Back to School: Reflections on the State of Education in El Salvador

Last week, my husband and I attended a conference on education, which was hosted by El Faro (a digital media outlet which is well respected for quality reporting in El Salvador).  The conference featured a panel consisting of a member of the faculty at the UCA, a representative from UNICEF, and a regional director from the Salvadoran Ministry of Education.  Since this week marks the start of the 2019 school year for most public school children in El Salvador, it seems like a good time to share a few of the themes which arose during the conference.

Like most places, El Salvador does standardized testing over the course of students' scholastic careers.  The PAES (Prueba de Aprendizaje y Aptitudes para Egresados de Educación Media - Test of Learning and Skills for Middle Grade Graduates) does not greatly impact students' advancement up through grade 9, but in order to graduate from high school, students need to pass this test.  In each subject area, a student's grade in school is combined with the area-specific PAES score to determine a final passing or non-passing grade.  High scores on the PAES can result in university scholarships for students.  For most kids I talk with, the PAES is this looming cloud of pressure which awaits them in their second year of high school.

The first mention of the PAES at the conference resulted in a collective eye-roll from the crowd, because in a conversation about education, it is always one of the first topics put onto the table.  Panelists raised questions about the validity of this old test, about boastful advertisements from private schools bragging about their PAES results, about expensive PAES prep classes and teaching to the test.  Panelists noted that the author of the PAES (who wrote the test some years ago) has said the test is no longer relevant.  Panelists joked about schools that suspend classes half-way through the year to teach to the test.  When I asked a university student in education for her opinion of the PAES, she said, "I don't think it really measures the capacity that students have.  Some students become really frustrated after they take it, so I don't think it is a helpful practice."

Readiness for School
The health of a nation tells a lot about its education level. 

Panelists noted that many children enter first grade without the developmental tools they need in order to learn to read.  "The family reality is a fundamental pilar in the education of the child."  Children who are malnourished, left on their own while parents are working, who are not exposed to decoding symbols (and I would add, who have zero access to books) are missing out on key moments of brain development that happen between the ages of 0 and 3 years.  The panelists highlighted the initiatives of Family Circles - birth to age 3 programs which are run in small communities and are set up as interactive teaching and learning experiences for little ones and their caregiving adults.

Shifting the Paradigm
The brain that teaches and the brain that learns are both fundamental and must be in development. 

The panelist from the Ministry of Education talked about the challenges of shifting "old-school" teaching practices from rote copying into notebooks into more engaging experiences that promote critical thinking and problem solving.  This line of discussion was in sync with a conversation I had over dinner last week with a veteran teacher.  The teacher described a recent in-service training at her school which was led by a group of well-qualified educators from Japan.  The classroom methods they championed were innovative and she was excited to learn about them.  She is a creative teacher who incorporates art, music, and hands-on experiences into her fifth grade classroom.  Her co-teachers and her principal balked at the new methodology.  The panelist described this reaction too.  Conscientious teachers and administrators are trying, but the system is not changing.  It's all about the notebooks.  (This is really true.  Any time I ask a kid how he or she is enjoying school or doing in school, the parent says, "Go get your notebooks."  I flip through the pages and see words copied over and over, numbers written from 1 to 1000, copied poems, traced pictures...even for older students.)  The Education Ministry panelist noted that until the hierarchical system of education is dismantled (and no political party wants to touch this), there will not be systemic change.

School in Community
Communities need to take back their schools.  

What happens when gangs control the schools? Teachers have to worry about walls, and gates and security in schools at the same time they have no resources for teaching. What would happen if the school were not the victim but the agent for change in our communities?  How are the other social agencies in communities being fed by the education centers in their communities and how are those agencies supporting education?   "Every child must be viewed as having human potential to learn as a dignified person, future worker and contributing citizen." 

In the context of this discussion, the issue of private vs. public education arose.  Panelists noted that it is somewhat easier for private schools to brag about their PAES results in part because private schools "select" their students who tend to be wealthier, healthier and live in safer communities.  The panel talked about home-based schools:  a retired teacher sets up a small school in her home, and parents choose to send their children there because it is safe and close to home.  The quality of education in these tiny schools is typically very poor, but they are attractive to parents who know the realities of threats and violence in the streets, in the buses and even within public school walls.

Lots of Questions, and Hope for Solutions
What kind of citizen do we want?  As a society, we need to figure this out and then make the recipe.

The panel noted that although the conference largely focused on educational challenges, there are examples of good things taking place in public and private schools across the country.  The system needs to be ready for "that kid who wants to change the trajectory of his or her life" - overcoming the challenges of poverty and violence in the community and achieving his or her dream.  The panel noted that El Salvador has no system for music education nor art education in school, and is the only Central American country without a conservatory of music.  Although it was not shared during the panel discussion, a little online searching on my part took me to a Ministry of Education article from 2017 featuring a program called Soy Música, an effort jointly sponsored by UNICEF and Music Without Borders to train teachers and give kids a chance to learn and have fun with music as part of an overall campaign to combat violence in communities.

Backpacks on sale the weekend before school starts.
Yesterday, we accompanied a big brother as he walked to school to pick up his little brother at the end of the first school day of 2019.  As a sixth grader, the younger student now attends classes in the afternoon.  We asked him how his day went.  Fine.  Did he have homework? No, just reviewing his multiplication tables.  The big brother pointed out that his little brother was growing up: his uniform was still spotless (not dirty like before), his shoes still shiny, and he walked along with his buddy, a little too cool to walk with the adults who came to collect him.   He said he started getting sleepy at about 2 PM, so it would be an adjustment to pay attention so late into the day.  He has one teacher who will teach all the subjects in a class of 28 students.  We took a photo to commemorate the first day of school - something that seemed outside of the cultural norm, but a little way of acknowledging that learning is something to celebrate.


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