– James Garfield
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
Since the signing of the Peace Accords in December of 1996, Guatemala has made significant advances in providing schooling for children at the primary level (grades 1-6). The Guatemalan Ministry of Education reports that the percentage of children completing their primary education has increased from 39% in the early 90’s to 72.5% in 2006.
However, a closer look at the data reveals a deep and ongoing disparity between the educational achievement and opportunities available for urban children of ladino descent as compared to children of Mayan descent living in the rural areas. In addition, that disparity is amplified when comparing the education of boys and girls across all ethnic and socioeconomic factors. (See the document Assessing the multiple disadvantages of Mayan Girls: The effects of gender, ethnicity, poverty and residence in Guatemala.)
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
The question, “Is education universal, equally accessible to all and of the same quality for all the children in Guatemala?” must be answered in the negative!
In a recent study done by the Center for Economic and Social Rights in collaboration with the Insituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales entitled “Rights or Privileges; Fiscal Accountability for Health, Education and Nutrition in Guatemala,” it was found that among the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean region, Guatemala ranked lowest in the ratio between female to male graduation rates from sixth grade. It also found over a 20% difference between literacy rates for urban non-indigenous young adults (96%) and rural, indigenous young adults (76%) with the literacy rate for young adult rural indigenous women (aged 15-24) reaching only 68%.
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
In our own analysis of the data provided by the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, we estimate that while registration of children in the primary grades is reported as reaching levels in the mid-90th percentile, the number of children actually attending school on a regular basis and completing their primary education is significantly lower. In addition to the percentage of children leaving school increasing significantly as they approach the ages of 12-14, a 2004 study of academic achievement found that Guatemalan students scored consistently in the lowest quartile on basic language and math skills when compared to other students in Central and Latin America.
The current state of education in Guatemala, while improving, still remains significantly underfunded and it is estimated that less than 15% of all classrooms nationwide meet minimum standards for classroom space, teaching materials, classroom equipment and furniture, and water/sanitation. In the rural villages of Guatemala, that percentage drops to 0%.
Funding for Education in Guatemala
It is difficult to find an independent organization or author that is not critical of Guatemala’s continuing failure to adequately fund its public education system. In its Guatemalan Fact Sheet, Visualizing Rights, the Center for Economic and Social Rights states, “Guatemala has among the lowest levels of health and education spending relative to GDP in Latin America. The Committee (on the Rights of the Child) continues to be deeply concerned that the uneven distribution of wealth and land and the high level of social exclusion, in particular among indigenous and rural populations, hinder the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.”
In his testimony to the U.S. Senate in March of 2004, Adolfo Franco, USAID Assistant Administrator for Latin America stated in regards to education in Guatemala, “The majority of students attend weak and underfunded schools.” (Increasing Education Access, Quality and Equity in Guatemala, USAID.)
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
From 2000 to 2004, $33,000,000 was loaned by the World Bank to improve access to and the quality of primary schooling in the rural areas of Guatemala. This infusion of money helped to account for some of the improvement in attendance in the primary grades from 1996 to 2006. However, the World Bank evaluation of this project (which we have not included on our website because of distribution restrictions which say that it may be officially used only by the grant recipients) showed significant levels of corruption in the awarding of contracts and a generally low level of quality in the construction of many of the buildings. In addition, many of the rural communities have not had the resources to maintain these facilities over time, with many of the building now in various states of disrepair. The project also impacted only around 1,000 of the nearly 12,500 schools in Guatemala in the early 2000’s.
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
In 2008, another $62,160,000 from the World Bank was earmarked for improving secondary (junior high) schooling in rural areas. Unfortunately, much of this money has been earmarked for project administration and only a small percentage actually makes it to the schools. This has coincided with significant cuts in the education budget, thus resulting in a reduction of teachers, equipment and materials. For many villages this may translate into a new school building, but with no teachers or materials, and the main benefits going primarily to the construction firms that have been awarded the contracts to build the new classrooms.
Most recently, the Guatemalan government released its 2010 budget, which because of cutbacks due to the economic recession (and the blocking of significant tax reform by the Guatemalan Congress), calls for a reduction of 32,000 jobs in the areas of health, education and the national police. This situation has led to major demonstrations throughout the country, including a shutting down of several major highways by protesting teachers.
Education in Guatemala-Avivara
Educational Quality in Guatemalan Schools
In his study on Achievement of indigenous students in Guatemala primary schools, P.J. McEwan found that the most salient factor affecting student learning was school quality and more specifically the quality of instruction; even more so than socioeconomic status, parent level of education, and ethnic background (even though these are important factors in predicting student achievement as well.)
Because of their remote locations, rural villages in Guatemala have a difficult time recruiting and retaining quality teachers. In addition to receiving low pay (only around 40% of the cost of providing a family of five its minimum daily food requirements), most teachers working in the rural areas are not from the villages where they teach, but most often come from the larger towns where they have been able to receive a high school education, which is the requirement for a primary teaching certificate in Guatemala. This means that many of the rural teachers will face a daily commute of 1-2 hours each way, often times using buses and walking as their primary means of transportation. It is for these reasons that many teachers will first seek employment in the larger towns rather than the smaller, rural villages.
