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  Number 403 | Febrero 2015
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Nicaragua

The UNESCO study alerts us that we’re falling behind in education

An informed discussion of the results of a major study by UNESCO that compares the learning achievements of primary students in Latin America, including Nicaragua.

Melba Castillo Aramburu

For over 12 years UNESCO has been measuring the learning of primary students in Latin American countries through what it has called the Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study. In December 2014 it presented the results of the third such study, an extremely interesting tool because it gives us insight to assess the quality of education in our country. Despite the study’s important results, they haven’t been the subject of the public debate they deserve, and the government has remained completely silent. Nor have the private schools analyzed the study, although they are also implicated, and teachers themselves have evinced no interest in knowing how their students came out in these tests.

Why we should be interested

This study is contributing to an informed debate on the quality of education in Latin American countries. While that debate isn’t taking place in Nicaragua, it is in other countries, such as Costa Rica, where it has been very intense because its students didn’t come out as well as expected. An interesting debate is also taking place in Guatemala, where the students showed better results than in the previous test.

The Nicaraguan education system could use this information to see where it’s failing and thus try to remedy the situation. And all citizens should be interested to know what’s being done with our taxes, what our students are learning and what they’re being taught and not taught. There are many reasons we should heed this study because it’s an alert that Nicaragua is lagging behind in education.

There should be no need to insist on the importance of education today. It has always been important and never more so than now, a time that Xabier Gorostiaga (1937-2003), the Spanish Jesuit economist and rector of Managua’s Central American University during most of the nineties, describes as not so much an era of changes but a change of eras. Today we are living in what’s called the “the knowledge society,” which obviously must be based on “knowledgeable people.”

Access to education


When analyzing any educational system, UNESCO recommends observing three aspects: access to education, the quality of education and the school’s ability to be inclusive. Access means providing all children, all people, the opportunity to study, to receive an education that allows them to develop their potential to the fullest.

The question of level has changed over time. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and many other organizations currently say that a person needs at least 12 years of schooling, which means finishing secondary school, to avoid the risk of falling into poverty. President Obama recently announced that he wants to extend this basic level in the United States to the first two years of college, at least 14 years of schooling and preferably up to 16. In Nicaragua only 7 years of schooling is compulsory, according to the General Education Law.

Quality of education

The quality of education is understood not just as the right of access to school but also the right to learn there. Quality means that the schools must ensure that children learn to read with comprehension, express their ideas both orally and in writing, develop logical/mathematical thinking, apply scientific method and internalize fundamental values enabling them to achieve full citizenship. Without quality, access alone isn’t fulfilling the right to education. It isn’t enough for children to go to school; we have to be sure they learn what they need to learn there. UNESCO says that quality education promotes the maximum development of each person’s many potentials through socially relevant learning and educational experiences pertinent to these children’s needs and characteristics and the context in which they develop.

Inclusive education

The third aspect UNESCO stresses as fully pertinent is that the school be inclusive, welcoming the wide diversity that characterizes its students. This important point explains why some countries, among them Nicaragua, aren’t meeting the Millennium Development Goals; whether for reasons of health, disability, area of residence, child labor, or poverty, many children don’t have access to school.

Curricula are only designed for urban schools even though 40% of our students go to rural schools. Expecting children to adapt to the school and not the school to them is a sign of exclusion. Another sign is only having morning classes, failing to take into account that many children work at that time.

We in Nicaragua consider a school inclusive because it accepts children with disabilities. That would be fine if the teachers had proper training to give these children the education they need, but generally they don’t, which eventually means that the children don’t learn and become a problem to the teachers, who can’t deal with them.

The percent of children
not attending primary

Regarding access, primary coverage is not yet total in Nicaragua, as even official figures indicate. Between 2009 and 2014 primary enrollment fell 5%. Is it because fewer children are being born? Certainly the birth rate has declined in Nicaragua, especially in rural areas, but when we look at the net rate, which links enrollment with children’s ages, we see that primary enrollment has remained at 89% (although some put it lower, at 86%), which means that over 10% of primary school-age children aren’t in school.

This is setting the stage for adult illiteracy. When talking about access, we must focus on primary because the government is obliged by the Constitution to ensure that all children in this country have 7 years of schooling: 1 year of pre-school and 6 of primary.

