Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 237 | Abril 2001



Education Is Not School And School Is Not Business

Neoliberalism has four recommendations for reforming education in Central America. All are questionable, limited and worrying.

Miguel de Castilla Urbina

Millions of dollars. Billions. Economists, sociologists, business administrators, psychologists and more "economists." Consultants, advisers, counselors, researchers and academics... Thousands of reports. Sectoral, national, regional and world diagnoses. Conferences, congresses, symposia, seminars and workshops. Government, non-government, university and union institutions... UNESCO, the World Bank, USAID, the IDB, the European Union. They all have an opinion about education. Neoliberalism’s leaders and the "in-house intellectuals" of this terminal development model insist that "education is vital for economic development, social progress and strengthening democracy." They voice this opinion from their parliaments, their ministries, their techno-bureaucratic offices and the opinion pages of their daily newspapers, repeating it so often that they appear to be trying to convince themselves.

A massive, encircling
homogeneous movement

This unusual and global view of education has been the dominant theme at several world conferences on the problem of education. They include Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand 1990), Education and Human Rights (Vienna 1993), Special Education Needs (Salamanca 1994), Higher Education (Paris 1998), Science and Technology (Budapest 1999), Technical Education (Seoul 1999) and, to close the cycle, Education (Dakar April 2000).

Latin America, Central America and Nicaragua in particular have not remained outside this movement, which is radical, homogeneous, massive, encircling and multitudinous. The Program to Promote Educational Reform in Latin America (PREAL) was founded in this context in 1995, with headquarters in Santiago, Chile, and financing from the IDB, USAID, Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) and Chile’s CINDE.

One of PREAL’s activities was to create the International Commission on Education, Equality and Economic Competitiveness in 1997, made up of well-known Latin American politicians, businesspeople and academics, which published a report in April 1998 titled El futuro esta en juego (The Future is at Stake). And in 1999, the Central American Commission for Education Reform was created, also made up of regional politicians, businesspeople and intellectuals. Its report Mañana es muy tarde, (Tomorrow is Too Late) was written by Nicaraguan sociologist, former education minister, consultant and commission member Humberto Belli and presented in Nicaragua by the organization EDUQUEMOS on January 18, 2001, in the Central Bank library. These two reports are so similar that they will be considered virtually as one when referred to in this article.

Education is more than just school
The four areas of reflection and recommendation in the two reports are:
* Decentralization of the school system (school autonomy)
* Increased budget for primary and secondary education
* Increased teachers’ salaries linked to job performance
* Establishment of common educational standards for the region
These four recommendations confuse education with school and national education with school system. This viewpoint ignores 25 years of educational thought in the world, introduced in 1972 with the concept of permanent education (Faure Report) and reaffirmed in 1996 with the concept of lifetime education (Delors Report).

Education has never been synonymous with school. With the impact of the world network of computers and cable television, this is truer today than ever before. Methodologically, given the present circumstances, an effective proposal for the transformation of education and of school itself must include formal, non-formal and informal education. These services must be made available to people, regardless of their social origin, class or sex, in an articulated and systemic way from before birth until death.

By the same token, the systemic focus on education obliges us to look at the formal education system as a whole, at all of its sub-systems interacting with each other and with their economic, social and cultural surroundings in the country and the world. This is regrettably absent in the two reports, which refer only to schools and, in fact, out of all the types of schools, to two in particular: primary and secondary. Pre-school, which is so important for social equity in education, and higher education, which is necessary to bring about economic growth and equitable and sustained social development for any country, were left out.

A reform that may be a fraud

The four recommendations are oriented towards schools and school systems. But who says that school and all it signifies is a closed and isolated system? That intervening only in these four areas of formal schooling will solve the problems of low student enrollment, high numbers of students who repeat grades and high failure and dropout rates of students from poor families? Who in fact says that these are strictly school problems that can be solved by any school reform alone, rather than by reforming the mechanisms that cause unequal distribution of wealth and income in our countries?
Education reform is a fraud if we pay attention only to the school system’s functions, leaving the capitalist economic and social system intact, together with all of its reproduction processes. How can unemployed mothers and fathers participate if they have no money to pay monthly school fees, much less contribute to extra fundraising activities to finance building repairs or bonuses for teachers?
What meaning do educational standards have if children in the rural areas and poor urban areas are fainting from hunger in the classroom because they come to school without breakfast? They arrive hungry—if they come at all—because their parents must pay monthly school fees imposed by the school board under the school autonomy system, yet have no money for bread and milk.

