San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Education Minister Optimistic

Leonardo Garnier took on the challenge of a lifetime May 8: ensuring that a country renowned for its attention to education lives up to its promise and provides its children with the schools they deserve.

During his first month on the job, the new Public Education Minister, 51, has already shown his determination to keep his staff focused on problems such as a hefty high-school dropout rate, avoiding perennial controversies over the dress code for school parades and the permitted length of male students’ hair.

Garnier, an economist and experienced teacher at the university level, holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), where he went on to become a professor and researcher, as well as a Master’s and doctorate in economics from the NewSchool for Social Research in New York. He is now at the helm of an education system with problems of inadequate infrastructure and consistently disappointing results on the national standardized high-school tests, the exámenes de bachillerato, among other challenges.

New President Oscar Arias has promised make education his priority and proposed increasing the constitutional mandate for education spending from 6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 8%, a plan that has received support in the Legislative Assembly since the new administration began.

Despite these plans and problems, much of the questions posed to the new minister in recent weeks have been about his position on students’ physical appearance. Girls’ skirt lengths during Sept. 15 Independence Day festivities have presented a struggle for the ministry for years, despite sternly worded instructions to schools and, last year, even a presidential decree regarding appropriate dress for the parades (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).

The ministry also prohibits hair longer than ear-length for male students under 18. As a result, Garnier’s shaggy ‘do has prompted controversy and even a lawsuit. Manuel Baltodano, a resident of the southern San José neighborhood of Alajuelita, filed a case before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) this week, insisting that Garnier should be forced to cut his hair since he is setting an example, according to the daily Al Día, despite the minister’s assurances that he cares “more about what’s going on inside (students’) heads than what’s on top.”

In response to these issues, Garnier released a statement Tuesday announcing the abolishment of national hair- and skirtlength regulations. By ministerial decree, issues of students’ personal appearance, as well as if, when and how schools choose to inspect students’ bags – the previous administration ordered bag inspection at all schools in 2004 – are now up to leaders at each school.

“In the education sector, weighty issues… have given way to discussion about hair and skirts and bags and I don’t know how many other details,” he said in the statement. He also criticiced the ministry’s “absurd” past tendencies to take on responsibilities that should belong to families, teachers and principals, while failing to provide national leadership in areas where it is badly needed, such as the quality of education.

Garnier, an amiable father of two, both UCR students, sat down with The Tico Times recently to discuss other aspects of his plans – from a renaissance in art education to renewed attention for teacher training. Excerpts follow:

TT: What are your priorities for the ministry?

LG: The biggest problem is secondary coverage. In Costa Rica about 35% of people finish high school. That’s really low… but we can’t separate coverage from quality. Almost all the studies agree that of those who drop out, there are those who leave for economic reasons – their families are very poor, they need additional income or they can’t pay for the books, the uniforms – but what’s interesting is that in Costa Rica, unlike other countries, that’s not the only cause of dropping out. Sixty percent say it’s boring, no fun, irrelevant, and others say it’s too hard, they can’t pass. If one doesn’t resolve the problem of quality, we won’t get people back.

What will you do to improve quality?

Many things. Economic support, sitting down to discuss the curriculum – and I can’t improve education without improving the teaching corps. (You can have) discussions of methodology, curriculum, pedagogical schools of thought… but the best methodology in the world with teachers who don’t know the content or the didactic technique, that won’t work.

Something teachers and unions have always asked for is training, which has been one of the  eakest points. It’d be unfair to say there’s none, but it’s far from sufficient, so teacher training will be a priority of ours.

Another issue is violence in schools. It seems to me that it reflects something much more serious in the education system, which is that, arguing that people keep doing poorly on (standardized) tests so we must give much emphasis to the academic side, we’ve neglected the part of education that has to do with life formation, learning to enjoy art, physical education… everything where people learn to get along with others. We’re going to try to take back those subjects and rethink them as central parts of the learning process.

If we improve those aspects, the people won’t think, “I hope the bell rings soon so I can leave fast, because being here is like a second prison.” So it’s a vision of quality, coverage, teacher training and this other, more human part of education.

Why has arts education been neglected?

I was in school 40-odd years ago and the music education wasn’t very good. This country has never taken arts education seriously.

I think it’s an error not only from the point of view of education, but also as an economist. The culture industry is what’s growing fastest in the world. Costa Rica has made a great effort to produce good musicians, but no effort to generate local demand for these products.

(Arts education) can develop a culture market that attaches to tourism, then to exports. Economically, that could be much more important than anything else.

Do you think the Half-Century Plan (a strategy created by academics including Garnier that proposes raising Costa Rica’s human development index through measures largely focused on improving science education) creates a risk of neglecting arts education still further through focus on the sciences?

Not at all. It’s a technological strategy, not a general development strategy.

What does the Public Education Ministry need to do to start putting the plan in action?

If people want to advance in education with science and technology and don’t speak at least English, they’re in trouble. Almost all the literature, program instructions, the international (scientific) dialogue (is in English).While our English education began with great impetus, it’s not getting the results it should; people take tons of hours of English and don’t learn it. We’ve got to take this up, not just with English but also with foreign languages in general. Many English teachers don’t know enough English, so teacher training here is key.

The other area is math. We’ve been giving tests for 20 years, and the (exámenes de) bachillerato tell us year after year that they’re not learning.

Do you plan to change the tests in any significant way?

We’re going to study it. What we do know is that we have to have tests… Costa Rica stopped doing tests in the 1970s, and when we began them again in the 1980s, during Oscar’s first administration, we discovered quality had fallen. If one doesn’t test for quality, quality drops.

Does Arias still plan to increase the percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education from 6%, as required by the Constitution, to 8%? And, if so, how soon might that happen?

The President, since his campaign, has promised to make that constitutional reform. It’s fundamental. Many times people say that we could do more with the same amount of money, and that’s true, but when half the people who should be in high school aren’t there – if the goal is to reach 100% coverage, (and) right now there are high schools with three shifts because there simply isn’t space… Without improving infrastructure, increasing the number of teachers, more equipment, more texts, there’s no way to reach that goal.

If people want quality education, they have to understand that they need to pay for it… We must approve tax hikes that directly finance this increase in spending on education.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in education since you were in school?

Well, I started school in 1961. Coverage now is much better than it was in the 60s.

Many people say that before, the quality was better than it is now… but at that time, 90% of the population didn’t have access to education.

The few people who did have access, had access to a really good school. Today, Costa Rica is a more educated country than 40 or 50 years ago.

This is the best job one could have – to be Minister of Education when the country has education as its challenge, when the President has made education the top priority of his administration. It won’t be easy for anything, but I feel that there have been few moments so apt for making changes in education. Let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic.


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