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  Number 362 | Septiembre 2011
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Nicaragua

What education priorities should this or the next government have?

Nicaragua’s current priorities for improving public education are described and analyzed by this education researcher, who also shows us the educational plans of the two leading presidential candidates.

Josefina Vijil

I want to begin by acknowledging that despite the continuing precariousness of Nicaraguan public education and the fact that education can only be planned for and analyzed from a medium- to long-term perspective, our country has made progress over the last 30 years.

The good news; More access to education

Access to elementary education has been quantitatively expanded and, as a result, today’s younger generations have more years of schooling than their predecessors. There’s also been a major advance in educational paradigms, making awareness of the right to education more widespread and more specific.

A few years ago we understood the right to education as being just the right to go to school while today we’re beginning to understand that it’s the right to learn, that children’s right to education isn’t being respected if they don’t learn anything in school or what they learn is of no use to them. The demand for quality education now has a central place it didn’t have before. We’ve also advanced in innovative initiatives, in educational experimentation, in successful educational programs.

The bad news: Access to education
alone doesn’t generate equality

For many years, we naively thought that by promoting mass access to education we would move towards social equality and mobility, but in recent years we’ve seen that this isn’t so. Although access to education has increased and education itself has improved somewhat, there’s still enormous social inequality in Nicaragua, with a tremendous gap between society’s richest and poorest sectors. The 2005 survey on living standards—the latest official data available to us—shows that the 20% of Nicaraguans with the lowest income have an average of 2.7 years of schooling, while the 20% with the greatest income have an average of 8.3 years. Advances in access to education have obviously not generated the equality we had hoped for. Education is undoubtedly a factor in development but social equality doesn’t depend only on it. Furthermore, as long as we offer poor quality education to the country’s poorest, education won’t contribute to their development or to the country’s. And that’s what’s happening today.

Although there’s been great progress in access to education, we’ve begun to see stagnation in recent years. We can see it in the net enrollment rate, an indicator used to determine how many children of a given age are at the educational level corresponding to that age. In 1980, 70% of children 7-12 years old (elementary school age) attended school; while that had risen to 87% by 2008, the last year for which we have official data using this indicator, it had already reached 85% by 2005. There’s been even greater progress at the high school level (age 13-17), with the 22% attending high school in 1980 more than doubling to 45% in 2008, but again we see stagnation in the percentage growth from 2005 on.

Kindergarten or preschool attendance also doubled, from 29% of 3- to 6-year-olds in 2000 to 58% in 2008. This progress has been achieved through the efforts of many civil society organizations that for years have supported community preschools, which are those giving the best coverage despite the fact that teachers in these schools earn hardly an eighth of the salary earned by elementary school teachers in the public education system. They are not only badly paid and paid in arrears, but have the worst conditions of the teaching profession. It also must be said that the figures for preschool coverage are only averages. Different investigations have shown that coverage is much lower in the Caribbean regions and rural areas. In any event, we should celebrate the fact that Nicaraguan society is starting to believe in the importance of preschool education and early childhood stimulation.

Why the stagnation?

Why is elementary, high school and kindergarten schooling currently stagnating? Apparently it’s because the “easy” expansion stage is now over. Who’s being left out are the poorest, those who drop out of school in the first grade and those who won’t even go unless we take alternative and complementary action. As a society we must ask ourselves how to work with the poorest children, those who have never been to school or those who leave straightaway after starting. From this perspective we must ask ourselves about the priorities facing this government, if it continues in power, or a new government, if it wins the elections.

Following the National Education Strategy, analyzed in envío last year, the governing party developed a 2011-2015 Strategic Plan, which it hasn’t made available to us or put up on the Education Ministry’s website, but which I acquired unofficially. There are important data to be taken into account in the Plan regarding completion of each educational level–what the Plan calls the “survival” rate. In the 2004-2009 period, survival in elementary schools was at 42%: only 42 of every 100 children who entered first grade finished at the expected age. Those who drop out are always the poorest. Child labor, which plays an important role in the school dropout rate, is an issue that can be thought of in many ways and on which there are many opinions but it has to be carefully considered as one of the principal reasons for children leaving school.

