Colombian Education in Crisis on All Fronts

Poor internet access is only one of the many problems besetting Colombian educators
Poor internet access is only one of the many problems besetting Colombian educators. (World Bank)

EspañolOn Wednesday, April 22, over 300,000 teachers — almost all of Colombia’s public professors — declared a national strike lasting 15 days, leaving over 9 million children barred from classes across the country.

The strike, convened by the Federation of Educators of Colombia (Fecode) to pressure the government to negotiate over a range of petitions, demonstrated that the education system is “a step away from crisis,” as many have reiterated in recent years.

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Colombia is home to 12,845 public high school and 9,530 private establishments, showing extremely marked differences in facilities, teaching standards, and parental involvement. Those young people that graduate from private high schools leave with a greater chance of reaching university than the majority of their peers that study in state high schools.

Unfortunately, this is reflected in the Program for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study organized by the OECD, in which Colombians have consistently ranked last. In 2014, Colombia came last out of the 44 countries reviewed, in a test which evaluated students’ capacity to resolve everyday problems.

Flawed Methodology

There are various factors behind this educational failure. To begin with, “we have to stop working to promote quantitative achievements and promote the human being,” in the words of Héctor Orobio Ocoró.

Orobio is a retired teacher presiding over a working group that advises teachers in new pedagogical techniques that could improve the quality of education. For him, this new approach should be understood as “the capacity to generate a many-sided display of human strengths.”

“Nowadays, many kids leave for university only to end up doing manual work, because they don’t know how to interpret a text, and this doesn’t help the country. We need them to produce and be capable of inventing solutions and participating in societal processes,” he explains.

“The development of thought should be taken from the perspective of construction and knowledge, and this helps to develop curiosity. Schools have gradually been failing their students, and the problem is that the development of their imagination is definitive in the process of acquiring knowledge,” Orobio adds.

Another problem the expert highlights is that study plans are poorly designed, only requiring the student to repeat what the professor tells them, without being given enough time to stimulate the creative process.

Trouble at Home

“Once we did an investigation into what children thought the problem was, and the most common answer was ‘the problem is when my dad comes home drunk and hits my mom.’ It’s very difficult for a child who comes from a home with these problems to learn anything,” Orobio says.

The active participation of parents in the education process is similarly vital.

“The parents need the child to be in school so they’re looked after while they’re working, but there’s not a close link with the school in terms of the development of their children. There are even families who are resistant to the changes proposed in the organization of schools,” he explains.

This often means that children don’t feel committed to learning and improving their knowledge every day.

“There are many children who don’t want to study, and they think they only come to have fun, but this happens because they don’t have the foundation at home to be excellent professionals. In a room of 40 students, there are 10 who really want to study and get good jobs,” says Arcelia Suárez, a teacher with 30 years of experience in private and state high schools.

According to Ministry of Education figures, for every 100 minors who enter the education system in urban areas, 18 percent leave it before reaching 18 years of age, while in rural areas the same figure rises to 52 percent. This is due to insecurity, violence, teenage pregnancy, and the need to begin work, among other problems.

Government Mismanagement

Poor facilities, the location of schools, lack of internet access, and low salaries for professors work against their playing a strong role as educators.

“For example, they’ve constructed ‘megacolleges’: this is a step forward, but there are some that don’t have any recreational spaces. With 45 or 50 students that come with all kinds of problems, what are the teachers to do?” asks Orobio.

According to Arcelia, the teaching profession has also lost prestige. The entry of staff from other professional backgrounds is allegedly “a massive error,” because they don’t know how to teach or manage a classroom. For several years, due to a deficit of teaching staff, the government has allowed other professionals to switch to teaching.

Another of Colombia’s disadvantages is that no student can be kept back a year, thus awarding good or bad grades serves no real purpose. And as if that weren’t enough, some teachers are afraid of reprimanding their students.

“Nowadays, you almost have to submit to what the student wants, because if not they’ll complain about you and even open a disciplinary process,” Arcelia states.

As such, Orobio argues that persistence, force of will, and commitment to learn new things are all needed to change the country’s educational system. There are also problems with the teacher-training process, he suggests, arguing that it needs a broader, global focus in order to “transform educational practice and the quality of teaching.”

Impossible Evaluations

One of the principal problems facing the educational system is that “the government has a perverse evaluation system,” according to William Agudelo, president of the Regional Association of Educators (ADE). Agudelo posits the example of the latest public examination in which “of 40,000 teachers, only 1,400 passed,” arguing that “they don’t pass due to the limited budgetary capability of the government.”

Apparently, salary increases for teachers depends on this test, but it’s impossible to pass because teachers must score 80 out of 100, and the questions are allegedly designed to be almost impossible to answer correctly.

“The ministry links quality with the issue of evaluation, but it doesn’t bear in mind that we’re the most tested professionals in the country,” Agudelo adds.

On average, a teacher in Colombia studies five years in university, then takes a postgraduate course before embarking on a master’s degree. The demand for a salary increase is related to this time that would-be teachers have to invest in their training.

A teacher who entered the profession before 2002 began earning the current equivalent of  COL$1.2 million monthly (around US$600), and will end their working life with a salary of COL$2.7 million (US$1,350). For those who begin teaching after this year, the situation is roughly the same if they don’t have a master’s degree, which boosts their pay slightly. This means that a teacher with a master’s degree now begins teaching classes with a monthly salary barely amounting to COL$1.6 million ($670). The average pay is somewhat less.

However, public-school teachers are not against private high schools. In fact, those who have a flexible timetable also work in them to earn a greater income.

“We’re making a comparison with what a public official with a master’s degree earns in other government departments,” explains Ricardo Carrillo, 25, who has spent five years teaching.

Salaries in private colleges are often even lower than in their state-run counterparts. “They also work over eight hours [the length of a legal working day in Colombia], and there’s no job stability,” Agudelo adds.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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