Another factor contributing to the low quality of teaching is the lack of resources to teach a unified curriculum. The Guatemalan Ministry of Education has developed a K-12 curriculum (in Spanish) which can be downloaded (but not easily since it is in many sections) from their website. However, in our conversations with teachers in the rural schools, they had no access to that curriculum, nor had they been provided with curriculum guides or teaching materials to actually teach the curriculum in their classrooms.
We have also observed that many teachers in Guatemala “teach the way they were taught” with the primary methods of instruction being lecture or having students copy information from a blackboard. There is little evidence of research-based educational methodologies or of any understanding of the recent research on how the brain learns most effectively.
When describing “what works” in helping students achieve academic success, the following nine school characteristics have been identified in educational research as having a significant and positive impact on student learning. In the section below we compare “the ideal” of these characteristics with “the reality” that we have observed over the last three years of working in the schools here in Guatemala.
1. A Clear and Common Focus
The Ideal: Administrators, teachers, students, and parents share and commit to clearly articulated and understood common goals based on the fundamental belief that all students can learn and improve their performance.
The Reality: In many of the villages we work with there is agreement that the students are expected to learn to be virtuous and moral, but emphasis on academic learning is clearly secondary. In addition, there is the widespread belief that some students are just “slow” and will never be successful academically.
2. High Standards and Expectations
The Ideal: Schools show evidence that each teacher believes “all students can learn and I can teach them.” Staff members are dedicated to helping every student achieve challenging state and local standards. All students are engaged in an appropriately ambitious and rigorous course of study in which the high standards of performance are clear and consistent and the conditions for learning are modified and differentiated. This results in all students being prepared for success in the workplace, postsecondary education, and civic responsibilities.
The Reality: Nearly 1/3 of all first graders “flunk” first grade and the blame is generally placed on the student, or the student’s family, rarely on the quality of the teaching. Teaching methods are generally “by rote” with no differentiation of instructions for classes ranging up to 45-60 students in a classroom.
3. Strong Leadership
The Ideal: School leadership is focused on enhancing the skills, knowledge, and motivation of the people in the organization and creating a common culture of high expectations based on the use of skills and knowledge to improve the performance of all students. Leadership fosters a collaborative atmosphere between the school and the community while establishing positive systems to improve leadership, teaching, and student performance.
The Reality: Being the director of a school is not a highly sought after position in Guatemala. Often the pay is the same or only slightly higher than for being a teacher, but with additional responsibilities, usually in the areas of bookkeeping, paying teacher salaries, and dealing with the government bureaucracy. In some schools the job of director is rotated because it is seen as onerous rather than as a leadership position. Since one of our criteria for offering a grant to a school is the quality of its leadership, we have had the opportunity to work with a number of qualified administrators who have a vision for their school. Unfortunately, that quality of leadership is not always the norm in Guatemala.
4. Supportive, Personalized, and Relevant Learning
The Ideal: Supportive learning environments provide positive personalized relationships for all students while engaging them in rigorous and relevant learning.
The Reality: As mentioned earlier, most teaching is done to the whole group with methodologies being limited to lecture or having students copy information off the blackboard. Engaging students in critical thinking, problem-solving or real-life applications is only rarely seen in Guatemalan schools.
5. Parent/Community Involvement
The Ideal: Parents and community members help develop, understand, and support a clear and common focus on core academic, social, and personal goals contributing to improved student performance and have a meaningful and authentic role in achieving these goals. The school community works together to actively solve problems and create win-win solutions. Mentoring and outreach programs provide for two-way learning between students and community/business members.
The Reality: Most parents in the rural villages are either illiterate or with extremely limited education. They do want the schools to provide instruction in “moral” behavior and understand the value of having some math and reading skills. However, because of their marginal economic situation, they also begin to have their children work with them in the fields or in the markets as soon as the children are capable of making a contribution in those areas. There also continues to be a bias in many of the rural communities against girls continuing their education to higher levels. However, some teachers are reporting that they are seeing generational shift in parent attitudes towards school, with younger parents taking a more active role in their child’s education.
6. Monitoring, Accountability, and Assessment
The Ideal: Teaching and learning are continually adjusted on the basis of data collected through a variety of valid and reliable methods that indicate student progress and needs. The assessment results are interpreted and applied appropriately to improve individual student performance and the instructional program.
The Reality: There is no generally utilized standardized methods for evaluating student learning in Guatemala. In our observations we have seen that evaluation of student performance is done on a teacher-by-teacher basis with only some connection to the national curriculum standards or academic benchmarks. Grading is more often based on comportment, attendance, and work completion rather than demonstrated understanding of academic concepts.
7. Curriculum and Instruction
The Ideal: Schools have aligned curriculum with core learning expectations to improve the performance of all students. Students achieve high standards through rigorous, challenging learning. Staff delivers an aligned curriculum and implements research-based teaching and learning strategies. Students are actively involved in their learning through inquiry, in-depth learning, and performance assessments.