Data from the government’s Strategic Plan show that those who make it all the way through elementary school survive longer in high school but, even so, high school survival rates are low. In what is now called ninth grade, the 2007-2009 survival rate was 53%. We’re thus facing extremely high dropout rates, which imply a cost to families and the country and a negative effect on the self-esteem of children and adolescents. The government has undertaken to win the “battle of the sixth grade” in 2015: all school-age children in Nicaragua should finish elementary education’s six grades. Is it possible to win this battle in the time laid out by the Plan, when 10% of children in this age group currently don’t even start elementary school, and only 42% of those who do finish this cycle? While it should be an important medium-term goal for Nicaraguan society, is the challenge realistic in the allotted time?

The country’s four educational challenges

From my point of view, Nicaragua as a country has to face four educational challenges. The first is to set ourselves the goal of advancing towards compulsory education for the whole population, ensuring twelve years of schooling for all Nicaraguans. I agree with the battle of the sixth grade and the battle of the ninth grade, both set out by the present government, and I’ll be in agreement with the battle of the twelfth grade. What I can’t buy is that we can achieve it in three or even five years. We may want to but it’s not possible. However we have to set that goal as a nation, in order to achieve it in 10, 20 or 30 years. And, on the way, we should set intermediate goals, always leading in that direction. The first challenge we face, then, is for the Nicaraguan population to achieve more years of schooling.

The second challenge is to ensure that children stay in the school system: that those who enter stay, leaving only when they’ve acquired the essential learning skills. According to official data, the children who stay in school the most are in the 7-10 age group; the percentage is low in children under seven years old, and begins to drop dramatically after 12 years of age. So we have to work not only on access but also on retention.

Regarding retention, I think we should discuss the need to continue implementing compensatory programs, such as those implemented throughout Latin America, which basically consist of giving the poorest families a grant provided they send their children to school and the health center (where they are weighed and measured), thus linking education with nutrition. In Nicaragua we criticize these programs—implemented in the 1990s—for not improving the quality of education, precisely because the fact that a child goes to school doesn’t guarantee that she or he learns. Other countries have criticized them for the grant being given as favoritism or for political reasons. This is a controversial subject but, after much study and debate, we’ve concluded that children from the poorest sectors will only attend school if their families have some incentive to send them there, and that, in addition to the grants, certain important objectives should be linked to the quality of education, to ensure that the children don’t just go to school but also learn.

The third challenge, then, without which the other two would be meaningless, concerns educational quality. It’s not about handing out diplomas, it’s about learning, and that depends on the quality of the education received. Several concepts define educative quality but I believe we should base ourselves on the one adopted by UNESCO: Quality education is one that offers a person essential learning skills. What are they? To learn to read with comprehension; to learn to express ideas orally and in writing; to develop logical mathematical thinking; to know and apply scientific methods; to learn investigative methods. In today’s world of information and communication, it’s no use accessing the Internet if we don’t know how to use the information we find there. We need to teach children a method that allows them to convert all that information into knowledge so that, in the words of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, they can “talk in their own words” and take a stand on what they’re researching. Quality also means internalizing values.

Today the emphasis is on providing students computers. Access to computers is important, but they must have programs that enhance classroom learning. If the computers don’t have these programs or the teacher doesn’t know how to use them, they become a distraction. If no one teaches the students how to do research, the information a computer offers is useless. We must be clear that technology doesn’t create quality, it’s just a tool for achieving it, although it’s particularly important in Nicaragua because technology can help offset our current shortage of teachers.

The fourth challenge is to meet the demand for greater, better and more diverse educational options, i.e. high schools covering more territory and more technical education options. University can’t be the only professional option in Nicaragua as not everyone wants to, or needs to, go to university and because many specialized technical careers don’t require university studies.

What conditions can make this possible?

We can only meet these four challenges with certain conditions of possibility. The first is the teaching staff itself. We urgently need to break the vicious circle of educational quality, which is dependent on a set of factors (infrastructure, teaching materials, appropriate curriculum and social context). But faced with this complexity many of us educators think the only factor that could break this vicious circle is teachers. A well-trained teaching staff, with the tools needed to create learning situations in the classroom and influence the family through its leadership role can make the difference. We aren’t investing in teacher training today, yet it’s where Nicaragua needs to invest.

We need well-trained, adequately-paid teachers who can take pleasure in a teaching career. A Teaching Profession Law exists but, in practice, there’s no teaching career because teachers who want to advance in the educational system have to leave the classroom; they can’t make a career as classroom teachers. That’s why the best teachers leave the classroom and go into administration.