Should schools be businesses?

The four recommendations from the Latin and Central American Commissions seem more appropriate for productive enterprises than for institutions of learning. After all, businesses increase their investments, use production-driven wage incentives, decentralize functions and establish production quality standards and norms.

The intent to put schools on the same footing as business and transfer both the language and logic of capitalist business administration is not a new proposition for neoliberal education. The school autonomy model promoted by the World Bank in Latin America is another example of how this financial administration approach perverts everything it touches. The Central American report proudly states that "Nicaragua probably represents the most radical decentralization model that has been attempted in the region." Converting Nicaraguan teachers to collectors of monthly fees from their own students so that they can receive their own salary bonuses is the most humiliating, offensive and pathetic example of this.

To educate is to humanize

The concept of education that underlies the Commissions’ four recommendations inevitably leads one to think that this function’s only role is to transform people into productive agents, diminish sickness and contribute to the stability of the democratic system. But this is only a small part of what education is. It is far more than a means for individuals to increase the profit levels of business, their own private earnings and the Gross Domestic Product. All education, not just what takes place in school, is a fundamental requisite for humanization, for fulfilling our human potential. It is for this reason that formal education is a human right. Without it, human beings, as in the case of those who are illiterate, are less human than those who enjoy the privilege of knowing how to read and write.

This is why it is a constitutional right in most countries that the state must provide education, especially primary education, to all children. This is the origin and the nature of public education, and is why the privatization of education, equivalent to school autonomy in Nicaragua, is a criminal act against humanity. It impedes the access of the poorest to free education and therefore excludes them from reaching their full human potential, from having full access to information and knowledge.

Transferring responsibilities or
letting the state off the hook?

"Transfer a large portion of the responsibility for management of the education system and administration of the school to families, teachers and the community," says the first recommendation in the Central American report. The Latin American report says it this way: "Grant the schools and local communities more control over education and more responsibility for education."
It looks good on paper, but reality is another thing altogether. For Nicaragua’s impoverished population, school autonomy is a dirty word. In Nicaragua it can be defined as the process by which the state divests itself of responsibility for providing free education for the poor, as required under Article 121 of the Constitution. The recommendation’s text is clear: transfer responsibility for management of the education system to the parents. But so is the reality clear: the responsibility being transferred is that of financing education, not managing it. It simply represents a new tax that the poor are paying for their children’s education.

How does the new school administration use the money it takes from the pockets of parents through its many and varied mechanisms? That money goes to pay for what has traditionally been the state’s responsibility: teachers’ salaries and the school infrastructure, maintenance and supplies that the school needs in order to function.

By washing its hands of its obligations, the state is not only making the country’s poor even poorer, which is by definition a criminal act. It is also doing great harm to the dignity of teachers and the practice of their profession in Nicaragua. In the past, Nicaraguan teachers, as public employees, received benefits that they had won over half a century of struggle and sacrifice. Today, because of the "transfer of responsibility," they live in permanent crisis. Their stability and salary are not protected by law but depend on the mood of the school boards of their so-called autonomous centers.

Strengthen teachers or
crystallize them in poverty?

The second recommendation proposes to "reform the teaching profession by establishing salary raises tied to job performance, improving the quality of initial training and promoting in-service training," as the Latin American report phrases it. "Strengthen the teaching profession through salary increases, reforming the teacher training system and holding the teachers responsible to the communities they serve," says the Central American version.

This might work in Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica or Panama, but not in Nicaragua, whose teachers are among the lowest paid in the world. To reach a salary that approaches the cost of the 52-product basic market basket, a teacher must work three five-hour shifts. How well can someone teach who is doing it from seven in the morning until nine at night, just to earn the córdoba equivalent of US$180 a month? How well can someone teach given the fragility of the practically non-existent teacher-training systems? How well can any human being carry out a task with salaries so low that they are underfed, poorly dressed, tired, poorly prepared and trained, never have any fun and live—if you can call this living—under such conditions?
What is really being hidden behind these recommendations for countries like Nicaragua? Do their proponents not realize that they are proposing a sure-fire method of crystallizing the teachers’ poverty? Do they not understand that they impoverish pedagogy by impoverishing the teaching profession, converting teachers into transmitters of a culture of pessimism and moral downfall for the nations’ poor?
Central American teachers should enjoy a salary similar to other professionals with equal levels of training, and whose work has equal levels of difficulty and social importance. Only when the state has met its social debt by paying teachers a dignified base salary can the recommendations in this document be given consideration. Furthermore, salary adjustments based on job performance should be applied not only to teachers, but to other professions as well, beginning with high-level government officials.