The Reality: We have yet to see evidence of any teachers working collaboratively from an agreed upon standardized/aligned curriculum. In general, we have observed each teacher presenting what they know (sometimes correctly, but also sometimes incorrectly) to the students and simply having the students copy that information into their cuadernos (notebooks). We only rarely see evidence of inquiry learning, in-depth learning for understanding, or well-developed performance assessments.
8. Professional Development
The Ideal: Professional development offerings are focused and informed by research and school/classroom-based assessments. Appropriate instructional support and resources are provided to implement approaches and techniques learned through professional development.
The Reality: Many teachers we work with report to us that at the beginning of each school year, local representatives of the Ministry of Education will offer a teacher in-service in one of the larger towns. These in-services are frequently characterized by the presentation of new government regulations, not on improving teaching methodologies, and are also given in a lecture format with no modeling of effective teaching practices. They are generally not well attended.
9. Time and Structure
The Ideal: Schools are flexibly structured to maximize the use of time and accommodate the varied lives of their students, staff, and community in order to improve the performance of all students. The structure of programs extends beyond the traditional school day and year as well as beyond the school building. The program draws on the entire community’s resources to foster student achievement.
The Reality: Guatemalan schools are indeed flexibly structured, but rarely to maximize academic learning. Community events, festivals and sports events often take precedence over academic schedules. Teachers will sometimes not show up and school will simply be canceled for that day. High levels of rainfall during the rainy season will also lead to the early closure of school. Attendance by students is frequently affected by family economic needs or child-care for younger siblings.
We do recognize that our observational evaluations have a cultural bias, as does the educational research that established these nine characteristics. However, many Guatemalan educators would agree with our conclusion that there is much work to be done to improve the quality of education throughout the rural areas of Guatemala. In our work, we collaborate with the teachers, directors and students and work from their strengths to help them take the next steps in improving the quality of education in their schools.
Guatemala National Curriculum Standards
The Guatemalan Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) has published a set of national curriculum standards (in Spanish) which can be accessed by clicking on the links below:
Pre-K/Kindergarten Base National Curriculum
1st Grade Base National Curriculum
2nd Grade Base National Curriculum
3rd Grade Base National Curriculum
4th Grade Base National Curriculum
5th Grade Base National Curriculum
6th Grade Base National Curriculum
For those interested in more in-depth research and analysis of education and its impact on social and economic development in Guatemala we have provided access to a number of original research studies, case studies, and governmental and non-governmental agency reports. These documents are all in PDF format and unless otherwise noted are in English.
Achievement of indigenous students in Guatemalan primary schools, P.J. McEwan, Wellesley College, 2006.
Assessing the multiple disadvantages of Mayan girls: The effects of gender, ethnicity, poverty and residence on education in Guatemala, K. Hallman, et al, The Population Council, 2007.
Benefits and costs of alternative strategies to improve educational outcomes (in developing countries), P.F. Orazem, et al, Report prepared for the Copenhagen Consensus, 2008.
Complementary uses of information systems in decision making, planning and democracy: An example in the education sector (Guatemala), Alvarado, F. Journal of Education for International Development, Dec. 2009.
Educational assessment systems in Latin America: Current practices and future challenges, G. Ferrer, Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas, 2006.
Educational policy formulation in loosely coupled systems: Some salient features of Guatemala’s public and private school sectors, C.R. Ruano, et al, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11, 2003.
Effects of primary, secondary and tertiary education on economic growth: Evidence from Guatemala, J. Loening, A World Bank Working Paper, 2005.
Guatemala PRONADE: A USAID Case Study, 2007. (PRONADE is the acronym for Guatemala’s National Program for Educational Development.)
How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better, 2010, McKinsey & Company. (Not specifically related to Guatemala, but the findings and conclusions of this study would be important to understand when undertaking educational reform in Guatemala.)
Implementation completion and results report on a loan of US $ 62.16 million to the Republic of Guatemala for a universalization of basic education project, The World Bank, 2009. (Primarily for financial analysts, but interesting reading if you want to see where the money actually went.)
Inclusión Educativa: El Camino del Futuro, Informe Nacional, Republica de Guatemala, Ministerio de Educacion, 2008. (In Spanish)
Increasing education access, quality and equity in Guatemala, USAID, 1999-2004.
Influencing education policy in Guatemala, International Development Research Centre.
Informe de progreso educativo: Guatemala, Promocion de la Reforma Educativo en America Latina, 2008. (in Spanish)
Public investment in basic education and economic growth, V. Teles, University of Brasilia, 2004.
Quality of schooling and quality of schools for indigenous students in Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, M. Hernandez-Zavala, et al, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, 2006.
Raising student learning in Latin America: The challenge facing the 21st century (an executive summary), E. Vegas & J. Petrow, World Bank, 2008.
Role of education quality in economic growth, E.A. Hanushek, Stanford University, World Bank Working Paper, 2007.
Visualizing Rights: Guatemala fact sheet, Center for Economic and Social Rights, 2009.