The UNESCO study on quality in education

Now let’s analyze how we’re doing regarding the quality of education provided in both public and private schools. The tool we have to give us a clearer idea is the UNESCO study, which is a systematic effort to obtain valid and reliable data on educational issues, inputs, processes and results. Another advantage is that it’s comparative, so lets us see ourselves in relation to other countries. The usefulness of such a tool is enormous. If the aim of quality in education is that students achieve basic learning, enabling them to continue studying and engage better in their social and professional life, it’s crucial to know if they’re not achieving this so we can correct the course.

The study was organized by UNESCO’s regional office in Santiago, Chile, in conjunction with the Latin American Laboratory for Quality of Education. The first Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (PERCE) was made in 1997, the second (SERCE) in 2006 and now the third (TERCE) in 2013. Fifteen countries participated in the TERCE: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Uruguay, plus the Mexican state of Nuevo León. UNESCO says testing involved some 250 schools and about 9,000 students from each country. Nicaragua took part in the reading and math tests that were applied to third and sixth grades primary students but didn’t participate in the science tests. UNESCO still hasn’t presented the contextual factors for each country, which would help explain the results achieved by its students.

How the tests were ensured quality

The study allows for a comparison of the learning results between the different countries, bearing in mind that the tests are based on local curricula, not an ideal curriculum. The tests are formulated by national experts and based on the national curriculum, comparing what is comparable among the different ones. Based on these common denominators, they formulated standardized tests with items that match common elements in all the countries’ curricula. Quality is ensured by the tests being applied and analyzed by neutral regional experts, unbiased in favor of one country or another. The sample varied according to the characteristics of each country’s population, but was always representative of third and sixth grade students.

We believe the results obtained reflect the average performance of our students and is a magnificent tool for learning what we’re doing in education in Nicaragua and how our students’ learning measures up to that of students from other Latin American countries. Its importance is even greater because it’s the only test we have in the country to evaluate this learning and, hence, the quality of education received. I say the only one because the last test done by the government, in 2010, was hardly publicized.

Why the third and sixth grades?

As in any study, it must be appreciated that an assessment made at a given moment is like a photograph of that moment. Other elements, such as qualitative studies, classroom observations and new analyses, have to be added to get a more complete picture, but it’s useful to zoom in on this photo and look at it in more detail. The UNESCO photo that includes Nicaragua was taken in 2013.

Evaluating the third grade is of great importance, because it acts as an early warning about any failures or gaps that must be remedied. It isn’t the same to tell a child he or she is going wrong in third grade and helping him or her improve as it is to say it in the sixth grade when the child is already finishing primary.

The third grade is also a very good time because students who drop out essentially do so in first and second grades in Nicaragua, where only 56% of those who start primary successfully complete it six years later. In most Latin American countries that percentage is 70-80% and in many it’s over 90%. Given the situation in our country, those reaching third grade may well finish primary, which we already know is actually average schooling in Nicaragua. Because six years represents the educational ceiling for many Nicaraguan children and is as far as most people will go, we should ensure that those six years are really good.

What do the tests show about reading levels?

Let’s now look at what the study’s results tell us. The average score obtained by the third grade students tested for reading in the Latin American region as a whole was 509 points. Comparing the 2013 TERCE with the 2006 SERCE we see an 18-point increase, which is an average 4% improvement for the region. Nicaragua, however, only averaged a score of 478, which is an 8-point increase and only 2% more than in 2006. Any increase is important and, if we were complacent, that would be good enough. But it shouldn’t be good enough because worse than the low score is the fact that we’re regressing instead of advancing. Not only is Nicaragua well below the Latin American average, but in 2006 we had higher scores than Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, whereas in 2013 we were in next to last place, only higher than the Dominican Republic.

The study also evaluates performance levels in order to measure the skills acquired by the students. Nicaragua made some relative progress in reading skills over the seven years between the two most recent tests, because fewer students were below level 1 and more were in levels 3 and 4. Despite that favorable score, however, 80% of our students placed in levels 1 and 2. This means that they showed basic reading skills, that they have learned to decode written text but not to comprehend it: they know the letters and syllables and can read them but don’t understand what they read. They lack the vocabulary to explain the meaning of the text, don’t know how to interpret what it means or can’t relate it to their context, which are signs that they have a long way to go.

There was also a slight improvement in the overall student average in the sixth grade reading test, which went up 3%, but Nicaragua only improved by 1%. Again, it’s even more concerning to see that in 2006 Nicaragua’s score was better than that of Guatemala, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay while today we’re only better than the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, with Guatemala and Ecuador making more progress than we are. The test also shows that most of our sixth grade students only have basic level reading skills.