Teachers’ nominal salaries have improved somewhat but are still very low. Elementary school teachers have a basic monthly salary of about US$175 and high school teachers about US$205, which in both cases includes the 7% increase given in July of this year, plus seniority and zoning. Since last year, this government added a US$30 “solidarity bonus.” Is this enough to live on? A study by the Nicaraguan Educational Forum (Eduquemos) presented in May 2011 shows that the gap between teachers’ salaries and the cost of living has spread between 2005 and 2011: in 2005 we were able to buy 89.5% of a list of basic products on our salary but by 2008 it only stretched to 41.3%. So we’re facing a serious problem: we can only expect a poor educational performance from inadequately-trained, poorly-paid teachers with few professional career possibilities.

The teaching profession is
devalued all over Latin America

In addition there’s now a dominant body of opinion in the country that has greatly devalued the teaching profession. This began in the 1970s, not only in Nicaragua but throughout Latin America, when access to education increased notably and enrollment thus increased significantly, creating a need to train teachers on a massive scale. Consequently, the national education system collapsed, creating a vicious circle of bad training, low salaries and little prestige. The only way we can gradually upgrade the profession is by improving the way teachers are trained, paying them well and turning teaching into a genuine career. Today, not even teachers themselves want their children to study to be teachers, they want them to go to the university and study other things that will be better than their own paltry salaries. Many qualified Nicaraguan teachers migrate to Costa Rica where they can earn more as domestic help than they can here as teachers. For years the teaching profession in Nicaragua has been experiencing a “proletarianization” process of increasingly worse pay and increasingly less prestige. Who’s going into teaching today? The poorest, who have no other option.

In Nicaragua, over 15% of elementary and 30% of high school students attend private schools. Some studies have shown that private schools obtain better results than public ones, but not always. Generally private schools pay their teachers better and thus have better teachers, better infrastructure and better materials. Because they have better conditions they should have better results, but they’re affected by the same problem: the low quality of their basic training and insufficient in-service training.

The teacher training challenge is enormous

I’ve worked with Fe y Alegría (an international movement for comprehensive grassroots education and social promotion), the Center for Educational Research and Social Action (CIASES) and the Central American University’s Lechecuagos Teacher Training School, which is the only private, unsubsidized rural teacher training school in Nicaragua. What do we find there? We’re still getting boys and girls who have completed the fifth year of high school, but it’s no longer common as teacher training schools now take in students who’ve only passed third year, which represents a backwards step. They arrive without being able to comprehend what they read, without being able to express their ideas orally and in writing, without having finished building logical mathematical thought, in other words without having developed even the few skills that characterize the educative quality they’ll need to impart.

What do other teacher training schools usually do? They ignore the new arrivals’ shortcomings and say: “If they haven’t learned that already, we don’t have the time to teach it to them.” And they focus on teaching methods. But this not only doesn’t resolve the underlying problem, it exacerbates it because if they haven’t developed these basic skills, the teaching methods they are being taught are useless and they’ll pass on their shortcomings to the next generation.

No one can give what they don’t have. No one can teach how to read with comprehension if they can’t comprehend what they read themselves; no one can teach logical thought if they can’t think logically. Basic education is a serious problem and it isn’t resolved by ignoring it. This is why we in the Lechecuagos teacher training school are finishing up validating a 2½-year basic education program for rural teachers, having already proved that two years isn’t enough. In this basic education course we’re including evening workshops in comprehension, writing, abstract thought and personal growth. Experience has convinced us that we can’t train a good teacher if we don’t compensate for their deficient high school education. The universities have a similar problem today with students being admitted with a very deficient secondary education.

In-service teacher training—training teachers who are already teaching in classrooms—is also deficient. The training is inadequate and the models are already outdated: very theoretical and useless for changing classroom practices. We need more classroom accompaniment and greater investment in teacher training on the essential quality subjects: reading, writing and logical thought.

Teacher training is my passion. I believe that until we seriously address this complex problem we aren’t going to solve Nicaragua’s other unresolved challenges in education. We still have time to educate young teachers, but there are others we can do nothing for because they themselves don’t want to change; they want to continue doing as they always have. In order to make the change, we need a new generation of quality-trained teachers. And we won’t achieve this in five or in ten years. It’s a medium- to long-term process we need to set up and deal with starting now.

