Education Reform Gets High Marks in El Salvador

After just three years in office, the left of center Farabundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) Administration of President Mauricio Funes is receiving high marks for its achievements in the area of education reform. A February 2012 national poll by La Prensa Graphica Datos gives Funes a 71.4% approval rating. [i]According to the poll, his Administration’s principle successes include the government provision of uniforms, shoes and supplies to public school children and assistance to low income persons.[ii] In order to put these public perceptions and the initial outcomes of the education reforms in perspective, let us briefly describe the political context, the state of education back in March 2009, and the philosophy behind the education reform program.

The Political Context (March 2009)
In March 2009, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes was elected President of El Salvador. Although it was a hotly contested race, the election signaled a push back against neo-liberal economic policies of the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. In practical terms, this meant enough of the Salvadoran electorate were willing to give the left a chance to deal with extreme economic inequality, growing public insecurity and social injustice.

The “left” in this case must be conceived broadly. Here is why. President Funes, a self styled pragmatist, has never been a militant of the FMLN but ran as a left-of-center moderate on the FMLN ticket; Funes had broad support from the FMLN party and other progressive, social democratic, and business constituents, including the non-affiliated “Friends of Funes”. This alliance, despite some differences over domestic and regional policy,  constituted a moment of unity with the common purpose of reducing the extreme social and economic inequality in the country.  Education reform is viewed as essential to this goal.[iii]

The National Education System: Challenges Facing Inclusive Education in 2009
Although the national education system, having been devastated by a decade of civil war, had recuperated somewhat under four consecutive ARENA administrations, in 2009, there still remained serious challenges.[iv] The average level of educational attainment was 6th grade. This average does not reveal the great difference between urban and rural grade level attainment, 7.2 and 4.1 respectively. Based on this empirical difference, it is no surprise that in the same year, urban illiteracy was 9.2% while rural illiteracy was 22.7%.

With regard to secondary education both poverty and a lack of access have taken their toll. For example, in 2009, the province of Morazán[v] had an average grade level attainment of 4.3 and the highest illiteracy rate in the country (26.6%). The dilemma facing the Ministry of Education (MINED) is that with limited resources, it does not seem cost effective to build schools in areas with low population densities.[vi] This effectively shuts the door on some of the rural poor to further educational development until a solution is found.

Even where there are schools, poverty has been a major obstacle to universal inclusion. Without proper nutrition, clothing and school supplies, children are less likely to attend school or reap the full benefit of participation. In 2009, the national poverty rate was 37.8% with an urban rate of 33.3% and a rural rate of 46.5%. For thousands of students without access to secondary school, chances of escaping poverty have been extremely low.

Source: Salvador Blog

The Plan Social Educativo 2009 – 2014 “Vamos a la Escuela” (PSE)[vii]
Faced with these socio-economic challenges to inclusion, and charged by the public with leading El Cambio, the comprehensive Five Year Development Plan (2010 – 2014) identified some major goals for education:

  1. Universalization of initial, basic, and secondary education.
  2. Establishment of an education system to which all people will have a right.
  3. Increase the participation of the community in the their schools
  4. Prepare students for careers in science and technology.
  5. Overcome illiteracy in the population of those 15 and older.[viii]

These goals were translated into the programs and strategies of the PSE. Before we survey some of the measurable outcomes of the first two years of implementation, we first turn to the philosophy and pedagogy behind the reforms.

Education as a Social Right and an Integral part of Economic and Social Development
The PSE grounds its philosophy of education in the Salvadoran constitution and universal human rights.  Article 53 of the constitution recognizes education and culture as a right “inherent in the human person” and makes the state responsible for providing free public education. This requires the government to address specific obstacles to access: high drop out rates, gender discrimination, violence in and near the schools, a scarcity of secondary schools in some areas, and the need for basic nutrition, clothing, and school supplies. But these enabling conditions for the pursuit of education are not the end of education. The PSE clearly recognizes that education itself also plays a central role in addressing the very conditions that create obstacles to education![ix] Moreover, education itself is part of the process of constructing a more just and equitable society where all persons have a chance at self realization. [x]

From Education as Social Right to the Philosophy of Education of the PSE
The PSE argues that the last reform effort–Plan 2021— did not sufficiently address the philosophy of education: what is it for and for whom?[xi] The PSE  answers this question by its commitment to universal access and the proposed infusion of humanistic values, critical reflection, and the pursuit of the common good into the education process. It seeks to reform the education system to “develop citizens with critical judgment, able to reflect and investigate, and to construct collectively new knowledge that allows the transformation of social reality and values and protects the environment.”[xii]

