San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Public School Year Will Begin Next Week with Same Old Problems, Concerns

SUMMER vacation, with its alarmingtendency to whip by at warp speed – a phenomenonto which any child or teacher willattest – just wasn’t long enough this year toiron out the conflicts that divided educatorsand government officials in 2004.The public school year, set to beginMonday, will apparently get under waywith many of last year’s controversies stillunresolved.The December uproar over failurerates on the standardized national high schoolexams, arguably the biggest conflictof 2004, caused critics to declare publiceducation on the verge of collapse.However, now that official re-gradinghas improved the results and appeased thepublic somewhat, it is unclear whether lastyear’s experience will instigate profoundreforms.MEANWHILE, disagreement continuesover the 200-day school year, andsalary disputes caused unions to threaten aback-to-school teacher strike.Public Education Minister ManuelAntonio Bolaños denies the educationalsystem is in crisis.“There are serious problems, and werecognize those, but there is no collapse,”he told The Tico Times in a recent interview.ACCORDING to Bolaños, the stateexams required for high-school graduation,called exámenes de bachillerato, arenot going anywhere.“The national exams will not be eliminated,”he said, but was less sure aboutwhether the tests will be reformed, sayingonly that the Superior Council ofEducation has taken the matter under consideration.“It is bothersome, as minister, that theentire year is valued only for the visible(results),” he said of the press coverage ofthe exam controversy. “We should stopplacing blame.”Bolaños and the state tests came underscrutiny when about half of all test-takersreportedly failed their exams in November.A failing grade prevents the students fromreceiving their diploma, and thus from enteringuniversity until they retake the test in thecoming months (TT, Dec. 17, 2004).One month, one angry protest march,and thousands of appeals later, the ministry’sQuality Control Division, whichdevelops the exam, had conceded that 20questions were unclear or flawed.An additional 6,666 students passedtheir exams as a result of the adjustment,bringing this year’s passing rate in linewith previous years’.Still, Bolaños said he is “not happy”with high-school statistics. Of 37,000 studentsin their final year of high school in2004, 10,000 failed the school year andcould not even take the state tests, accordingto Bolaños. Of the 27,000 who havetaken the exams, 17,000 have passed – a46% graduation rate overall.THE minister said coverage and graduationrates at the secondary level areamong the major areas for improvement in2005, although he pointed out Costa Ricahas already exceeded the United Nations’Millennium Goal for secondary-educationcoverage.For 2015, the goal for secondary educationcoverage is 75%. Costa Rica, todate, has reached 84%.The construction of 12 new highschools, including indigenous, bilingual and night schools, and 37 teleconferencingfacilities will help increase coveragein 2005. Forty new primary schools areplanned, and 730 teachers will be hired toserve as second teachers in the country’sapproximately 1, 726 one-teacher schoolhouses.According to ministry literature, lastyear’s construction goals, including 26 elementaryschools, nine new high schoolsand 23 teleconferencing centers, had beenmet or exceeded by year’s end.BOLAÑOS said the school system’s2005 budget is a healthy 16.26% largerthan last year’s at $1.02 billion, allowingfor 2,000 new instructional and administrativepositions.Since the first day of school last year,when a desk shortage and infrastructureproblems prevented some schools fromopening (TT, Feb. 13, 2004), the ministryhas provided 53,800 desks to schoolsthroughout the country.The 2005 budget includes ¢6 billion($13.3 million) for school construction andmaintenance.DESPITE these increases, technicalproblems in the distribution of salaries andother payments have already ruffled somefeathers this year.According to statements from variousunions, many teachers received incompletesalary payments in December because ofcomputer glitches.“This could mean that the entry to classeson Feb. 7 is in danger,” Eduardo Rojas,president of the National Association ofEducators, told The Tico Times last month.Technical problems also delayed paymentsdesigned to help public-sectoremployees and low-income familiescover school costs.While public education is, by definition,tuition-free, students must pay for textbooks,uniforms, school supplies and photocopiesthroughout the year, at a total costthat can reach $200 per year, depending onthe age and area (TT, Dec. 24, 2004).TO offset these fees, the governmentgives public employees a January bonusequal to one month’s salary, whether or notthey have children, and the EducationMinistry will offer 63,975 grants of¢13,000 (approximately $28) apiece to studentswith limited resources this year,according to the ministry’s mission statement,along with transportation grants.However, payment delays mean some childrenmay not be prepared for school, andothers may not be able to get there.Even if all payments are made on time,educators say families often struggle tocover the costs.Asked how teachers compensate whenstudents cannot afford basic materials ortextbooks, Vilma Contreras, whoseInternational Organization for Migrationoffers educational programs and other services,laughed.“With a miracle!” she said. “They goto San José to make copies of textbooks;they use their own salaries; they look forpeople willing to donate; they find ways toinvolve the community.”ANOTHER area where the systemcomes up short, according to educators, isteacher training.While Bolaños frequently mentionedtraining as a means to improve nationalexam results, Marta Calvo, an 18-year veteranteacher who will teach math at theEscuela República de Venezuela in Escazúthis year, said the ministry has not offeredany trainings in her area in the past fouryears. She has paid for and attended privatetrainings on evenings and weekendsduring that time, she added.“If they say, ‘Go at night, go Saturday,’I’ll go, but they don’t offer us (anything),”she said. “They can’t demand that I teachthe students how to think if they don’t giveme the tools to do it.”While she is not opposed to the 200-day school year – one of the measuresCosta Rica and other Central Americannations committed to with the CentralAmerican Treaty on Education, signed in1966 – she said the ministry should paymore attention to the quality of instructionstudents receive, not just the number ofdays they spend in school.“TWO hundred instructional days,sure,” she said, “but do we have the kids sittingthere for the sake of sitting, or do wehave 200 days with new methodologies?”Critics argue that because students findout whether they passed the school yearweeks before the end of school, they areunmotivated, or skip school altogether,making the last days of school a waste.Bolaños maintains there is plenty that couldbe taught during that time. The proximityof Christmas makes extending the schoolyear or changing exam schedules difficult,according to those on both sides.Last month, Bolaños announced teacherswho do not complete 200 days ofteaching will lose out on their Septemberbonus, worth 168% of their monthlysalary, and may face legal proceedings.

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