By David Hutt | Special to The Tico Times
LEÓN, Nicaragua – In a few weeks, more than 1.6 million Nicaraguan children will return to school for a new year. As they do, supporters and critics of the country’s educational system have already begun to argue over whether 2013 will be good or bad for students.
Speaking at a rally of educators this month, Education Vice Minister José Treminio was upbeat about last year’s achievements. He lauded Nicaragua’s retention rate last year of 91 percent – meaning only nine percent of those who started the school year dropped out by the end of the year.
“[The retention rate saw] an increase of six percent compared with 2006, and in social terms it means that thousands of children, adolescents and young people have stayed in school,” he said.
He also noted that 89 percent of students passed year-end exams, an increase of two percent. Eleven percent had to repeat the exams, and those who failed three or more tests were required to repeat grade levels.
“We would like all students to successfully pass the exams,” Treminio said.
Critics, however, point to the troubling statistics of university entrance exams, and the amount of government spending on education.
Reports released this month show that of 2,400 students who took admissions exams at the National Engineering University (UNI), only 136 passed a basic mathematics test – less than six percent. They also show that only 270 of 11,600 applicants – 2.3 percent – to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua passed the entrance mathematics exam.
When Daniel Ortega became president in 2007, he launched a series of strategies to combat low school attendance and poor student performance. Ortega’s critics point to the results from the UNI exams as a sign of his failure on educational policy – in 2007, 10 percent of those taking the exam passed.
Ortega’s government also has come under criticism for not providing enough funds to fix the cracks in the education system. Nicaragua has the smallest annual budget in Central America, and the smallest budget for education.
A report on primary education by the Nicaraguan NGO Instituto de Estudios Estratégicos y Políticas Públicas (Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies), noted that from 1999-2010, the government spent on average 3.5 percent of its annual gross domestic product on education. Honduras and Costa Rica, meanwhile, spent eight and six percent, respectively, while both have a far greater GDP.
In 2012, Nicaragua lowered its percentage of GDP spending on education to 3.4, and according to the 2013 budget, spending will fall to less than 3 percent of annual GDP.
One of the most worrying aspects of the Nicaraguan educational system is teacher pay. Nicaraguan teachers are the poorest paid for their profession in Central America, and are among the poorest paid of all professions in the country.
José Antonio Zepeda, president of the National Confederation of Nicaraguan Education Workers, estimates that Nicaraguan teachers earn up to $226 a month. Although they have received annual salary increases in the past six years totaling 140 percent, most still cannot afford basic household items. Most teachers earn less than construction workers and half of what market traders bring home – although teachers do have access to social security and are protected by strong labor laws.
Another problem is poverty. According to Treminio, “poverty should not be an impediment for children to attend classes.” But it often is. Strict guidelines exist for what each child needs to attend a school: a uniform, books and stationery. Many families cannot afford such necessities and children therefore are excluded.
The government does operate a National Scholarship Fund that in 2012 provided financial assistance to more than 200,000 children. While the fund provides invaluable donations so that thousands of children can attend school, parents frequently face delays in accessing the money and government bureaucracy that is difficult to navigate. A bank account is needed to receive the money, yet banks require minimum deposits of $620 to open an account, which many poor families do not have.
Access to education for many children is also flawed. In public schools the average year lasts only 200 days. Almost 30 of these days are national holidays or are spent outside of the classroom for patriotic processions.
Plus, the school day in Nicaragua is really only a half-day. Many high schools operate morning sessions for younger children and then afternoon ones for older students. In cities like the colonial capital of León, various organizations provide a safe place for children to go either before or after their half-day at school – but these are charitable organizations, funded by donations.
Even when students are in the classroom, conditions are not always conducive to learning. Schools frequently face a shortage of desks and basic books, and classes often sprawl to more than 40 students per teacher. Teachers can only effectively implement a traditional curriculum based on repetition. Students often use textbooks with the answers already written in.
And whether due to shortages or methods of training, teachers work in an environment where little attention is placed on independent and critical thought.
Government Response for 2013
Speaking on education this month, government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo – Ortega’s wife – said, “We are happy but not complacent. We are not satisfied as long as schools are in poor condition, there are not enough schools, desks are not in good condition and parents are unhappy.”
“We struggle every day to defeat poverty, because ending poverty will mean that student potential can be awakened,” she added.
But what is the government planning to do to make progress in 2013?
First, the education budget will increase this year. Officials say they will spend 49 percent of the total $1.9 billion budget on social programs. The Education Ministry is slated to receive almost $300 million – $33 million more than in 2012.
Nicaragua also will receive $77 million from the World Bank for the coming school year.
Officials have promised to increase teachers’ salaries. Grade school teachers are paid $157 a month, which will increase to $171 per month this year. Secondary school teachers’ salaries will increase from $174 to $189.
This nine percent hike, however, is lower than the minimum wage increase of private-sector workers, who will be getting an extra 13 percent in pay in 2013.
The Education Ministry will host a series of teacher-training workshops in the first week of February. Some 47,000 teachers will learn about participatory techniques, teaching methodologies and pedagogy.
“We are determined to solve educational problems. We have a commitment to make a leap in the quality of education,” Treminio said.
The government also has initiated local projects, such as buying 5,000 bicycles for students and teachers in rural areas.
Nicaragua has made improvements in education in the past six years: More students are now attending school, including those from rural areas, fewer students drop out, and fewer fail year-end exams.
But as the poorest country in Central America, Nicaragua faces an uphill battle. Many high school students still drop out to look for work, and those who stay face the consequences of decades of low investment in education, including crumbling schools and poor infrastructure.