Thursday, July 21, 2011

Empty Education

This morning, at the weekly Casa Ben Linder talk, I heard Vanessa Castro of the Center for Educational and Social Research and Action (CIASES) speak on the state of education in Nicaragua. The statistics she shared with us are alarming, but her organization’s work is inspiring. While they believe it is the government’s responsibility to provide quality education, CIASES is actively working with both public and private institutions to make sure this right is respected.

Vanessa explained that in the 1980’s, the Sandinista government emphasized the importance of education and expanded the net coverage of schools. In 1979, only 500,000 children (50% of those that should have been) were in school, but by 1985, 1,200,000 children were in school. The problem, however, was that the government implemented this increase in coverage without a vision for how to ensure quality education. Today, this problem continues, with the government focusing on getting children into desks but not on developing support for them to actually learn while they are there.

Teachers are paid dismal salaries ($200/month), classroom materials (including textbooks) are unavailable, school conditions are poor at best, and appropriate and effective teacher training is not widely available. In fact, 42% of secondary school teachers are currently uncertified, along with 27% of elementary school teachers and 70% of preschool teachers. Vanessa shared a personal testimony, too, noting that she taught her children to read at home because, although they were in school, the teachers were not trained to use the Cuban literacy method that had been implemented. Lately, her research (and subsequent action plan) has focused on literacy: current rates, how best to teach it, and the perception of its importance for progress in Nicaragua. Today, only 40% of Nicaraguan children reach the word-per-minute reading goal for their grade level. These numbers drop dramatically when you look at areas on the Atlantic Coast.

Vanessa cites low levels of investment in education as the root cause of these troublesome statistics. Currently, the government doesn’t even spend 4% of the GNP on education, while other developing countries spend 7%. Without money and without a vision, education in Nicaragua will continue to depend on non-profit organizations like the CCBN to strengthen and supplement the government’s meager offerings.

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