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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Education System


In previous ramblings I have discussed ad nausea about my frustrations with the school system and education in general in Paraguay. It is a topic that impacts my everyday given the focus of my projects during my service. When discussing the challenges associated with the schools amongst other volunteers, I think the principal complaints tend to key in on the lack of time in the classroom, the amount of schools cancelations, the rigidity of how things are taught, and what things are prioritized in the classroom. In my experience, the school close to my house suffers from all the aforementioned issues, but on the hole is probably slightly above the average because of the teachers there. I am not saying that they are a shining light in a sea a of darkness when it comes to being an educator, but I will say that compared to some other schools I have interacted with, they are doing a lot better at creating an educational environment for there students. It is evident that they care about the well-being of the school, and are constantly looking for ways to improve it. They still suffer, however, from a system that I would classify as broken for many reasons.
       Paraguay is one happiest countries on earth, probably because of all the days off from school, but not too long ago I was talking to Argentine while on vacation about Paraguay and what I was doing there. After getting onto the topic of schools and the education system the man I was talking to made a statement saying like, "it sounds as though ignorance is bliss." I was reluctant at the time, and still am, to concede that is the answer to the situation, but it is tough to refute that generalization. Paraguay has long history of stiff standardized education system. The first president of the Paraguay, a man named Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, was a proponent of isolating Paraguay from the outside world and ruled from 1813-1840. He referred to himself as the Supreme Dictator (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/José_Gaspar_Rodr%C3%ADguez_de_Francia), and micromanaged every aspect of the country from the economy to the constitution. Paraguay, given its small population and size, was easy to rule autocratically. He standardized the education system across the country essentially creating citizenry that was extremely loyal, but very limited in its knowledge of the outside world. His rule was followed by two other autocratic leaders Carlos Antonio López, and his son Francisco Solano López. In 1954 another dictator General Alfredo Stroessner ruled the country until he was overthrown in 1989. Those four men ruled Paraguay for a grand total of 86 of the 202 (42.5%) years since Paraguay gained independence from Spain in 1811. Paraguay has had a total of 57 presidents, now 58, since its foundation. That means for the other 116 years that one of those men weren’t in charge a total of 53 presidents saw office for an average term of about 2.2 years compared to a 21.5 year average for the other four men.
Looking at the numbers one could  legitimately argue that Paraguay is ruled by either a strong handed dictator, or a series of weaker presidents that are constant power struggle. This remains true to this day in lieu of last years Congressional Coup that took place last June followed by the election of strong and wealthy right-winged businessman Haracio Cartes in this April's presidential election. What all this history means for the education system I will explain in a second, but I think history shows that in Paraguay, long periods of autocratic rule are very common and typically follow some kind of destabilizing event or after a elongated period of political uncertainty. Essentially the education system teeters on this constant uncertainty. During the dictatorships education policy was set and remained more or less constant for years. In the decades in between, constant changes in government made it next to impossible to develop consistency. Think about it like this, if you're a teacher who started in 1970 you were more than likely teaching the same way, at the same school, at the same times for 20 years. Then all of a sudden the head government system is overthrown and a new president comes in for the first time in your life and starts to change stuff. It is probably pretty hard to adapt, especially given that the way you taught was based on a strictly regimented curriculum that was developed to prevent dissenting opinions. The system was supposed to teach everyone everything in Spanish even though the majority of the population, especially in poorer areas, spoke predominantly Guarani. Then all of sudden in 2002 Guarani became an official language that was now told to be taught in schools. Something that government actively tried to discourage for decades, now, all of a sudden became a requirement to all students. The system was rooted in the stability of the government and remained mostly unchanged since the last series of educational reforms took place in 1982. Since 1982 Paraguay has had 8 presidents, 2 coups, 1 presidential overthrow, and very little focus on educational development as a result. It is tough to reform education when the government lacks stability that the people can trust.
Globally Paraguay ranks near the bottom in education. According to the International Human Development Index indicators, Paraguay's mean average of education for adults is 7.7 years out of an expected 12.1. 21.9 percent of children drop out before completion of primary school (http://tomsramblingsinparaguay.blogspot.com/2013/02/miguel.html), and while education has improved statistically over the past few decades its correlation is reflected by overall global education development (http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/PRY.html). The UN's Human development Index ranks it 101/182, but transparency international has its rank lower at 154/180 while the world economic forum ranks it 124/133 in terms of global competitiveness.  Not matter how you look at it, Education is not where it needs to be.
Now I'll admit that most developing country are still developing because they are poor and lack money to properly invest in education. Paraguay is no exception, but the way the system has developed over time has led to seemingly never ending struggle between the parents, teachers, and the government. For starters the entire system is nationalized. Different departments (states) are funded the same and managed the same throughout the country. The school day is  4-hours either in the morning or the afternoon with about an hour for recess. That means that the average student, Kindergarten-12, is receiving 3 hours of schooling a day. The school years runs from the end of February-November with a 2-week winter vacation in July, but that is more often than not extended to a three week vacation. The school week is supposed to be Monday-Friday, but in my entire service of almost two years I recall 1-week where the school was actually open Monday-Friday. The reason a school cancellations are typically rain, national holiday/ festival celebration, parents meeting, school maintenance, or a teacher strike.
