Seven priorities for achieving quality education
After analyzing in last month’s envío
the priority issues Nicaragua must tackle
in education if it is to shake off the deficiencies
of a system that has dragged it down for decades,
the Center for Social and Educational Research and Action
now offers a number of concrete proposals in those areas
that could provide our children the quality education
they need if they are to assume the challenges
of this increasingly complex world.
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.” Our objective was to put our country’s educational system at the center of the national agenda by presenting its major problems and challenges. That 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 the hammering out of proposals.
Ten years on, following a detailed analysis of the history of our educational system’s severe shortcomings and the resulting low education quality, we have produced this updated vision of the seven priorities with concrete proposals that would allow us to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We have done so convinced that education is a national asset whose backwardness affects us all and that improving it is therefore the responsibility not only of the government but also of all of society.
We have selected what we consider to be the most important and urgent areas on which both the government and society should concentrate our efforts to take firm steps toward sustained improvement of our country’s education.
Above all, we need a national education agreement
We are urging the building of consensus on a grand national education agreement, supported by an assessment and proposals such as the ones we’re presenting here as well as those presented by other institutions and organizations, whether public or private. It should contain essential commitments to long- and medium-term national objectives and goals, as well as to policies; management, administration and educational participation systems; growing public financial support; and an ongoing dialogue mechanism favoring stable implementation of these agreements.
The nation’s education isn’t the exclusive task of the Ministry of Education or the government that happens to be in office. Nicaragua’s society has its share of that responsibility and is ready to participate actively in solving our education system’s pressing problems. Such an agreement must be preceded by extensive debate involving educators, students, public and private school directors, education and family ministry officials, the National Technological Institute (INATEC), municipal and regional governments, parliamentarians, research centers, universities and other institutions. The dynamic participation of political parties, civil society organizations, education unions and associations, youth and student organizations, the media, journalists, business¬people, private foundations, parents’ organizations and specialists is also indispensable. In the process of designing and agreeing to mechanisms for formulating this agreement, Nicaragua could benefit from its own experience and that of other countries in the region.
The following seven priorities are a contribution to that much-needed debate and to the building of social consensus on the major objectives, priorities and guidelines of national education.
PRIORITY NUMBER ONE: EXPAND EDUCATIONAL ACCESS WITH EQUITY
Nicaragua needs to raise its schooling rates with an education system aimed at surmounting the social inequities and exclusions that exist by age group, place of residence, economic and social condition, and culture.
To achieve that we propose:
Assuring full primary education in all schools in the country.
Expanding the access of vulnerable populations to the education system, diversifying the existing offer to include at least the following modalities:
– Boarding school for rural children and teenagers who live in areas where there are no schools or not enough teachers. The modality should link formal education with preparation for work, especially in agriculture, large and small livestock farming, forest management and other trades or skills that add value to production in the countryside. This system could include periods of study as boarders with others at home so the students can work with their family and apply what they have learned. Valuable experiences developed in Nicaragua by nongovernmental organizations such as the Father Fabretto Association, CESESMA, La Cuculmeca and INPRHU of Somoto could serve as a starting point in this respect.
– Itinerant educators who make monthly visits to the territories to work with children and young adults who need such support to fine-tune their learning.
– Flexible non-formal education geared to urban children and adolescents who work at traffic intersections, in markets and in other commercial activities to support their families.
– School passports: this is a successful experience that reduces repeated years and drop-out rates. It allows the children of families that migrate for work reasons to continue their studies in different schools at any time of the year.
– School reinforcement strategies, especially in reading and math.
– School bridges: this is an experience developed with children and adolescents in coffee plantations and can be promoted as a non-formal education modality during planting and harvest times, with growers, business owners, unions and civil society organizations called upon to cooperate.
Implementing selective subsidy programs to stimulate school demand. The most successful experiences to improve the educational access of vulnerable groups have helped reduce the cost to families of their children’s education, assuring food; support for uniforms, other clothing and shoes; transport, books and school supplies, and some health services. In the case of working children and adolescents, the income they lose by attending school instead of working could be compensated.
Developing educationally friendly and emotionally positive environments of trust, free of abuse, violence and discrimination to motivate the most vulnerable children, teens and young adults to stay in school, especially those who work. Training teachers to guarantee these environments.
Sensitizing parents to the decisive importance of school attendance in escaping the cycle of poverty, developing complementary social service programs for the most vulnerable families to support them effectively in this effort.
Starting a pilot program of Model Comprehensive Education Centers for children up to the age of five in which the National Early Childhood Education Program is applied. Some experiences of the Ministry of the Family’s Community Children’s Centers could be taken up in this respect. Since 2010, CIASES has been developing an educational model for three-year-olds, using the national curriculum, which includes a professional training program. We would be happy to share it with the public education system.