Math levels

The Latin American average in the third grade math test improved by 31 points over 2006, a 6% increase, while Nicaragua’s increase was only half that, leaving it well below the Latin American average in mathematics. Yet again, while it was ahead of Panama, Guatemala, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic in 2006, it was only above the Dominican Republic in 2013.

Almost 80% of our students are at levels 1 and 2 in the performance levels, which means they have only basic math knowledge: they know numbers up to a certain amount and are able to distinguish only some geometric figures, but they don’t know how to solve problems involving two or more basic operations. Only 12% are at levels 3 and 4, meaning they have a basic grasp of fundamental operations and can solve problems with them.

We’re falling behind almost everyone…

The TERCE results are alerting us to the fact that we’re falling further behind not only the more developed countries of the region (Chile, Argentina, Brazil…) but now even the other Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras and Panama). Nicaragua’s children don’t deserve this.

As it’s a comparative study, the test shows that some countries are doing things differently and better; making efforts to achieve higher results. Seven years passed between these two tests, which is long enough to be able to make improvements.

Elsewhere teaching requisites are higher;
here they’re now lower

Nicaragua is going totally counter to the aim of other countries, whose aim is to raise the level of basic teacher training. Ecuador and Guatemala, for example, are changing the basic teacher training models, bringing them up to third level, which means higher requirement levels for entering teaching. In Nicaragua, in contrast, the requisites for entering the teaching profession have been reduced. There was a time when a high school diploma was required to get into a teacher training school whereas today all that’s required is third year of secondary school. What’s more, they’re already being sent into the classroom after only two or three years of training.

The Ministry of Education prides itself on having sent 2,000 young people into rural schools, having trained as teachers for only six months. I did the math, which is conservative: if 20 children are taught in each classroom, that’s 40,000 children a year in the hands of young people with very limited training. And if they continue teaching for 10 years, we’ll have 400,000 adults in the country at the end of that period with very limited education thanks to their teachers’ own poor preparation.

Both Ecuador and Guatemala have also made great efforts to formulate and distribute textbooks and assess learning.

How many schooldays?

Honduras, which is a closer reference point for us, didn’t participate in the 2006 SERCE study, but in the 2013 tests it placed ahead of Nicaragua in both grades and in both subjects evaluated. In a recent study we did in Honduras we saw that the country is working on two areas: one to ensure that the number of school days is fully complied with and the other to annually evaluate learning. That neighbor to the north now holds social audits to ensure compliance with the school calendar and also conducts annual evaluations.
Checking some old documents, I found one from June 1962 that caught my attention: in the second session of the Culture and Education Council for the now-defunct Organization of Central American States, a basic education agreement was signed establishing that all signatory countries pledged to have 200 schooldays with a daily average of no less than 5 hours of class. A regulation was then written up that regulated the number of school days, which is no longer so rigid.

Costa Rica currently has 205 days and its Ministry of Education persists with that number even though the teachers protest. Guatemala has 180; Honduras is making efforts to keep to 180; and Panama has 190. But Nicaragua will have only 169 school days this year, according to the school year calendar approved by the Ministry of Education, and then only in theory because a variety of festivities involve losing days of class: preparation for Mother’s Day means two lost days of class, celebrating July 19 means a week less, national holidays another week… And last year the spate of earthquakes around Managua led to the suspension of classes in all schools in most of the Pacific region, not just damaged ones, for three solid weeks.

What use is made of classroom time?

To this has to be added that different studies have shown that effective class time in Latin American countries is generally 50% less than established because five hours becomes two and a half or three through the interminable recesses and both teachers and students entering late, leaving early…

In Nicaragua, particularly in the rural areas, the fact that teachers have to travel to work from where they live has led to a well-known problem: they arrive at school on Tuesdays and only give classes for 3 days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. This wouldn’t be so bad if they took full advantage of those three class days. The worse problem is how effectively the class time is used. Teachers often don’t make the most of it to create learning situations, but rather for dictation and rote learning, in which the children are expected to mechanically repeat what the teacher says. The words most frequently heard in both our urban and rural schools are: Be quiet! Those who are quietest even get a prize. If we take away our children’s right to speak, forcing them to be quiet, how can we expect them to learn to think, reason and understand?

What can we do to improve
the teaching of reading?