Rain is interesting problem because of how ridiculous the concept of closing school because of it seems to me after growing up in the states. It took a huge snowstorm, or some other catastrophe to cancel school back home. The cancelation usually came when it was more dangerous to try to get kids to school than to not have school at all. In Paraguay, the logic is sort of the same in that most the roads are muddy and made difficult to pass when it is raining, but school will be canceled at the threat of rain or if it rained earlier in the day. The same goes for the cold. This year, there was an extra week of winter vacation because of the threat of cold and potential outbreak of illness. Last year, there was an influenza out break in Asunción, not the whole country, that led to an extra week of vacation. The problem is more exacerbated in the rural communities than the urban ones, but regardless if the Ministry of Education cancels school it means for the whole country. The weather, whether it is rain or cold temperatures, cause I would say on average a loss of about 14-18 days school a year. 
Paraguay has no more national holidays than we do in America, but for many of them, they are celebrated on the last day of school before the holiday itself. This can mean an entire day is canceled to celebrate one of the former dictators of the country who Paraguayan history has made a hero of, or just a day to cook a bunch of food while they kids play soccer. Some of the holidays where school is canceled or closed include two days for independence day, Chaco War Armistice Day, foundation of Asunción day, three days for Easter and Good Friday, Labor Day, Battle of Boqueron day (a siege battle during the Chaco War against Bolivia that was Paraguayan Victory), Heroes day, Teacher Day, Children's Day, Saint John the Baptist Festival, and probably a few more that I am forgetting. That adds up to roughly 13-16 days school cancelation.
Meeting of the parents commissions usually take place once a month and only cancel the afternoon classes for 2 of the 4 hours of school a day. There are probably 6 a year for grand total of 3 days lost on meetings. At the meetings the parents and teachers spend a lot of trying to think of ways to get money to maintain the school. Every year, all schools are supposed to get an allotment of money for school projects and maintenance, but it is rarely a lot, which forces the schools to do several fund raising activities. Those activities usually take place twice a year and cancel 2-3 days of school. That doesn't include the biweekly school cleanups. The teachers have scheduled time where they clean the school including hoeing the garden beds, washing the floors, wiping the windows, and sweeping every surface. Given the frequency, the schools are often immaculate and the kids are awesome at it. The frequency, however, is probably bit of overkill. I would say that the school spends at least 10 days worth of class time cleaning over the course of the school year. You could probably cut that number in half in terms of necessity, but most schools, particularly small ones, don't have people who come clean so that work has to be done by the students.
The last, and easily the most frustrating, reason for school cancellation are strikes. Since I arrived, I have been Paraguay for parts of 3 school years. I would say conservatively the average amount of days lost to strikes is about 7 annually, but this year blew that number out of the water. As of right now, the school right by my house has lost about 14 days of school due to strikes, and they aren't even on the extreme end of that spectrum. Some schools have not had class since the end of the 3-week winter vacation 3-weeks ago. The most common reason for strikes are teachers wanting higher salaries, but that is rarely the only reason. Pensions, maternity leave, upkeep costs, retirement age, and a plethora of other issues are common reasons for striking and to make matters more complicated, the teachers are divided up in between 5-7 different unions depending on region, type of school, and other random factors that nobody can seem to explain to me. Recently the big issue has revolved around retirement age. As it stands now a teacher makes roughly $350 a month per turn they teach. If you teach only one class in the morning your monthly salary is about $350. That number is doubled if you work in the afternoon as well. To retire you need to work a minimum of 25 years. A reacher  can retire one year earlier for child you have for up to three children even though you get 3-months maternity leave when having the child. I will admit that I am not 100% certain that these are the exact laws, but I have had several teachers tell me several different things,and  I get the impression that nobody really knows. As it stands right now, the government wants to raise the minimum age to retire to 28 and cut retirement benefits, sort like what happened in the states recently, That caused an uproar and the teachers are subsequently not teaching.
It is immensely frustrating working within this system. For the past month, I have been waiting to do some activities at the school, but every time I talk to someone about doing something they inform that the strike is still on for an unspecified amount of time. One of the draws that attract Paraguayans to teaching are that it is a stable job, hard to get fired from regardless of performance, and the easiest professional certifications to obtain. It is a great social symbol to be a teacher, and this day I see 30-year-old people refer to their teachers as professor or professora despite not having been taught by them for 25 years. It is a very important position, but also an extremely difficult institution to work with at times.
At the end of the day the system reflects the inconsistencies of the government since the foundation of the republic. The kids are ones that end up suffering within a system where minor changes cause an uproar. Being educated in an extremely standardized system breeds generations of people who struggle to think outside the box, or balk at even the most minor changes. On numerous occasions I'll be in front of a class of kids and say something like how do you say the color rojo (red) in English? Blank stares follow until I'll say the answer and have the class repeat multiple times. I then ask the exact same question after I had just said the answer and repeated it only to have the same blank stares I saw the first time I asked the question. Change to education will forever be a slow process here. Even as technology advances and teachers are more resources they don't mean anything if they don't how to utilize those tools. My school just got a computer. Maybe one the teachers has some semblance of knowledge to be able to use it, but not very effectively. I guess I am writing this because I am frustrated. I think seeing, living, and working around a school here has made me appreciate my own educations and the opportunities it allowed me to have that led me to where I am right now.



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