PRIORITY NUMBER TWO: TRAIN TEACHERS FOR QUALITY EDUCATION
The Commission for Quality Education for All, which began its work in November 2014, is an initiative of the Inter-American Dialogue created to support educational change in Latin America by mobilizing the public and private sectors, the media and civil society. We share the Commission’s view that improving educational quality urgently requires a respected teaching profession with high performance standards that help create the right conditions for excellence to flourish. Like the Commission, we also believe that radically improving teacher quality requires a multiple strategy that attracts the best candidates to study teaching, prepares them better at the pre-grade and professional development level, remunerates them as professionals, and both administers and evaluates their practice more systematically, emphasizing children’s learning as a critical factor.
In line with this assessment, we propose:
Reforming initial teacher training and elevating teacher training schools to the level of higher technical centers, taking back up experiences implemented in the country to redesign the teacher corps’ basic training curriculum. This must include the new paradigms of how one teaches and how one learns, the 21st-century’s educational contexts, the reinforcement of basic knowledge, increased classroom practice during training accompanied by an experienced tutor and participation in educational research. It is essential to attract the best students in rural schools to the idea of enrolling in the teacher training schools.
– Teacher training should be geared to creating capacities to head up education in the municipal sphere. This implies shaping skills for conducting pedagogical counseling and innovating educational strategies; researching, diagnosing and evaluating the education in their territory; proposing priorities and designing and implementing strategies; and cultivating a leadership centered on goals and results, directing teams and generating local alliances.
– The teacher training schools need to be given a larger budget to improve their infrastructure, pedagogical resources, libraries and labs; strengthen their boarding school program and support top students with selective subsidies.
Adopting the 2011 proposal of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) to create a model teacher training school as an arena in which experienced educators and specialized researchers can innovate, experiment and identify the most effective teacher training results.
Dedicating special attention to preparing teacher trainers, raising their academic level to master in internationally accredited programs.
Modernizing the existing Educational Career Law to bring it up to date, dignifying the profession by establishing categories, access and mobility mechanisms, performance evaluation criteria and recognition of experience in the exercise of the profession, in accord with the teacher corps’ current and desired conditions.
Reforming the salary structure of initial, basic and middle education teachers, establishing a minimum salary equivalent to the cost of the basic basket of 52 products and adding incentives by category, experience, performance and quality, territorial location and specialization levels.
Priority three: adopt adequate education quality standards
Quality education teaches one to think, decide and learn throughout one’s life. Quality is a complex and changing category that covers the development of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, emotional intelligence and values for social coexistence and the exercise of citizenship. The 21st century also requires essential skills for critically analyzing reality, using information technology tools and learning about other cultures and languages.
Providing access to a school system that doesn’t have quality education is equivalent to only half respecting a right. It is not enough for children just to go to school. It needs to be assured that they will learn what they require to exploit their enormous potential as intelligent human beings. We must prioritize reaching agreements on the educational quality we want for now and the future in this century.
To raise the quality of education, we propose:
Starting public education earlier. The basis for successful lifelong learning is formed during early childhood, between birth and the age of six. For that reason, this first educational level must ensure quality educators and pedagogical resources.
Expanding the preschool education curriculum, including fundamental pre-writing and pre-reading abilities: non-conventional reading, expanded and ongoing use of language, developing dramatizations…
Concentrating the curriculum of the first three primary school grades on developing reading, writing and math skills and knowledge of the medium through a question-based methodology. Assigning those first three grades to teachers with the greatest training and experience in each school.
Assigning the first grade of primary school to a single teacher and strictly applying the norm of a maximum of 35 students per classroom, as established in the General Education Law.
Reviewing the current curriculum to reduce excessive contents, concentrating on fundamental learning by educational level and promoting the integration of the different disciplines.
Providing sufficient culturally pertinent didactic materials for each territory and each educational level, with both texts for each student and libraries and laboratories for each school.
Assuring that the Caribbean regions’ bilingual schools have enough reading and math materials to ensure the teaching of the first grades in the native languages.
Strictly applying the established norm of 200 class days per year and ensuring maximum use of the five-hour school day. Parents can play an important role supporting the teachers with this, perhaps emulating a positive experience of family participation in monitoring fulfillment of the annual class time that has been developed in Honduras.
Changing the teaching methodologies, using a classroom pedagogy that focuses on those who are learning, promotes participation and captures the students’ interest. The pedagogy should be based on acquired knowledge, helping to develop comprehension and logical-analytical thinking, setting tasks that involve comparison, analysis, evaluation, open responses and problem-solving. It is a pedagogy that offers practical use for what is learned.
