As Argentina’s government prepares for a new term beginning in December, a priority for the next four years (and beyond) must be improving the quality of national education. Clearly, more of the same will not be enough to improve Argentina’s education system.
The usual debates over which reform to prioritize—greater public- or private-sector participation, local-level ownership versus centralization—miss the fundamental challenge facing the education system: how do you improve student performance?
The problem is clearly reflected in Argentina’s ranking in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. The test, administered in 65 countries, placed Argentina near the bottom (58th) in terms of student performance. Worse still, in what remains the best measure of educational quality worldwide, Argentina has actually declined in the last decade.
But for all the discussion and handwringing about education and test stores in Argentina, what’s been lacking is genuine commitment to educational innovation.
How do you actually reform an educational system to improve quality? Does it require political or private-sector leadership? Or both?
The typical response has been to throw more money at education. But in 2009, Argentina invested approximately 6.45 percent of GDP in education—on par with the 6.3 percent average spent by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries on education.
Previous efforts to improve Argentine education through budget increases not only were unsuccessful at improving the quality of education, but the inefficient allocation of those resources led to disparities in the quality of and access to education.
Because provinces represent a large share of public investment in education (including teacher salary and training), and federal funds are typically limited to infrastructure, huge discrepancies exist in education spending among Argentina’s 23 provinces plus the federal capital. The poorest provinces—and those with the worst social and economic indicators—invest less money per student than the more highly developed provinces.
Within the provinces there are also huge income inequalities. In terms of access, only 47 percent of children in the lowest income quintile attend kindergarten (the first year of compulsory schooling), but 79 percent of those in the highest income quintile do. Those disparities continue in school retention rates. Whereas only 30 percent of young people aged 18 to 23 in the lowest quintile attend higher education institutions or university after high school, 70 percent of their counterparts in the highest income quintile go on to attend post-secondary school.
The lack of real reform over the past few years can be traced to a stagnant education debate. The main players in this debate are the self-described education experts who alternate between academic life and the national and provincial ministries of education. This revolving door between academia and the public sector has created an incestuous circle whose members have become wedded to the status quo because they benefit from it.
With little incentive to push for more sweeping reform, most prefer to focus on (and debate endlessly) minor, marginal changes. Breaking this dead-end discussion requires bringing in stakeholders outside these circles but who are also affected by education policy: researchers, parents, businesses, unions, and civil society.
Until now, government efforts at improving education have mainly come in the form of budget increases to expand access to basic education and improve infrastructure. But while that has increased enrollment and retention rates generally, it has failed to dramatically improve the quality of the education children receive once in the system. To accomplish that, policymakers need to focus on four specific areas: monitoring the performance of schools and teachers, improving teacher training, expanding access to early childhood development programs, and ensuring that curricula taught in schools prepare students for the future. These four areas would have an important impact in reducing the disparity between high-income and low-income children, making teachers and schools more modern and accountable and ensuring that all students are better prepared—for school and in school.
Reforms in these areas have already been adopted elsewhere, demonstrating that they can be done—even against the opposition of entrenched practices and interests—and that they can produce results.
1) Evaluate Performance (U.S.)
The U.S. National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is a national evaluation carried out every two years among students in the fourth, eighth and twelfth grades. It tests student performance in math, reading, science, writing, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history. Although the U.S. Department of Education sponsors and supervises the NAEP, the National Assessment Governing Board, which establishes NAEP policy and sets the standards for the tests, is independent of the Department of Education.
The board comprises 26 people from a variety of institutions, such as state legislatures, local and state school officials, and representatives of the private sector and civil society. Since the NAEP test is implemented nationwide, it allows for comparisons between states and districts, and between racial, ethnic and gender groups within the student population.
By showing which states are doing well and which are performing poorly, the NAEP results focus attention on the successful (and unsuccessful) states, providing policymakers and administrators with a valuable tool to design and implement education policy.
In Argentina’s decentralized education system, an innovation such as the NAEP could provide national-level comparative data to help guide policies and decision making. It would allow policymakers to consistently monitor the performance of schools and teachers to reward progress and address problems.
Such a national test would allow education authorities to identify the schools and teachers that need more assistance and training, as well as those that deserve recognition for their performance. The proposed national test would also provide valuable information to the national and provincial ministries of education regarding whether or not reforms to the education system are needed.
