeating concepts.” He added this observation about Nicaragua’s teacher training schools, which he said “have followed a biological rhythm: They are born with pomp, grow vigorously, multiply and then die a sudden death. If one regime brought them into this world, the next buried them. When the government changes, education changes automatically.”
Restricted participation by the educational community
In Latin America’s experience, the educational community’s participation in the organizing and administrating of the education system has been considered a relevant factor in ensuring institutional stability and development, with the majority of the reforms promoted in the region including this aspect. Yet one of the most harmful extremes of Nicaragua’s pendular institutional conduct has been the educational community’s restricted participation.
Different initiatives have been implemented over time to move toward more efficient administration of the education system, among which school autonomy and educational municipalizing stand out. But unlike in other Central American countries, the knowledge accumulated by these experiences wasn’t taken advantage of. After a great deal of effort and resources were invested in these policies, they were discontinued without even evaluating their achievements, weaknesses or possibilities for improvement. A return to the old centralized management has gradually closed the arenas for local authorities, the communities in general and even the educational community itself when it comes to participating in decision-making about the education system.
Today the educational community’s participation is being mediated by partisan political entities. The model the Ministry of Education calls “shared responsibility” involves organizing local education councils in each municipality made up of its own officials; delegates of Citizens’ Power, the Sandinista Youth, the Federation of Secondary Students, parents organized through Citizen’s Power and the Sandinista Teachers’ Movement; as well as representatives of other state institutions. Social movements and nongovernmental or community organizations involved in educational actovoters that are not part of that political orientation do not participate in those arenas and that model, nor are they welcome.
For all that, the new centralism isn’t proving to be effective. Although the centralized administration of the education system consumes a large part of the preschool, primary and secondary education budget, it doesn’t help the territories and schools understand their problems and challenges so they can design strategies to resolve them, provide follow-up or evaluate the results of their interventions. Excessively centralized planning not supported by any local assessment of the problems affecting the school-aged population makes them even harder to solve.
Part I of Prioridades de la Educación Nicaragüense para el Siglo XXI (Priorities of Nicaraguan Education for the 21st Century), the CIASES study by Melba Castillo Aramburu, Ana Patricia Elvir Maldonado and Josefina Vijil Gurdián presented in Managua in October 2016. Edited for publication by envío.