We need continuity

This challenge requires a long-term, country-wide perspective, the lack of which has been a serious underlying problem. All governments only see as far as their own term in office. They negate everything done by previous governments and want to build everything new, from scratch, without evaluating previous efforts. If we get a new government in November it shouldn’t ignore everything done by the present government regarding education, considering it all bad. Continuity is necessary. “New education” doesn’t exist, ever. We need to give continuity to everything that has been done well, evaluating it and, after research, improving it and setting specific goals.

And that’s another condition that would make meeting our challenges possible: setting goals, evaluating and giving continuity to what’s good. The General Education Law—the policy document we have today—establishes a goal of only seven years of compulsory education for the whole population. We’re the only country in Latin America that proposes just seven years: at least the last of the three years of preschool available and six of elementary. Are we satisfied with that? Is that all we aspire to? Even in all the other Central American countries, the goal is nine to twelve years of schooling. I think we should propose higher goals and move towards them with a long-term perspective and a commitment from all governments to give continuity to the efforts made by others. Until we do this, until we stop “turning the page and starting over” with a short-term view, we’ll be stuck with the same problems we’re burdened with today.

We need to help teachers on site

In addition to training good teachers and formulating long-term goals, another condition required is to develop a system for supervising, monitoring and encouraging teachers. We need to accompany them in the classroom, where all learning processes take place, and that includes supervising their own work there, which involves dealing with a thousand small everyday challenges.

Let’s look at some. First, Nicaraguan law establishes 200 days of class a year, only a thousand hours. Worse yet, we lost more than 30% of those days last year to two-day holidays, teachers’ workshops, etc. We need to supervise the classrooms, see how the teachers use the time, what time they come in and leave (in many schools they come in late and leave early, particularly if they’re holding down a second job to make ends meet), and how much time is spent in recesses, which sometimes last as long as an hour.

Age and other differences in the classroom

A second classroom problem that has skyrocketed in recent years is children who are in a grade below their age, for example 12-year-olds in first grade, which is for 6/7-year-olds. We’ve found children in levels up to ten years below their age. Data from the current government’s Strategic Plan indicates that 53% of those currently in elementary schools and 62% of those in the first years of high school are two or more years behind. These are significant figures that make any teacher’s educational work more difficult, even when the curriculum isn’t like the present one, crammed with conceptual contents, without emphasizing procedures or focusing on learning skills and with no teachers’ guide.

Are there alternatives to the problem of age differences in the classroom? For many years there’s been a trend in Latin America to uphold a multi-grade educational modality commonly used in rural areas where there are either few children of the same age or a shortage of teachers for the different grades. Despite its complexity this modality, in which the same teacher simultaneously attends to students in different grades, entails a set of pedagogic potentials that could well be applied in Nicaragua beyond the rural setting. I’m floating it because we’re seeing increasing differences among children in classrooms, not only in age, but also in culture, interests, experiences, etc. Teachers using the multi-grade methodology can achieve positive results, but they have to be well-trained and must have access to materials that allow them to produce their own work plans so as to create cooperative learning situations.

A fundamental element in the success of multi-grade teaching is to make the right combinations of grades. The most successful cases are combinations of two grades: first and second together, third and fourth, fifth and sixth. Some other situations are very hard to work, such as combining first grade with sixth, or if a single teacher has to teach all six grades of elementary school.

A classroom with groups of more than 30 students from different grades is another complication. Under such conditions a teacher can’t work miracles. More teachers are required if all the children are to receive quality education.

Difference is a child’s right

A third problem is the compulsory nature of the current curriculum. An appropriate curriculum should be a standardizing framework that shows teachers what the children should learn in a year so they can move towards these goals, establishing priorities. A weakness of Nicaragua’s curriculum is that it doesn’t focus on the priorities. For example, one repeatedly finds that the objective of an ideal graduating student profile is that they be willing to “donate blood,” not that they be able to “comprehend what they read” or “think logically.” This adds to the everyday, structural problems we have in the classroom and hinders improving educational quality.

The idea that all teachers plan the same thing at the same time is also not right because children never learn at the same pace. Uniform programming is contrary to pedagogic progress. Since the early 20th century, the new pedagogic trends have particularly emphasized one element and that is differences: different rates of learning, different contexts for the students, different educational strategies, etc. Difference is a child’s right and if the system requires that they all advance at the same time and at the same rate, that right is being violated. The “average child” doesn’t exist; it’s an abstraction.

