The state of Costa Rica’s public education system is much better now than it was five years ago. So says the government’s latest “State of Education” report, a periodical study that looks at education during the past two decades. It is based on comprehensive research by several experts, including university deans, teachers and other academicians.
According to the report, Costa Rica has made important improvements in both educational coverage and quality. Some indicators include more government spending on education, lower high school dropout rates, higher pre-school and grade school attendance and more pay for teachers.
But many shortcomings still exist, and Costa Rica still lags behind international educational standards, especially in terms of inadequate infrastructure and student performance.
In Costa Rica, five- and six-year-olds attend pre-school for one year and then enter a six-year grade school program. By age 13, students begin their first three years of high school. This first stage, mandatory by law, is a critical milestone when most students drop out.
Finishing high school takes an additional two or three years, depending on whether students choose a standard or vocational program. Vocational programs primarily train students in computer programming and bilingual customer service.
The report found that in 2009, 70 percent of five-year-olds attended pre-school, a two-fold increase from 1999.
Also in 1999, only 56 percent of students aged 13-15 enrolled in secondary education classes. By 2009, that rate increased to 77 percent.
Among 16- to 18-year-olds, 53 percent completed basic high school education in 2009, up from 40 percent in 2000.
“Almost the entire country has at least the opportunity for basic education,” said Isabel Román, the study’s coordinator. “This has to do with teachers getting better salaries and being more motivated, as well as direct government funding to poor families. This has helped keep students in the classrooms.”
In 2008, the Ministry of Education and several teachers’ unions agreed to a large salary raise. Also, the Mixed Institute for Social Aid, or IMAS, which manages Costa Rica’s welfare system, strengthened its Avancemos program coverage in the last two years. Created during the Oscar Arias administration, Avancemos (“Let’s move forward”) provides financial support to selected students who receive on average a $100 monthly stipend to stay in school.
Not Completely Rosy
Despite the overall good news in the report, statistics from 2010 indicate that trouble may be on the horizon. Only 46 percent of students enrolled in the final stage of the high school program. As a result, more than half of Costa Rican students in that age group turned their backs on universities and trade schools, which require high school diplomas for admission.
“If our current students don’t become highly skilled workers, in 20 years from now most of our population will not have decent jobs,” Román said. “By 2030, we need our older workforce to be able to compete with citizens from other countries.
Some reasons for dropping out, according to the study, are: lack of interest by parents and students (30 percent), financial reasons (16 percent), learning difficulties (9 percent) and work (8 percent).
According to Román, part of turning the trend back to the positive requires making learning fun. “To achieve that, improving infrastructure and developing creative teaching skills are a must,” she said.
When researchers asked students what it means to have quality education, responses included infrastructural needs like toilets, toilet paper and soap. The study underlines the fact that students tend to associate basic daily challenges with their education quality.
“Learning conditions directly affect the learning processes and also the self esteem of students,” the report said.
“It’s true we have an enormous deficit of decent teaching facilities, a consequence of government policies that cut education’s budget at the beginning of the eighties,” said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier. “We will try to address the problem by creating a $170 million trust in coming years.”
“It’s a matter of dignity,” says Ana Chaves, dean of the University of Costa Rica’s School of Education. “People may feel disrespected when having to learn in unhealthy environments.”
In terms of teacher development, the main challenge is to monitor and certify that all private universities adhere to the latest pedagogical standards. In the last five years, 10,000 new teachers graduated from college, 63 percent of them from private universities.
“In many other countries, teaching candidates go through a more strict admission process to determine if they are suited to deal with kids and teenagers,” said Román. “In our country, however, we don’t have that capacity and it is urgent that we do.”
“Another problem is that some teachers aren’t prepared, yet the Education Ministry hires them anyway, even if they’re from universities that aren’t [government] certified,” Román said. Good teaching skills play a vital role in a student’s decision to stay in school, research shows.
“It is important to create a government policy that regulates the preparation of teachers. When compared, teaching curriculums show immense differences, and that is not acceptable,” said Chaves.
Yet one of the main obstacles to addressing these issues is a sea of red tape created by the Education Ministry, the report stated. “Power groups” continuously issue new rules and regulations as to legitimate their existence, it said.
“To solve the bureaucracy problem, we are in the process of restructuring the whole ministry, but changes need to be done little by little, otherwise the whole process could be paralyzed,” said Garnier.
Yet experts warn against undertaking full-scale reform. “Efforts in the last five years have brought positive results. But we are still behind when compared to the rest of the world, which is why we should take the quickest and most efficient steps to keep students in classrooms,” Román said.
In 2008, only 52 percent of Costa Ricans obtained a high school diploma. That percentage trails many other countries, including South Korea (97 percent), the U.S. (90 percent), Chile (71 percent) and Jamaica (70 percent).
The study also emphasizes the need for trade schools and junior colleges to better reflect the country’s economic reality – an economy based on international trade and foreign investment, where high-skilled workers are constantly required.
“Technical education is key to developing specialized workers who support production. It also broadens workers’ opportunities to get decent and well-paid jobs, and even to continue with higher education,” the study concludes.
Yet in the last 22 years, the number of workers holding a trade-school degree is barely 3 percent of the entire country’s workforce. Most of these graduates work in international trade, commerce and the bilingual customer service fields.
Another issue is wages. In late April, the country’s main teachers’ unions threatened to strike in protest of delayed salary payments. According to the National Association of Public and Private Employees, more than 50,000 teachers have had problems with their salaries not being paid on time this year. In a recent statement, Education Ministry officials said they are working to prevent late payments in the future.