There is arguably a divide between education as the reproduction of consent to the dominant ideology and education as a means, in part, of unmasking that ideology. The consequences of the choice between orientations is a momentous one for any society. As Paulo Freire points out in The Myth of Value-Free Learning:

“The dominant ideology ‘lives’ inside us and also controls society itself. If this domination inside and outside was complete, definitive, we could never think of social transformation.” But, transformation is possible because consciousness is not a mirror of reality, not a mere reflection, but is reflexive and reflective of reality. As conscious human beings, we can discover how we are conditioned by the dominant ideology. We can gain distance on our moment of existence. …That is why we can think of transformation.”[xiii]

Let us look at each of Freire’s insights in terms of the PSE. The PSE recognizes the need to increase the ability of learning communities to reflect on their situation. The main obstacle to such reflection is identified as a lack of sufficient inwardness.  It is the inwardness of reflection that creates the conceptual space within which one can critique the dominant ideology and understand one’s lived experience. And the PSE states that “to overcome this condition [of a lack of inwardness], the school is posited a nucleus of culture.”[xiv]

The notion of the school as a nucleus of learning and culture appears several times in the PSE and other MINED documents. Basically, the idea is that the school be redesigned as a learning center of teachers, students, parents, and the community. This nucleus, in addition to the traditional core competencies, will include a study of the ethical, aesthetic, and historical dimensions of local culture. In this way the learning community (the nucleus) has the opportunity to develop a sense of cultural and national identity in relation to which they can critically interpret the national and global context. The PSE urges that if the student does not develop a sense of cultural identity, she runs the risk of massification, of passively buying into the homogenizing influence of globalization. This is not a bury one’s head in the sand point of view. The PSE warns against both localism (isolation) and massification, opting for the “critical insertion” of oneself into the global arena. [xv]

Freire points out that such critical reflection enables the student to discover how she is conditioned by the dominant ideology in order to be able to transform it. On the very first page of the PSE, and in numerous other places throughout the document, we read that “in order to act on reality it is necessary to first understand it.” The PSE, then, views the learning community as a principal protagonist of El Cambio. In an earlier version of the PSE (October 2009), there is an eloquent description of the sort of society that these learning communities might help to build:

“Humanistic, more developed and participatory, more prosperous and just, more unified and equitable, more educated and cultured, and more respectful of life and the environment. A society in which respect for the dignity and identity of persons and in which all persons have an equal opportunity to realize their potential and serve their fellow human beings .”[xvi]

A pedagogy for liberation follows conceptually from a philosophy of education which views learning communities as important players in the struggle for economic and social justice.  It is to this pedagogy and its relation to a more inclusive education that we now turn.

Photo from MINED Plan Educativo Social 2009 – 2014 Vamos a la Escuela, p. 38

The PSE Philosophy of Education: Impact on Pedagogy and Program Design
Without a pedagogy for liberation, material assistance to students would degenerate into asistencialismo, a paternalism which helps to regulate the poor. The pedagogic model described in the plan is operationalized through a number of strategies, including:

Expanding the curriculum to include the study of local culture and socio-economic conditions

  • Accommodating  a variety of learning styles and interests
  • Providing flexible schooling alternatives for non-traditional students
  • Integrating all stakeholders: principals, teachers, students, parents, and community into the education process
  • Service learning: applying what is learned through praxis
  • Providing an integral learning experience, including recreation, the arts, ethics, health, violence prevention, and life skills
  • Emphasizing methodology and empirical investigation
  • Enhancing technology studies to contribute to national development

The aim in all of these strategies is to view the learning communities as active participants in the learning process.  The PSE aims at “ redesign of the school and the classroom that is conducive to the student becoming protagonist of her own formation.”[xvii] Let us take a brief look at what the redesigned school would look like.

The Inclusive Full Time School (EITP): A Model for Inclusive Education
The politics of inclusive education seeks to remove obstacles to universal access and create learning communities inspired by the EITP model.[xviii] The EITP is still a work in progress, being piloted at twenty-two schools.[xix] As a model however, MINED is already making efforts to retrain teachers at a number of schools to put its basic features into practice.