– The classroom activities must be fun and simulating. Games must be used as a pedagogical tool, avoiding a homogeneous rhythm. Proposals such as the multi-grade methodology must be used, allowing the educator to organize different activities by groups and levels in a single classroom. The classroom practical work must consider students’ multi-cultural and multi-language nature, as well as their different life experiences, contexts and learning rhythms. And for the learning to be successful, the teachers must ensure that the students understand what they are being taught.
Priority four: make good use of the demographic dividend
Nicaragua is in the worst situation in the region for taking advantage of the “demographic dividend.” While our youth currently have a better educational level than preceding generations, it is still way behind that of the neighboring countries. The low schooling coverage and slow progress in improving it puts us two or more decades behind the current average of Latin America and the Caribbean.
According to the calculations of the 2016 Informe del Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation Report), we would need four decades to catch up to the average secondary schooling level in Latin America and the Caribbean. If we fail to profoundly adjust the educational system during the period of the demographic dividend, calculated to end around 2040, Nicaragua’s possibilities of achieving inclusive development could end up virtually cancelled.
To take advantage of this opportunity we propose:
Reforming secondary education to improve its quality and relevance, assuring a diversity of options and access to technical education.
Restructuring secondary education, expanding access to a basic technical course starting in the third year in all territories, but prioritizing rural areas to increase the net secondary schooling rate and especially the graduation rate.
Increasing the offer of technical careers relevant to the changes in the world of work so young people can be inserted into the different sectors of the economy with training that facilitates their access to quality jobs with better pay or the creation of their own successful enterprise.
Expanding the supply of rural secondary schools with labor training, using models that have proven successful both in Nicaragua and elsewhere, including family rural education centers, the tutorial learning system, the rural alternative education center and itinerate education. This will involve identifying individuals and institutions in the communities that can help train students in labor areas linked to local economy clusters.
Including a solid entrepreneurial training component, preparing youths of both sexes to find business opportunities, generate their own income, create jobs and promote new opportunities in their community.
Prioritizing secondary teacher training in math, Spanish, science, technology and labor training aspects.
Developing a broad sex education program for teenagers and young adults that helps prevent sexual violence and abuse, reduce teenage pregnancies and prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
Including in the national curriculum education for sustainable development that creates awareness and motivates caring for the environment and appropriately using and exploiting natural resources.
Expanding the coverage of the accelerated and distance primary and secondary education modalities with labor training. These programs must be geared to developing reading, writing, logical thinking, basic math operations, essential business skills, sex education and labor training. They must be differentiated according to the characteristics of each territory and be linked to local development plans and programs.
PRIORITY FIVE: INCREASE INVESTMENT IN EDUCATION
Overcoming all the national educational system’s problems requires constant and growing financing, which implies:
Allocating at least the equivalent of 4.7% of the gross domestic product annually to basic and middle education, i.e. increasing the proportion currently assigned by a little over 1%. According to independent economists, this is the minimum Nicaragua needs to gradually improve the education system. This figure should be guaranteed, with no budget cutbacks over the course of the year.
Defining and agreeing on a state policy for distributing the available funds for the education system that assures adequate and stable resources for all subsystems. The budget allocation to each subsystem must respond to planning that is adjusted to its particular defined objectives, goals and priorities. The budgetary execution must be developed according to the plan with transparency, control and accountability.
Strengthening the Ministry of Education’s technical and administrative capacity, which is indispensable to avoid the frequent budget under-execution, which translates into a loss of the assigned resources and increased problems and needs affecting the education system.
PRIORITY SIX: DEVELOP FIRM MUNICIPAL EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Diverse evaluations and studies done in Latin America indicate that decentralized education systems are the most effective. Decentralization is a trend that makes it possible, via corrections, to expand the decision-making arenas in the local sphere.
In a decentralization process, according to Manuel Ortega and Guadalupe Wallace, “competencies, resources and political power are transferred from the central government to state authorities closer to the population that are endowed with administrative independence and their own political legitimacy, improving the production of goods and services with the population’s participation and to its benefit.”
It is proven that decentralization can improve the opportunities for community participation and citizen control, all of which helps improve governmental administration.
Decentralization of the education system is essential to achieve quality and relevant education, as it requires decisions to be made very close to the places in which the educational activity occurs: the classrooms and the collectives doing the educating. Decentralization makes it possible to harness the great potential for change in the school districts, cities and centers where the teaching and learning process takes place.
To assure efficient management of the education system we propose:
Designing and implementing a decentralization model adjusted to Nicaragua’s current reality and its education system, based on past experiences and learning in both Nicaragua and other countries.
