February 24, 2015 by Debra Gittler

10+1 TRUE THINGS ABOUT EDUCATION EVERYWHERE IN CENTRAL AMERICA

Last week, ConTextos was invited to participate in the Strachan Foundation’s first ever Literacy Seminar. Twelve of the leading literacy and education organizations from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica were in attendance. We had tons of time to share experiences, successes and challenges. These are ten things that are universally true.

 1. Our countries boast great educational policy.

Each of the countries has passed through significant reforms to bring the “Enfoque comunicativo y por competencias” (Literal translation: Communicative and Competency-based Approach. I’ve never heard of a term for this in English.)

This approach, introduced in the last five to ten years, moves away from teacher-centered instruction that sees students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Now, policy supports schools where teachers are facilitators of the learning process. Students should learn by doing, experiencing, questioning.

This happens by developing the core language competencies, which include oral comprehension and expression, reading comprehension and written expression. This approach recognizes that learning is contextual. In language, that means how we write changes based on the audience, the format… versus a traditional method that sees writing as no more than the mechanical skill of producing code.

Throughout Central America, policy supports new, progressive learning styles to develop twenty-first century skills.

2. This policy does not reach the classroom.

Despite the huge strides in policy, classroom practice remains poorly inadequate. Across the board in Central American countries, we do not instructional practice that reflects the progressive methods boasted by the government.

Instead, classroom practice is a mangy mish-mash of traditional, rote learning based on copy and dictation, “planas,” (I describe planas as Bart Simpson style writing of something over and over and over… usually letters or words) and memorization.

3. We lack books.

In every classroom, at every public school, in every country in Central America, there is a terrible lack of content. With the exception of the schools reached by NGOs and other initiatives, kids do not have enough books. They don’t have any books. And even those of us moving mountains to get books to schools can’t get enough books. We can’t get enough of the right books. We need more books. Fiction, non-fiction, board-books, big-books, silly books, serious books, picture-books, e-books… we need books!

4.Our teachers don’t read.

It’s not that they can’t read—they have the ability to decode text on a page—but they don’t read. They don’t read for a myriad of reasons: Latin America is an oral culture, teachers today grew up during war-torn years when schooling was limited, there’s no access to books.

In order to get kids to read, we need teachers that read. How do we get kids reading without also reaching their teachers?

5. In general, people—teachers, students, officials, donors—don’t understand what reading is.

Sure, they understand that reading involves a written code on the page. But they don’t understand that reading involves making meaning and connections. That reading can be shared. That reading can be joyful or sad or insightful or moving. They don’t understand that reading is thinking, is intense thought, is more than literal comprehension. Our societies, our cultures don’t understand that reading is not a mechanical skill, but a culture.

6. Ministries of Education suffer because of political cycles.

I’m writing this blog from Chicago. It’s hard for people here to understand how willy-nilly education policy is in developing countries. Each new administration means an entirely new “education reform.” Most of this reform is not, in fact, reform; rather, it’s changes. Promises. A total lack of continuity.

A new president isn’t just new ideas and policies, but all new staff. From secretaries to officials, the central offices shift, as do the initiatives, vocabulary, alliances and intentions.

Teachers have lost all faith in policy and reform. Every 4-5 years comes new leadership and a new system. There’s no continuity, no sustainability.

7. Traditional bi-lateral aid exacerbates the lack of sustainable, consistent policies.

Our countries rely heavily on international aid for education, particularly from USAID. I have my own beliefs about the good and bad of USAID in particular and bi-lateral aid in general, which perhaps I’ll write about in a different blog. That aside, universally across Central America, USAID’s funding supports programs that last 4-5 years with ample funding and exciting vision, that promptly die as soon as the funding phase is over.

The combination of 4-5 year funding cycles and 4-5 year presidency cycles wreak havoc upon the educational system. There is no sustainability of intervention, vision, funding…

The region doesn’t suffer from bad policies. It suffers from too many policies—and many of them are good, they just never get a chance to sink in, to work out the kinks.

8. There are great initiatives in the region making a real difference in educational quality and attainment.

Of course, ConTextos is one of those great initiatives. But each country has incredible organizations—small and large—working hard with limited funds, limited human capacity and limited resources to improve learning. These organizations come with some skill and mountains of passion. At the end of this blog are links to the organizations doing great work.

9. These great organizations aren’t doing enough.

And I definitely include ConTextos in this. We aren’t reaching even a fraction of the schools and kids and teachers that need help. We aren’t getting our students to read at grade-level. We aren’t getting our teachers to be true professionals. We aren’t producing locally relevant content.

Now, let’s be clear: we’re not doing enough, but we are doing everything we can. Our organizations are pushed to our limits to provide meaningful interventions in dire contexts where poverty, violence, migration, hopelessness are rampant.

10. We aren’t experimenting enough with technology in education.

Throughout Central America, cell-phones are everywhere. Except classrooms. The Ministries of Education are running blindly toward setting up computer labs that become outdated almost as soon as they’re established. Decrepit schools are outfitted with a single air-conditioned room, painted brightly and boasting shiny desktops. But learning stays rote, meaningless. Click click click click click.

We worry that maybe things are actually worse now. Computers promote a shiny-screen that in photos, looks like progress. But teachers continue to teach via rote copy and dictation. Confused policies and lack of resources mean students are copying copying copying but sometimes, what they copy is incorrect.

In all of our countries, the government has made sweeping promises about technological solutions coming soon to schools—computers, tablets, Internet—but no one is investing in, developing or piloting content. Technology could be the great next hope for the region. But we’re a far ways away from seeing it… and not because there isn’t access to tech; we just aren’t using it well.

11. The situation is dire. But there is hope.

Let me be honest: I didn’t leave the Seminar last week feeling hopeful. The conference was excellent. I so honor and admire the Strachan Foundation, its benefactors the Strachan Family, and the Executive Director Miguel Tello, for leadership. No other foundation in Central America—or the world?— is directly supporting organizations in Central America. And Strachan goes a step further from funding to provide real capacity-building efforts. That gives me hope.

But I left the seminar feeling overwhelmed. Sad, even. Our schools are simple and under-resourced. But they hold the unique magic of children: smiles and giggles and big-eyes looking toward their teachers for guidance.

The problems in Central America are so entrenched. Sometimes, it feels naïve to believe that education can really fix generations of poverty, inequality, violence. Can schools really be the solution when unemployment, extortion, corruption, are the most pressing problems?

But after the seminar, I realized it’s naïve to think that we can ever fix these problems without seriously committing to improve education.

Across Central America, our school systems have much in common. The most obvious commonality is how desperately we need to continue to improve and invest in schools, teachers, and ultimately kids.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

List of organizations 
1. Amigos del Aprendizaje (Costa Rica)
2. Asociación Padre Fabretto (Nicaragua)
3. Bien de Mujer (Costa Rica)
4. Common Hope (Guatemala)
5. ConTextos (El Salvador)
6. Cooperative for Education (Guatemala)
7. Fe y Alegría (El Salvador)
8. FEREMA (Honduras)
9. Fundación Riecken (Honduras y Guatemala)
10. FUNDAP (Guatemala)
11. FUNDEMI Talita Kumi (Guatemala)
12. PENNAT (Guatemala)

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