To protect against political meddling, such an institute would need to be independent of the ministry of education and be managed by apolitical educational experts, civil society, business leaders, union leaders, and parent associations.
2) Improve Teacher Training (France)
Established by the French Ministry of Education in 1989, the Institutes of Teacher Formation are dedicated to developing the skills of future teachers. The teacher preparation courses last for two years with 400 to 750 hours of coursework on a particular subject, 300 to 450 hours of general training, and a minimum of 300 hours devoted to on-the-job training.
Additionally, each group of potential future teachers has a mentor—usually an experienced teacher—who works with them. By 2005, there were 17,591 students preparing for the entrance exam to attend the Institutes of Teacher Formation to train as primary-school teachers, and 33,909 for the entrance examination for secondary-school candidates. Since 2007, the institutes have been run under the authority of universities, giving them relative independence from the national government.
Argentina could adopt a similar teacher training model. Ensuring that teaching quality meets twenty-first century needs requires setting national standards that apply to every province.
The Federal Education Council, which sets national standards for teacher training, should enact a general agreement with the provinces that establishes the fundamental knowledge required for a teaching career, while allowing each province to determine its specific priorities. At the same time, a new, federal training center in Argentina could incorporate training modules for teachers that emphasize skills relevant to monitoring and addressing student performance and that provide mid-career training.
3) Focus on Early Childhood Development (Brazil)
The Bolsa Família program in Brazil has increased the number of children from lower-income families who attend school, while ensuring that they receive proper nutrition. Since the program began in 2003, there has been a 14 percent increase in the number of lower-income children aged five and six attending school.
The Bolsa Família program has the right focus. It’s particularly important to ensure that lower-income children attend school at an early age. Many of these children lack the cognitively stimulating home environment that children in middle- and upper-income families enjoy. But this program goes beyond school attendance; it also focuses on ensuring that children receive better nutrition and health care, which in turn helps them perform better in school.
Studies by several organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), show that children (aged three to five) who attend preschool end up performing better in elementary school than their peers who did not attend preschool.
Argentina should learn from Brazil and focus on getting kids into school at an early age. One way to do this is to significantly expand the availability of kindergarten education—the first step before elementary education. At the same time, parents should be properly informed of the importance and the benefits to children of starting education at this age.
Moreover, these kinds of programs need strong inter-ministerial support as they address challenges that cover a broad range of issues. In this sense, it is also necessary to strengthen the programs across ministries that have social programs for the poorest sectors of the country, to ensure that the education component of the cash transfer programs is accurately enforced.
4) Reform Curricula (Poland)
In 2008, with the support of the European Union, the Polish government announced a reform of its education curriculum with the purpose of improving the quality of education and establishing a “society of knowledge” in the country.
The program was launched in September 2009 with an eight-year deadline for significantly transforming the education system. The main reforms include the introduction of mandatory preschool for five year olds and a greater emphasis on math, science and technology. The curriculum shift sought to limit the teaching of theory, which had previously been the focus of the curriculum. It also placed more emphasis on practical and experimental skills.
As in Poland, the curriculum taught in Argentina’s schools needs to reflect global trends and prepare students with the skills the labor market demands. Since a curriculum reform implies broad and long-term changes, the government should take into account a broad spectrum of opinions from teachers’ unions, business leaders and school associations to ensure an ideologically well-balanced curriculum.
New curricula should be crafted through local experience and based on the needs of each school. A greater focus should be placed on teaching international affairs as well as the use of information technology. Any curriculum reform needs to be accompanied by the necessary training and materials to enable teachers to properly instruct students and the proper wage structure to encourage them to do so.
Several decades ago, Argentina’s schools were considered to be high quality. Today, countries that once were well behind Argentina, like Singapore, have passed Argentina economically. One key reason is the improvement of Singapore’s education system, which is now ranked among the top 10 in the world.
The conclusion ought to be obvious. Only by making education a priority—and having the courage to maintain the commitment to education as a state policy—can Argentina lay the foundation for future national, broad-based prosperity.
There is no reason why we cannot restore the quality of education that once made our country famous. But it can only happen if this presidential administration accepts this as one of its most important challenges of the next four years, and is willing to break the stranglehold that the narrow clique of experts have on its debate.