Compulsory programming of contents imposes a straitjacket on teachers and creates two attitudes. The first is to make teachers care less what the children learn or don’t learn because they get paid the same either way. So they carry on giving classes just as they’re programmed, regardless of how well the children are assimilating the lesson. The other attitude is a “compliance” culture, where what teachers write in their plan isn’t what really happens, so we all lose and never know what’s really happening in the classroom. For example, many teachers who didn’t agree with the policy of automatically passing children in the first to third grades kept double records: one for the Ministry of Education, where all the children passed, and another for themselves, where the children stayed in the same grade. This makes it impossible to know what’s really happening in the classroom and the school as a whole, and therefore impossible to improve it.

Teaching materials and infrastructure

Another condition for meeting Nicaragua’s unresolved educational challenges is to have teaching materials available to help teachers and students—and to be sure they’re used. In recent research we discovered that a great many schools have storybooks and textbooks but don’t use them.

Yet another condition is to improve school infrastructure. About 40% of our schools have no drinking water, the roofs of many are falling down and many rural schools lack toilets or even latrines so the children have to go into the fields to relieve themselves. What kind of quality learning can take place under such conditions?

More schools and more
investment in education

We also need to increase the provision of high schools and technical schools. One way is to create new schools with new teaching staff but other ways could include boarding schools, peripatetic teachers, etc. Thereare a lot of experiences in Latin America, some more successful than others, that can help us.

We also need to increase the availability of preschools. Preschool education has been compulsory in Nicaragua since 2006, when the General Education Law came out, but we’ve done very little as yet to meet the goal of all children attending at least one year of preschool. And of course we need clear indicators to measure the educational efforts being made to meet this goal.

And we obviously need to increase public investment in education. Since 2006, we’ve been spending between 4.8% and 5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) on the entire education system, which is totally insufficient. If, as has already been studied, a full 6% of the GDP goes in tax exemptions benefiting privileged groups, this is flagrant inequality. Another issue we should discuss is that Nicaragua spends 6% of the national budget on public universities, because they invest a lot of money and aren’t accountable for their investment. Reviewing that 6% shouldn’t be a rightwing banner. But it’s not an option to take resources from the universities and give it to elementary schooling. Nicaragua needs the kind of public universities it had in the 1960s, ones that had something coherent and significant to say about the country’s situation, that support the country’s development through research, innovation and proposals for intervention.

The government’s Strategic Plan
vs. the PLI-UNE Alliance’s proposals

Although they’re not comparable, I’d now like to review some of the current government’s proposals on education in its 2011-2015 Strategic Plan and some of the education policy proposals that the PLI-UNE Alliance, the opposition party currently polling in second place for the upcoming elections, presents in its government program.

Universal basic education. Both documents propose universal basic education. The Alliance asks for 12 years of schooling for the entire population and the government talks about the “battle for sixth grade“ and the “battle for ninth grade.” Specifying the battle for sixth grade, the government assures that there will be full elementary education in all public schools. What does this mean? That all elementary schools will teach all six grades or that all students of elementary school age will complete the six grades? The former is much easier.

There are other contradictions: according to official data, the adjusted net rate of elementary schooling now stands at 93% and the government states that by 2015 it will hit 97%, which is still not “universal” elementary schooling but is very close. In the “battle for the ninth grade,” the official statistic the government presented for the adjusted net rate of schooling is 79% and the proposal is to raise it to 85% by the same year, which still isn’t “universalizing” it. The indicators it provides belie the goals to which it aspires.

The Strategic Plan also uses contradictory information in referring to these two “battles.” When analyzing scenarios to see what resources are needed, it speaks of the current trend scenario, the intermediary scenario and the ideal scenario. Even in the ideal scenario, the real elementary schooling rate would only be up to 90% by 2015, which only demonstrates what we have already said: that achieving universal elementary schooling in the next five years is an impossible goal. It needs more time. That being the case, why say they’ll do what they can’t do? The same with the battle for the ninth grade by 2015: the current trend scenario will only bring it up to 50% and the ideal to 75%; in other words, it’s totally impossible to universalize the ninth grade in Nicaragua by 2015. It will take much longer.