The TERCE results, like those of studies we’ve done in CIASES, show us that the focus in first grade is on teaching students to learn letters and syllables. And they do in fact learn them. They learn to decode a word; to identify, break up and join together syllables, but there’s never a focus on how to comprehend what they’re reading. It’s been proven that reading material must be available in the classroom, not in a closed library nobody enters, if children are to learn to understand what they’re reading. They also need teachers to read to them, and do it well, with feeling and flair. They need teachers to ask their opinion about what they’ve heard, not just make them repeat “the message” of the reading the teacher dictated. When children read they need to be encouraged to think about what they’ve read, what it suggests to them, how it relates to their lives, what they think…

Catherine Snow, a Harvard researcher and expert in language and reading skills critiques the fact that emphasis has been put on teaching reading as a technique, without stressing the element of comprehension. She points out that the skills for deeply understanding a text, those that enable us afterwards to read texts for or against a subject and form our own criteria, are more complex than reading technique. Snow thus concludes that there is no quality in education if we continue focusing in class just on teaching letters, syllables and sounds, spending no time on developing comprehension skills, the ones that form thinking human beings.

It’s also important for children to learn about, listen to and read a variety of different texts, both expository and narrative, from the very first time they enter the classroom. It’s essential that they have access not only to stories but also to autobiographies and poems, even advertisements and cooking recipes… Research we did in 2010 led us to the conclusion that children from families that regularly read and discuss the Bible obtained better results. It wasn’t because they read the Bible per se and it magically ensured that they would learn, but because it was a book and was always present in their homes as reading material and thus helped them relate to reading in a more comprehensive way.

What’s wrong with the
way we’re teaching math?

The TERCE results show that our third grade students have difficulties identifying numerical sequences and geometric figures, solving problems with more than one operation and establishing relationships between units of measure. Why do they find all this difficult? From classroom observation in public and private schools we’ve seen that math is always taught abstractly, making numbers into abstract signs that have to be learned and recognized without relating them to something concrete. We found virtually no teachers relating the number five with the five fingers on her student’s hands, for example. Yet the hand is the first tool we use to learn math with. Even though math can be very concrete, turning its teaching into a theoretical abstraction makes it boring, even “useless,” as a second grader in a private school told me.

We’ve also found no few teachers who come right out and tell the children that math is “very difficult,” only for geniuses; or tell the girls that only men can do math. All this causes children to fear numbers, and creates a rejection, aversion and even hatred of math. It fosters no incentives to study for a career in the sciences in Nicaragua; in fact numerous young people study the arts because of this boogeyman left in their minds from childhood.

In the TERCE math tests, Nicaragua’s sixth grade students had difficulties with decimals, fractions and solving problems where they had to use geometry. They had been taught geometric figures as abstract entities, unrelated to context. All this expresses a widespread teaching model, not only in math, that favors memorization over understanding.

Math is easy…and fun!

Something we could do from first grade, or even earlier, is to teach the children that math isn’t complicated and can be fun. Plenty of materials can be found on the Internet that show how to teach math in an interesting and entertaining way. There are also good materials in Nicaragua. In fact, the Ministry of Education has a third grade math program on its webpage that I think is fantastic. But do the teachers use it? I don’t think so. The Ministry of Education’s webpage has excellent things in its math study programs—lots of nice examples and interesting tasks—but the teachers don’t know about them or don’t use them.

Mathematics is part of life; we do math problems every day. It should be taught in an eminently practical and enjoyable way because if we don’t create a liking for it, if we cause an aversion to it, students will be left with a vacuum that will be much harder to fill later. Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit-supported federation of local grassroots education and social promotion organizations in 13 countries including Nicaragua, has a very interesting textbook called “The house of mathematics,” that explains that this “house” is built from the bottom up, in stages, and that it’s crucial to feel pleasure building it. How many students don’t pass the university entrance exam because they were taught math abstractly and never built the basic foundations of this “house,” so accumulated problems during primary and secondary school.

Learning to fail lowers self esteem

I want to stress that with so many outstanding problems in primary, the situation in secondary is infinitely worse. There the teachers make lessons even more theoretical, are themselves burdened with curricula full of subjects that are unnecessary and lack relevance to the students. That’s why so many young people fail when they go from secondary to university. Year after year, we hear the same story about the low percentages that manage to pass the university admission exam. This lowers not only the self-esteem of high school graduates who fail the exam but that of all Nicaraguans.

I feel our collective self-esteem as Nicaraguans is at rock-bottom today. One of our missions should be to raise our people’s unusually low self-esteem. Many have become accustomed to not striving and don’t value effort or knowledge. Those who earn the most are politicians, who neither have much education nor show any great intellectual ability…

There are some outstanding
Nicaraguan students

We no longer feel the pride in being Nicaraguans we felt in my generation, including even before the revolutionary years. We Nicaraguan students acquitted ourselves well in any university in the world, while that would be hard for our students to do today. Yet there are those who do it.

