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ARGENTINA: Mixed Marks for Educational System

Sebastián Lacunza

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 3 2008 (IPS) - Successive economic and social crises in Argentina have left their mark on the public education system, which since the late 19th century has been a key factor of social integration and mobility in this South American country.

Analysts, teachers and parents point to different symptoms of the deterioration, such as poor language skills among teenagers, high drop-out rates in secondary school, and difficulties finding skilled workers.

Although the primary school enrolment rate stands at a high 99 percent, a study by the Latin America Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) reported that only 36 percent of children finish their 12 years of primary and secondary schooling on time.

Two recent international reports showed that while Argentina still performed well in the region, it lagged behind industrialised nations as well as some other developing countries.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in late November ranked Argentina 27th out of 129 countries, only behind Cuba, which ranks 23rd, in Latin America.

The study, which is based on statistics from 2005, highlights Argentina’s high preschool coverage (64 percent) and high school enrolment (79 percent).

Furthermore, it says, a broad tuition-free public university system, which in many respects remains highly prestigious, also brings Argentina close to European standards in terms of the proportion of students who enrol in the university.

But an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report published in early December found Argentina sorely lacking.

The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment, which surveyed 400,000 15-year-old students in 57 countries, placed Argentina nearly at the bottom of the scale in terms of performance in all of the areas studied: math (52nd place), science (51st) and reading (53rd).

The country also showed the largest gap between the lowest and highest performing students – a finding that is in line with the results of assessments carried out by the Argentine Education Ministry’s national evaluation unit.

Results vary enormously depending on the area. Acceptable performance levels are achieved in large cities like Buenos Aires or Córdoba, but not in northern provinces like Formosa or Jujuy, according to the Education Ministry.

Education Minister Juan Carlos Tedesco pointed out that the OECD study was based on results from 2006. "These kids suffered the worst of the crisis. They entered primary school 12 years ago, and experienced the entire stretch of the economic, social, political and cultural crisis, and the results reflect that," he argued.

The secretary general of the CTERA teachers’ union, Stella Maldonado, told IPS that "secondary school was hit hardest by the application of the Federal Education Law," passed in 1993 under the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), which decentralised the system, making each province economically responsible for its educational system.

The law generated "24 different secondary school systems around the country," and led to a breakdown and definancing of the entire system, dealing it a lethal blow, she said.

In 2006, the administration of former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) introduced a law aimed at undoing the process of decentralisation. The Education Ministry once again took control of curriculums and created a national teacher training institute to unify training.

In addition, under the new law, the educational budget will gradually be increased, to the equivalent of six percent of gross domestic product by 2010.

"This law reestablishes the unity of the secondary educational system," said Maldonado.

But the Argentine educational system is facing profound conceptual, economic and methodological challenges, she added.

"Around the country we have the so-called ‘taxi teachers’, who have to catch a cab to run from one school to another, and who teach up to 500 different students in a single week, which makes it impossible for them to establish the necessary links with the community," said Maldonado.

"It is important to ensure that schools much more adequately reflect the needs and rights of teenagers," she said.

In her Dec. 10 inaugural address, President Cristina Fernández said she missed schools "that had class every day, and where the teachers knew more than the students."

That remark annoyed the teachers’ union. "It&#39s true that schools do not have the level of excellence that they enjoyed in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, but the criticism would appear to be very superficial. It is the state that has failed to provide adequate training, in new technologies, for example," said Maldonado.

And "the majority of the days when there are no classes have to do with serious infrastructure problems. In 2007, months, not days, of class time were lost because the schools were not in adequate condition, above and beyond the strikes that were held in some provinces," she added.

Liliana Raggio, a former Education Ministry consultant and a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, said that "in general terms, secondary schools experienced a major increase in the number of students enrolling, at the expense of quality."

"Those who previously did not make it to secondary school began to attend, and at the same time poverty grew, and the educational system was unable to deal with the new challenges. On top of these factors came the decentralisation, which was catastrophic," she said.

Raggio stressed that "you have to keep in mind that the parents of a 15-year-old student who gets pregnant might be only 30 years old themselves, and may never have held a (formal sector) job. That is the reality for many poor families, and the Federal Education Law did not make provisions for training teachers to deal with these situations."

And the economic recovery of the last few years, Raggio added, posed a paradox: many adolescents find more "changas" – low-paid casual work which requires no particular skill or training – than their parents, which leads them to skip class or temporarily drop out of school more often. "There’s a lot of coming and going; they leave school for a while and then return," she said.

Between 1995 and 2005, unemployment in Argentina climbed to unprecedented levels, peaking at 25 percent at the height of the crisis (late 2001 and all of 2002). But by 2005, unemployment had fallen below 10 percent, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute.

"High unemployment and teen pregnancy are two key factors in class repetition rates," said Raggio.

Maldonado said that "for years we have seen lower drop-out and higher graduation rates among girls than among boys. Teen pregnancy is a big problem, but in many cases, the pregnant girls do not drop out of school."

The administration of Fernández, who succeeded her husband as president, will maintain the night school programme put in place by Kirchner to enable working teenagers to stay in school.

Other new initiatives were "mobile schools" that go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, programmes to provide schools with the necessary equipment, and a plan that provides a stipend of around 18 dollars a month to 700,000 families who keep their children in school.

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