The direction is right so we should start from there, increasing the population’s levels of schooling, but the goals should be realistic and the government should design appropriate strategies to achieve them, with intermediate goals that allow us to assess if we’re still going in the right direction, so as to make any necessary adjustments. And very importantly: any goal that’s set should be for the country, society as a whole, not just for a government. This is an essential condition for success, but it isn’t clear in the Plan.

We should remember here that when the FSLN government took office in 2007, its first education minister, Miguel de Castilla, who was ousted last year, proposed what he called the “battle for first grade”: the goal that all children complete first grade and pass into second. It was a totally correct strategic goal for the country, because the greatest dropout rate is in first grade, which is when 17% of enrolled children drop out. But while this goal should be one of the country’s priorities, it no longer appears anywhere in the government’s Strategic Plan and isn’t picked up by the Alliance’s program either.

High school and technical education. Both the Strategic Plan and the Alliance’s program talk about making high school and technical education more flexible, although they don’t specify how they’ll do it. The Plan’s proposals about the quality of education are much more complete than in the previous Strategy. The government is finally talking about prioritizing reading, writing and mathematics and improving teacher training. It proposes creating a performance system; training principals and vice principals; establishing a system of accompaniment, supervision and monitoring; it talks of having a “pertinent and relevant” curriculum and of establishing a national system for assessing learning. All this represents progress because, until now, quality in education has only been proposed in an abstract, poorly conceived, manner.

The Alliance’s government program mentions such vitally important issues for quality as improving teacher training by creating Advanced Teacher Training Schools; improved ongoing training for the teaching staff; giving the best teachers specialized training on teaching preschool and the first elementary school grades; and training school and institute principals. It also proposes that children should learn to read in the first grades. All these proposals are very important for achieving educational quality.

Prioritizing the poor. The government Plan sets the goal of giving poor people access to schools and helping them stay there. It also says it will prioritize rural, indigenous and afro-descendent communities and incorporate what it calls “gender practices,” no longer talking about a “gender focus,” though I don’t know what this change means. It proposes ensuring a school meal and giving school supplies and uniforms to preschool children, again prioritizing the poorest. It is progress that priorities are defined, because that wasn’t done before. The Alliance’s program proposes promoting programs that would give families in extreme poverty the means to send their children to school and improving the school meal.

Education budget. What’s lacking in the government Plan is specific public investment to meet these priorities, as it mentions no substantial budget increase for education, whereas the Alliance’s program proposes investing 7% of the GDP.

Nicaragua’s education budget has been cut in each of three consecutive years, even though tax collection has increased. What the State invests in education is an objectively verifiable indicator of political willingness to improve public education, although it’s not just about investing more but also about investing where needed.

Investment in teachers. One priority need is to invest in teacher training, teacher training schools, the educators who are training teachers and teaching materials. In Nicaragua a teacher can spend two years training without having a good book to read, with no study or reference materials. How can they teach if they haven’t had the opportunity to have materials to think about and build their own knowledge base? Some years ago a lot of money was invested in creating an institute called IDEAS, to train Nicaragua’s gifted children. An interesting initiative but is it a priority in this country?

Teacher supervision. The government Plan talks about a system for supervising teachers’ work, but doesn’t say how it will do it. And beware: teacher supervision could become a double-edged sword because such systems have also been used for favoritism when not properly defined, controlled and administered. These plans are needed but they must be very professionally and strictly designed and administered.

Support materials and infrastructure. Both documents mention the need for teaching and support materials. Both also emphasize improving school infrastructure.

Literacy education.Few studies show Nicaragua’s current literacy level with sufficient data and information. The government’s official claim is that there’s only 3.5% illiteracy in the entire population, but there are no independent studies to corroborate it. The Strategic Plan proposes continuing recent literacy efforts as well as teaching those have become literate so they don’t become functional illiterates, which is what usually happens. Even the official figure of those now literate and continuing in adult education is still very low and actions to increase this level are in the Plan.

Preschool.Both say they will expand preschools. The government Plan continues the “Love for the littlest ones” program, which strongly emphasizes parents’ contribution, although it doesn’t obviate the State’s obligation to provide this important educational level.

Parental participation. Parental participation in school activities is essential because teachers cannot provide all of a child’s education. In all the research we’ve done in and outside of Nicaragua, we see that children learn more when they have their parents’ support. And this means participating not only in fundraising activities but also in the classroom educational work. What families do at home is also important: reading or telling stories to children, encouraging them to read. It has been proved that this practice is essential for learning to read well, and teachers should remind parents of this.