Fulfillment standards
or standard content?

"Establish widely agreed-upon standards to guide educational work, as well as a unified system to measure whether those standards are met and their results are being widely publicized," says the third recommendation regarding this panacea for modern education.

We are not against standards, a basic instrument for measuring the results of any process. They help in making assessments and decisions to improve a process. The criticism of educators, parents, students, education specialists, employees, politicians, journalists and public opinion makers is not about the education levels achieved but about the course content and the pedagogic and didactic methods being used.

They criticize the multiple gaps between what is taught in school and the knowledge that is needed for local industry and enterprise to develop. They consider that what is actually taught in school is in frank opposition to the knowledge and methods that Nicaraguan society needs to transform itself and develop. Why would we want to know the percentage of students who correctly answer a math, Spanish or biology question if we still have doubts about the quality and pertinence of that question on the tests they want to standardize?
Future education will emphasize methods and learning procedures over knowledge. The task of today’s students must be to "learn" methods and procedures for learning and unlearning knowledge and go on "learning, unlearning and relearning new things all their lives." In the future they must learn to determine what they need to know to solve their problems, identify the source of this knowledge, look for it, collect it and apply it to the problem-solving process. The future’s best students will not be the ones who know the most at a given moment, but the ones most able to learn, unlearn and discard knowledge, and learn new things according to their needs and interests. What standard tests will be able to measure these abilities, since all tests, independent of their character and nature, are really only a measure of memory?

Why only basic education?

The Central American Commission’s fourth recommendation is "to increase public investment in education to a minimum of 5% of the GDP of each country, directing almost all of this increase to primary and secondary education." In the Latin American report published in April 1998, it simply reads, "Increase the amount spent per student in basic education."
We are presently concluding a study that looks at what teachers consider the principal problems facing education in Central America. The prevailing opinion in all countries is that the main problem is the low budget and budget distribution problems. They differ with the commission’s recommendations in two respects; first, in demanding that 7%, not 5% of the GDP be spent on education, and second, that it include all public education, not just primary and secondary school, believing that higher education must be financed to decrease poverty and promote development.

In a report presented at the UNDP headquarters in Nicaragua at the end of 2000, specialists from the Brazilian Planning Ministry’s Institute for Economic Research concluded that a larger budget for primary education does not have a strong impact on poverty reduction. According to this report, the percentage of poverty reduction in Latin America after ten years of neoliberal arguments in favor of primary education and against higher education is only 2%.

Education is in vogue

Financing that favors primary education to the detriment and exclusion of higher education and absolves the state of its responsibility for public education under the guise of decentralization and autonomy is not a new concept for Nicaragua. It was part of the fundamentalist neoliberal rhetoric and actions of Humberto Belli, author of Tomorrow is Too Late, during his term as education minister from 1990 to 1998. It is opposed by hundreds of thousands of poor Nicaraguan families, many of whom are surviving in the countryside or the city on the equivalent of just a dollar a day.

The current Central American educational reform processes—the 10-year plans of El Salvador and Panama, Costa Rica’s Plan for Excellence and Equality in Education, Guatemala’s proposed "parity commission," Honduras’ National Convergence Forum and Nicaragua’s Technical Committee for a National Education Plan—were all developed through government-civil consensus building. For that reason, and because they lean toward a systemic wholeness, each of these documents is of higher quality and more grounded in the region’s reality than either The Future is at Stake or Tomorrow is too Late.

Moreover, the five education policy ideas presented in Nicaragua’s National Education Plan for 2001-2015, approved in December 2000, include expanding education to more students, curriculum and administrative reform, teacher training and promotion, and developing science and technology. In other words, they include the obvious aspects from the Commissions’ four recommendations and transcend them.
There is no question that education is now in vogue. But what is the look of this new fashion? We are seeing billions of dollars, economists, sociologists and reports. School as metaphysics, separated from history and economics. Pure ideology, a disguise to hide the truth. What a pity.

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