Reorganizing the Ministry of Education to strengthen its municipal delegations and their leadership to ensure the administration in the territory and in the schools. The decentralized municipal authorities should perform various basic functions: management of the education system in the municipality; accompaniment, monitoring and evaluation of the locality’s management of the schools; technical assistance for the schools; evaluation and supervision of the educational management and the learning results; and promotion of the educational community’s participation.
– For this process to be successful the best professional men and women must head up educational management in each territory. To that end we suggest providing special training to 153 educational leaders, one per municipality. Individuals with high administrative and managerial capacity need to be placed in those territories that are educationally the furthers behind.
Strengthening the teams of professionals at the Education Ministry’s central level so they can support the municipal authorities in achieving their educational objectives and fulfill their own role as lead entities in the national education system.
– The central level must perform various tasks: Planning and defining norms to ensure the right to quality education; defining the technical standards and guidelines; evaluating, supervising and reporting on the implementation of policies, educational plans, technical guidelines and norms; monitoring and evaluating the educational results, recommending successful models and experiences; providing technical assistance to the municipal delegations, supporting the development and strengthening of their capacities; assuring the development and strengthening of professional capacities in the system as a whole; and guaranteeing the transfer of budgetary resources to provide services with equity and in accord with the established priorities.
Making the school operating norms flexible in line with the context, carefully studying and underpinning them as the decentralization process advances and is consolidated. Doing so will eventually have repercussions on the organization of the education system, the curriculum, the establishment of achievement standards and the possibility of doing didactic experimentations that could be monitored and evaluated by an autonomous institution.
Defining initial training standards and requisites for hiring educators, increasing the effective class time, providing opportunities for the teachers’ professional development and creating rigorous incentive mechanisms linked to performance evaluation.
Strengthening the educational autonomy of the Caribbean Coast in harmony with what is established in the national laws and in the Regional Autonomous Educational System to ensure compliance with the right to an education that takes into account the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity.
Promoting a participation model without political-party biases that strengthens family and community protagonism in school decision-making, especially in planning and executing its educational plan and evaluating and ensuring accountability for its results.
Opening the Ministry of Education to dialogue and joint work with private institutions and social and community organizations, recognizing and valuing the important role they play in promoting access to quality education. This requires establishing permanent mechanisms and coordination processes among the Ministry of Education, civil society organizations, businesses and private institutions working in the education sector in order to systematize experiences and replicate best practices.
PRIORITY SEVEN: PERIODICALLY EVALUATE THE EDUCATION
One of the tasks the Ministry of Education proposed in 2007 was to measure the country’s learning. The 2014 Evaluation of the Strategic Education Plan indicated that, in addition to the 2009 Baseline, another measurement was done in 2010 and an evaluation was conducted in 2015, but those results haven’t been sufficiently publicized or analyzed. The best-known data are those of the evaluation conducted by the Educational Quality Laboratory, which indicates deficiencies in the quality of our education system.
The education system requires a solid monitoring and evaluation system based in the schools and permanently available to the public, and must involve disseminating and publicizing the statistical information and the results of the investigations.
Until 2011, the Ministry of Education made educational statistics available to the public, disaggregated by school, sex, grade, rural/urban location, and initial and final enrollment, but since then that information has not been flowing adequately. It is now recorded in the municipal delegation offices, not the schools, and after they send it to the central level it is not made available to the public.
The Ministry does not publish periodical reports of its management or of the education results, putting knowledge of the state of education in danger of becoming a speculative exercise. The generation of reliable statistics is fundamental to decision-making and the design and drafting of public policies, which need to be monitored and evaluated based on evidence.
To surmount these problems we propose:
Developing a national system to evaluate learning with reliable instruments and results that are periodically published and analyzed.
– The creation of a decentralized body as an autonomous public educational research and evaluation institute, as has happened in other countries of the region, should be considered.
Periodically systematizing the evaluation of learning, annually if possible, to measure whether students are achieving the hoped-for competencies, knowledge and abilities. That way, the education system, the families and the citizenry in general would have the evidence needed to make correct decisions and follow up on their children’s learning.
Establishing a system of stable and rigorous statistics that starts at the school level, based on annually updated forms and employing the best tools and technologies for recording and processing the information, with personnel specifically dedicated to that task, freeing the school management from doing it.
Making the statistical information generated by the education system available to the public, as established in the Public Information Access Law. That information will contribute to better knowledge of how education is proceeding and to the design of more relevant interventions that increase its quality.
Part 2 of Prioridades de la Educación Nicaragüense para el Siglo XXI (Priorities of Nicaraguan Education for the 21st Century), the CIASES study done by Melba Castillo Aramburu, Ana Patricia Elvir Maldonado and Josefina Vijil Gurdián and presented in Managua in October 2016. Edited for publication by envío.