I know of several cases and these examples should be publicized to raise our self-esteem. There’s the case, for example, of a young man who just got a doctorate in super-computers in Japan, where he received awards for his research and they even put his name on the high-tech laboratory where he studied. He’s now working in a prestigious company in Chicago. There’s another boy who studied architecture in the American University here in in Managua; then went to study abroad and is now working in one of London’s best architectural firms. And there’s the now very well-known case of Gabriel Serra, the young Nicaraguan filmmaker studying cinematography in Mexico, whose documentary short subject, “The Reaper” (La Parka), was nominated for an Oscar this year.

We could make a long list of Nicaraguan students who have had and are having success abroad. Yes, it can be done but we’re accustomed to taking the easy way; we’ve been taught to believe that putting out our hand to beg will be enough.

Are the new challenges for teachers
solved by having computers in the classroom?

It’s true that education is now facing distractions that weren’t there before, which challenge the teachers more and make learning more difficult. A few years ago we had no choice but to study, but studying now competes with television, computer, Internet, Smart phones, chatting… To encourage a child to study today requires more ability than ever because everything contributes to distracting students from focusing. The teacher must resort to increasingly innovative ways to attract their interest.

There are several programs in Latin America, Nicaragua included, to provide a computer for every child. But in Uruguay they analyzed the results of this program and showed that the issue isn’t having a computer or not; it’s in the heads of the teaching staff. We can have access to all the computers in the world but if the teacher doesn’t know how to teach, doesn’t know how to motivate the students, doesn’t have tools to help them formulate an opinion, or shy ones to express it, the computer won’t solve such fundamental gaps.

The computer is certainly very useful for teachers themselves, because the Internet has videos showing how to teach using very attractive methodologies. In Nicaragua we have a program “One laptop per child” and it’s proven that children only began to use it when their teacher started using it and understanding its pedagogical usefulness.

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that human contact between children and their teacher in the classroom is irreplaceable. Children expect the teacher to be their guide, their counselor. Without a good teacher, even the best technology won’t make changes.

The quality of education today also has to be measured in teachers’ ability to teach how to process information and to seek and select information that’s relevant to our needs. Learning today involves learning how to organize all the information we receive, because if we don’t know how to do that we’ll get lost in the avalanche of information available to us.

Finland has the best
teachers and best students

Analyzing educational systems around the world, one finds that Finland’s system is remarkable: Finnish students take first place in all tests worldwide.

That country’s success is basically due to the quality of its teachers. Finland’s best students are those studying to be teachers. The students with the best grades are ensured a place to study in the Faculty of Education and know they’ll be guaranteed a good job with an excellent salary because teaching is one of the best paid professions in the country.

But various elements come together to create that success: a good selection for admission to the teaching profession; economic incentive and also something novel: teachers don’t go straight into the classroom when they’ve completed their studies, but spend the last two years of training in a school accompanied by a mentor who helps and supervises them. This probationary period and contact with children while they’re still studying helps them a lot when they’re in charge of a classroom.

Finland has the best schools in the world because it has the best teachers in the world. Primary teachers have a Master’s degree, have gone through a long and demanding process and have been recruited from amongst the country’s best students. Will we ever see something like this in Nicaragua?

It needs budget

We can’t ever stop repeating that something like this requires budget. The teachers in every country in the region—from Honduras to Costa Rica—have better salaries than in Nicaragua. The little they earn here forces them to hold several jobs to survive because their teaching salaries are too low to support even a minimally decent life. This leaves them no time to prepare their classes and they look askance at on-the-job training they’re invited to take because they see no point in it.

Nicaragua’s education budget has been decreasing in recent years, both for the universities and for elementary and secondary schools. Nicaragua only devotes 3.9% of its gross domestic product to education today, while Honduras devotes 7% and Costa Rica almost 7%. If this doesn’t change, the quality of neither education nor teachers will change either.

I’m convinced that if we, as a society, don’t find a solution to all that we’ve analyzed and that I’ve shared here, we are irresponsibly and dangerously compromising the future of our country’s children; Nicaragua’s future.


Melba Castillo Aramburu, who has a PhD in Education from the University of Costa Rica and extensive experience in formulating, implementing and analyzing public policies, especially in education, is the director of the Center for Educational Research and Social Action (CIASES) in Managua.

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