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Mixed Marks For Nicaragua’s Public Education System

May 13, 2013

When Nicaragua’s public schools open their doors next month for the new academic year, 2,500 students and an equal number of teachers will show up for their first day of class on shiny new mountain bikes.

The “lucky” recipients can thank the government of President Daniel Ortega, which is distributing the bikes free of charge as a way to hopefully keep impoverished rural students – who would otherwise have to walk at least 3 kilometers to their respective schools – from dropping out. The government, in turn, can thank the telecommunications giant Claro, which ponied up a reported US$400,000 to pay for the two-wheelers. The company is controlled by Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, the richest person on the planet, according to Forbes Magazine’s annual ranking. Through its Claro-sponsored “Ayúdame a llegar” (help me get there) program, the government claims to have distributed some 15,000 bikes over the past several years.

Critics dismiss the project as a “Band-Aid” measure that has little real value beyond the public relations buzz it generates for the Ortega administration and its corporate partner. By the government’s own estimates, roughly 144,000 of the country’s approximately 1.6 million students, or 9%, dropped out of school in 2012. Are a couple thousand free bikes really going to make much of a difference?

Government backers, nevertheless, insist the program is a worthy contribution, especially in conjunction with the Ortega administration’s many other efforts on behalf of Nicaragua school children. Just this month, First Lady Rosario Murillo – who doubles as the government’s official spokesperson – announced plans to distribute free school supplies to 400,000 needy students. The state will also give away 300,000 pairs of shoes, as well as provide more frequent training sessions for teachers, she promised.

“Poverty pains us,” said Murillo. “Families shouldn’t feel the need to stop sending their children to school because they don’t have notebooks, pencils and other supplies.”

Murillo and her husband have been making announcements of this kind since 2007, when Ortega – a one-time Marxist revolutionary who led the country for a number of years following the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) revolution of 1979 – regained the presidency after three failed bids. Ortega marked his return to power by famously reaffirming the right of all Nicaraguans to free public education. “Recess is over,” he said. “Everyone get to class, and without paying even a cent on matriculation or on monthly fees.”

Overall student enrollment, as a result of the president’s pledge, has increased. The dropout rate, in the meantime, has dropped – by six percentage points since 2006, according to government statistics. In addition, the Ortega administration claims to have taught thousands of Nicaraguans to read, cutting the national illiteracy rate form 22% in 2006 to 3.33% in 2010 thanks to programs such as  “Yo sí puedo” (yes I can) and “Yo sí puedo seguir”  (yes I can keep going), efforts that are reminiscent of the FSLN’s widely-heralded post-revolutionary Cruzada Nacional de Alfabetización (national literary crusade).

“If we look at the results from year to year, it’s clear that what we’ve accomplished, the advances we’ve made in terms of things like academic performance and student retention have been really significant. And if we compare that to the period [before Ortega’s return to office], there’s an abysmal difference,” Vice-Minister of Education José Treminio said during a Jan. 11 event marking the sixth anniversary of President Ortega’s “recess is over” declaration.

Questions about quality

Not everyone shares Terminio’s enthusiasm for the state of Nicaragua’s public education system. While enrollment and student retention may indeed have improved under Ortega, the same, argue many observers, cannot necessarily be said for the quality of education those students receive. “It’s important that [the students] are being fed,” Dr. Ernesto Medina, president of an organization called Foro Eduquemos, explained in a recent interview with El Nuevo Diario. “But the question remains: What are those children who are sticking around [for their free afternoon snack] learning? Are they learning at a competitive level or at a very basic level?”

The kind of studies needed to properly answer that question, according to education experts, have been few and far between in Nicaragua. What data does exist, however, is less than encouraging. A case in point are the recently published results of this year’s basic entrance exame for the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería (UNI) in Managua. Of the nearly 2,800 high school students who took the test, only 136 – less than 6% – passed. Why? Because “they can’t analyze, they’re weak at resolving [math] problems,” Diego Muñoz, the UNI’s general secretary, told reporters. Diederich García, a student from Rio Blanco who was one of just two people to pass the test with a score of 100, had a different take. In her school, at least, students simply weren’t exposed to much of the material covered on the exam.  “We never saw that stuff in school,” she told La Prensa. “There wasn’t time to go over [those subjects] in class.”

Math is not the only subject posing problems for Nicaraguan students. Last August, Carolina Castro, director of a development project called Alianzas II, used a standard international exam called the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to test primary school students in both Granada, a medium-sized city by Nicaraguan standards, and Chinandega, a rural community. The results in Granada were discouraging: some of the third graders could barely read at a first grade level. What Castro found in Chinandega was more troubling still. “At one point the teacher warned us not to expect much from the exam since he himself didn’t have a full grasp of all the concepts,” she told the online news site El Confidencial.

More students, less money

Suggestions about how to improve education quality vary, though most analysts agree that as a starting point, Nicaragua would do well to increase education spending. Instead, the Ortega government has actually trimmed the education budget in recent years. As a percentage of Gross National Product, education spending is set to be 2.8% this year, down from 3.4% in 2012. A study published last year by the Instituto de Estudios Estratégicos y Políticas Públicas (IEEPP) found that Nicaragua spends less on its primary schools than does any other country in Central America. In 2009, the Ortega government spent just under US$196 per student. Guatemala and Costa Rica spent US$297 and US$788 respectively.

More money would not only mean better facilities and materials; it could also give teachers a much-needed salary boost, argues Dr. Medina of Foro Eduquemos. “If you look at things in terms of what would really be needed to provide [teachers] with decent salaries and to guarantee the basic conditions for a modern education, the budget just looks ridiculous,” he said.

Nicaragua’s Education Ministry employs an estimated 46,000 public school teachers. On average, primary school teachers earn US$158 per month. High school teachers earn slightly more: US$178 per month.

Nicaragua also needs better mechanisms in place to ensure that students are actually present for the requisite number of classroom hours, according to Medina. That means clamping down on not just on truancy, but on activities undertaken by the government’s unofficial youth branch – the Juventud Sandinista – which on several occasions in recent years has bussed students to political rallies or to watch televised Spanish league soccer matches. “What can we expect from students who don’t go to school because they’re watching a football game?” the Foro Eduquemos president said.

Edmundo Jarquín, one of the country’s leading opposition voices, agrees with Medina on the urgent need for education reform. Continuing to ignore the problem, he wrote in a recent opinion piece, means “giving up on the future and condemning millions to the intergenerational transmission of poverty and frustration.” In order to really turn the system around, however, Nicaraguans should first make an effort to “depoliticize” the issue, Jarquín explained.

“Politicizing the analysis of the problem – either by heaping all the blame on the current government or, on the other extreme, saying it’s all the fault of the ‘evil neo-liberal governments’ – doesn’t help one bit,” he wrote.

(This article orginally appeared January, 2013 in LADB)

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