The EITP is defined as “an education center that offers the students various educational options to enhance relevant academic, formative and cultural learning, satisfying at the same time the necessities and interests of the local community and working in a flexible, organic, harmonious and participatory way.”[xx]

One has to imagine a full time school with a number of learning spaces both inside and outside the school grounds. The major areas of study would include:[xxi]

  • Language and literature
  • Science and technology
  • Family education
  • Community participation
  • Sports and recreation
  • Art and culture
  • Mathematics

While core competencies in the basic skill areas continue to be covered, students, viewed as active learners, will have time during the school day to choose which subjects to focus on, according to their abilities and interests. One also has to imagine a number of areas within the school that accommodate not only the study of academic subjects, but exploration of the arts and recreational activities as integral parts of student development. Parents will be encouraged to support their children, continue their own education, and participate in school activities. Teachers will work as teams to provide guidance in the learning process. The curriculum emphasizes the teaching of methodology in the various disciplines and contextual learning. This emphasis is meant to enable students and the community to use what they learn to investigate their own situation and possible ways to transform that situation. Teaching materials go beyond the textbook in favor of a “biblioteca de trabajo,” a learning space with a variety of media. This learning space is meant to encourage critical and creative thinking throughout the curriculum. The pedagogy seeks to accommodate different learning styles and have enough flexibility to encourage students to pursue their individual academic or artistic interests “without losing the global context of their development.”

Unlike the measurable outcomes of the PSE, some of which we will list below, this experiment in liberatory pedagogy is more difficult to implement and measure.  It requires additional technical assistance to the schools, an even larger commitment to infrastructure and the production and distribution of new learning materials. At this writing, it is too early to assess the degree to which the new pedagogy is being practiced.

The First Two Years of Implementation of the PSE: Measurable Outcomes[xxii]
Although it is not possible to completely abstract programmatic outcomes from the philosophy and pedagogy behind thePSE, quantifiable outcomes do demonstrate the significant early achievements of the Funes Administration with regard to education reform. Here a just a few examples.

During the first few years implementing the PSE, the Ministry of Education universalized material assistance to children at public primary schools throughout the country.  For example, in 2010 over 1.3 million students received basic nutrition at school.[xxiii] The program involved mothers in the preparation of school meals at 3,675 schools. More attention has also been paid to providing pre-school health and nutrition services. During this same period, primary school children in all 262 municipalities received uniforms, shoes, and school supplies; thousands of workers were employed by this effort. Between 2009 and 2011, more than $52 million dollars was spent on infrastructure repair to 2,136 school buildings. In 2010, more than 52 thousand youth and adults attained literacy. To further address access to education, a number of flexible education programs were set up to provide a variety of course delivery modes, including distance learning and accelerated courses. These programs served more than 55,000  students. The reforms have also begun to more aggressively address the needs of at risk youth, special needs and disabled children. Special attention was also given to teacher training and professional development; over nine thousand educators underwent professional teacher training.

These are just a few of the achievements that have expanded access and answered some of the basic needs of those who have been traditionally excluded from the benefits of primary and secondary education. It is still too early to assess the full impact of these particular reforms.[xxiv] In a follow up essay, I intend to examine drop out rates, matriculation rates, and average educational attainment during years 2009 through 2014. Such data, along with on site interviews, will provide an idea of the extent to which the reforms are expanding access, improving quality, and implementing the EITP model of the learning community. [xxv]

The Promise of Education Reform in El Salvador
The education reforms launched by the Funes Administration have dramatically increased the scale of material assistance to students, continued the post war effort to expand access to public education, and promoted a nuclear model of the school as a center for community learning. These reforms are inspired by a philosophy of education and a pedagogy that views learning communities as protagonists in the transformation of their social and economic reality. As such, education is an integral part of  national development efforts with the following proviso: Although the material assistance and training resources come from above, the humanistic philosophy of education ultimately promotes El Cambio also from below.

While there have been remarkable achievements in just three years of implementation of the PSE, there are still significant challenges. There is an urgent need to increase secondary education matriculation rates, especially in rural areas; continue infrastructure repair of public schools;[xxvi] and  provide more technical assistance to teachers. Despite the great challenges ahead, with a continued government commitment to education as a social right, the education reforms will probably not degenerate into mere asistencialismo, but rather create a clearing on the path towards a more just and equitable society.

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3 thoughts on “Education Reform Gets High Marks in El Salvador

  • September 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm
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    That is great that first time in history a president is trying to eradicate illiterate in El Salvador…Congratulations to those people on the government who are trying to achive this project… people in the future would be very thankfull and educated population will make a nation more competive into the world

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  • March 28, 2014 at 5:47 pm
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    I am curious to see the follow up essay, what are the results today in the last year of the PSE? How do you think the new government will handle education without having our center-left President Funes?

    Reply

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