We notice that the poorest families participate least in the schools, either because they have to work or because they’re intimidated by the schools and teachers. The “school autonomy” project, implemented in Nicaragua in the 1990s, had its negative aspects and resulted in a decline in enrollment because of the fees the schools charged to augment their paltry government funding. But it also left some positive experiences: in some schools parents were in control of whether their children were learning or not, if the teachers arrived early or late or didn’t arrive at all. Participation like this should be maintained and encouraged.

There were parents’ associations in the schools that have now been replaced by Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPC) promoted by the FSLN government. Parents no longer decide on anything that hasn’t first been passed by the CPC and their suggestions and complaints aren’t valued. Also, many arenas for participation in the schools have been closed, favoring only participation by those in the ruling party. But the Education Participation Law hasn’t been repealed, and in the name of this law parents have the right to demand participation in their children’s schools. They are legally entitled to be heard and to challenge the current restrictions on participation favoring those who are in or sympathetic to the governing party.

Civil society participation.The government Plan proposes establishing an educational model of shared responsibility based on participation of the CPCs, without mentioning any of the NGOs and social movements working in education in Nicaragua. It only relies on the officials of state and governmental institutions and the entities of the governing party. The government also proposes harmonizing foreign resources to align them with the country’s educational priorities. The Alliance’s program, in contrast, proposes strengthening participation groups at all different levels, from the national level to the schools themselves.

Authority of school principals. An element that should be, but isn’t mentioned—and changed—is that school principals currently have very little autonomy. They complain about how little authority they are assigned, what little room they have to affect the work of the teachers and the pressure they’re under. This is a serious problem because different studies, national and international, show how assessment and supervision by the principal of an educational center are crucial to improving the quality of education. Successful learning is partially due to a principal taking responsibility for the school’s problems, making a priority of being involved in what happens in the classroom and sharing the responsibility of ensuring that the teachers are doing their job, which is enabling children to learn.

The government plan is good
but too tightly controlled

The Strategic Plan formulated by the government seems both more complete and more serious than the previous Educational Strategy. Its proposed goals are heading in the right direction, although some are missing and it’s not clear how they will be met. The Plan’s main problem is that it’s being run by a group of people who don’t allow participation or give information to other groups in society working in education. This is a very serious problem for those of us in research because we have to work with old statistics and guess the results of the processes the government is promoting. That’s what happened, for example, with the Sandino 1 and Sandino 2 programs: a government-sponsored scheme to accelerate the completion of elementary and high school education. We don’t know the results; we have no information available to evaluate them.

What we do know is that what matters in education is learning, not a diploma. A rapidly acquired diploma can sometimes be used to get a job, but without the necessary skills and without appropriate learning to keep the job, what’s the point? Educational processes are very complex and Nicaragua’s educational situation is extremely precarious, which is what makes it so urgent for all of us to evaluate the efforts.

I believe Nicaragua’s educational problems must be resolved gradually, through not necessarily glamorous actions. The government is pushing the battle of sixth grade with major publicity hype as part of its electoral campaign, when Nicaragua hasn’t yet won the battle of first grade. We have to continue pushing for the simultaneous battle of the first grade, the sixth grade and the ninth grade, in a medium- to long-term timeframe.

We have to continue figuring out how to improve teachers’ salaries, supervising what happens in the classroom so children learn what they have to learn. A set of actions needs to be taken and it’s not happening because they’re long-term and, therefore, no one government can capitalize on them. By not taking such actions we continue stumbling over the same small step and don’t move forward.

Society has to change its vision

In 1980, Nicaragua virtually shut down and everything was geared to achieving the Literacy Crusade’s crucial educational goal, yet education has never been a priority since then. Nicaraguan society has to change its vision of education, because it aspires to very little in educational terms. Must our aspirations remain limited to our children simply sitting at a bad desk in a classroom and quietly listening to anything the teacher teaches them?

No. We have the right to be well taught, to a good school and to quality education because that’s what develops people’s potential and, as a consequence, our country’s potential. We should aspire to more and not just with an instrumental vision: we shouldn’t think of improving education just so the country will be more productive but so people can develop all their own potential and have more opportunities. Only if that happens will Nicaragua also develop.

Josefina Vigil, PhD in education, is a classroom teacher of many years standing and an educator of teachers.

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