January 23, 2018

Quality of system still at issue despite investment pledges

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Experts voice doubts about government’s education plan

President Mauricio Macri (right) and Education Minister Esteban Bullrich launch the government’s Commitment to Education programme at the Néstor Kirchner Cultural Centre on July 12.
By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff
Debate over quality or inclusion as guiding principles prompts questions from educators

The problem has been common knowledge for years but the debate remains divided: How to resolve the trend of depreciating quality in education at primary and secondary school level in Argentina and sky-high drop-out rates in the latter?

Quality in education was cast into the spotlight most recently when, as the Herald reported last week, the National University of La Plata’s renowned Medical School said that 98 percent of its first-year students had failed their initial batch of exams in three introductory courses.

During his election campaign and as part of his tenure, President Mauricio Macri has vowed to address both the perceived lack in excellence at high schools and primary schools and drop-out rates in secondary schools, which stand at 50 percent nationwide.

Together with Education Minister Esteban Bullrich, Macri launched the government’s Commitment to Education programme last week and vowed to tackle what many now refer to as a “crisis” in the national education system in light of the La Plata episode’s warnings for quality in secondary schools.

“It’s fundamental that children and parents both make sure they’re checking to see whether the students are learning and being taught well in school, and guarantee that they have all the necessary tools to turn our schools into real dream factories,” Macri said in reference to proposed evaluations of performance by teachers and students during the launch.

Bullrich, who was Buenos Aires City education minister when Macri was mayor, concurred.

“We must improve quality in education and get drop-out rates down. Excellence in secondary schools must be fortified,” he said on launching the initiative.

A preliminary outline

In December soon after assuming his current role, Bullrich announced the creation of the Institute of Educational Evaluation which will analyze student-teacher performances by region in Argentina and advance with a standardization of teacher salaries to “reduce differences between the regions,” Bullrich said ahead of the Commitment to Education launch earlier this month.

The 13-point plan includes a guarantee from Macri’s Let’s Change (Cambiemos) coalition government to match the six percent of GDP earmarked for education that was fulfilled by successive Kirchnerite governments.

It will also maintain the primary-secondary school structure and the guarantee of secondary education “as a right” introduced by the 2006 National Education Law. Yet whether it will be sufficient, or indeed provide the correct approach to addressing the widely-acknowledged problems in Argentina’s education system, remains less clear.

The suggestions in the Commitment to Education presentation were welcomed by some experts as analyzing key problems at the heart of education in Argentina.

However, Macri and Bullrich both avoided many specifics beyond the GDP-based spending pledge, leaving analysts like Guillermina Tiramonti, a secondary school education expert and sociologist at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO), skeptical.

“It remains to be seen what will come of the proposals. We still have many questions. Of course the commitment to guarantee the six percent of GDP investment is welcome, it’s good news. But we are still none the wiser as to how exactly this or other reforms will be implemented,” she said in conversation with the Herald.

“Assessments are fundamental to education but they must be implemented in the correct way and take into account teaching and educational workers’ unions perspectives,” she added.

Conceding that the government’s problem analysis in highlighting drop-out rates and lack of quality in secondary schools was accurate, Tiramonti said that it must now look for alternative models to guarantee the situation improves.

“There is a conflict between inclusion and quality in education if we don’t change the model we have at the moment. The pedagogical model that exists in secondary schools at the moment is essentially a model for the few. It has been around without serious modifications for over 20 years and we need to change it.”

“There are models in use by other countries, for example, in education systems in Northern Europe, that overcome the problem between inclusion and quality by focusing on personalized, holistic practices,” she said, suggesting that for the government to meet the lofty ambitions set out in the Commitment to Education plan outside inspiration may be necessary.

‘We’re not a factory’

The problems of quality in education remain evident, but for teachers’ organizations themselves the proposals, including the GDP-based spending pledge, may not go far enough to resolve the crisis in teaching resources they have long-railed against.

Secretary-General Eduardo López of the UTE-CTERA Educational Workers’ Union in Buenos Aires City told the Herald that teachers would welcome more across-the-board assessments as the government has proposed provided they were accompanied by greater investment.

“We are in favour of all types of evaluations and tests because education ceases to function without them. But they must come with a greater investment in schools,” he said.

Nonetheless, López rejected the proposals once tabled by Bullrich to link such performance tests with teacher salaries, a suggestion the opposition, including dissident Peronist Renewal Front (FR) leader Sergio Massa, has also supported.

“No, I’m certainly not in favour of that,” López said. “We are not making empanadas. We’re not a food factory. We’re teachers. Linking test results with wages across the country is not fair because it depends on the context of each student and school. We know that test results differ between poorer areas and more affluent zones like some neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires City.”

While Macri and Bullrich presented a model that proposes to place greater focus on quality provision in schools with more emphasis than the inclusion-based policies of previous governments, teachers’ representatives like López and the UTE-CTERA argue that separating both elements misses the point.

“Quality in education is linked to inclusion, it’s not a binary distinction. For example, as we reported recently there are at least 11 thousand boys and girls in Buenos Aires City still waiting for a vacancy in school. There are simply no spaces for them. Quality can suffer when people are not given the opportunity,” he told the Herald.


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