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Federico Sucre (FS), program assistant of the education program at the Inter-American Dialogue, interviews Juan Maragall (JM), secretary of education of the state of Miranda in Venezuela.
FS: What was the state of education in Miranda when you assumed the position of Secretary of Education? What were the main challenges you faced in the transition to the new model of governance you aimed to establish?
JM: The state of education was very much linked to the state of the Miranda’s administration at large. It was a difficult transition because the governor who was leaving office, Diosdado Cabello, had already become the second most powerful man in the country, along with President Chavez, and they did not hand over their governorship, but instead abandoned it and we had to assume it without a transition. This brought about a series of administrative difficulties. For instance, we could not even pay our 14,000 teachers because the payroll information did not appear on our database; we were able to recover it because a payroll assistant had taken the database home in a disk to protect it. We encountered several instances like this one. On top of that, the regional offices were vandalized. It was difficult to take over control in these conditions.
In addition, schools had been ignoring pedagogy. The governorship did not have an important pedagogical program, or rather, schools were not seen as spaces of pedagogical priority. There was a lot of unease with the political issues, parties, and ideologies. For many years, teaching positions were assigned on the basis of political affiliation or through clientelism, and there was a significant disinvestment in the construction and endowment of schools.
FS: With respect to student performance, what was the situation like when you arrived to the administration of Miranda, and how has it changed?
JM: When we arrived at the governorship in December 2008, there was no data on student performance. In Venezuela we do not have a tradition of keeping such records. In May 2009, we assessed the performance of students in all schools. We found that 30% of third grade students were illiterate. We also conducted mathematics and language evaluations, and out of a maximum score of 20, the average scores in math and language were 5 and 7, respectively. Thus, our schools were in critical conditions. This was the starting point at which we began to operate. Today, our illiteracy rate in third grade is below 5%, while our average scores in math and language are now around 9 and 12, respectively. We have progressed noticeably, but we still have a long way to go.
FS: Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski has expressed his wish that “Miranda be the educational state of Venezuela.” Why and how has education become one of the top priorities of this administration?
JM: The governor has a long-term vision, and he is convinced that if we want to foster equity in Miranda and the country, we must make one of our most important efforts on improving education. If we want to ensure that the future of our children is not dictated by the conditions in which they are born, we really need schools to make the difference. In this way, we established education as a priority. In the first budget we were able to structure, we assigned more resources to education than what had traditionally been assigned. If you look at the investment record in Miranda prior to 2008, you will notice that no more than 20% of the governorship’s budget was ever spent on education. In 2009, we took investment in education to 40% and in 2010 it already accounted for 50% of the administration’s total budget. Specifically in the investment budget, up to 70% has been invested in schools.
While establishing work priorities, we envisioned that we had to combine two things: a) what people felt they needed, that is to say, the needs of the schools; and b) lessons from international public policies in education. We could not only respond to the letters we received or the requests we got at meetings, and neither could we simply produce proposals and generate a work plan from our desks. So we began by organizing a series of assemblies, which allowed us to make a very broad and participatory consultation about what attendees believed were the main problems we had to address in schools.
That was the first time we saw that topics such as infrastructure, endowment, and security were among the top issues, followed by internal administrative problems related to human resources, and finally pedagogical issues. Personally, I had a bit of trouble embracing these answers, because what needed to be at the forefront of school action was not among the top priorities. Taking the results from these assemblies and some lessons from international policies, we developed a plan that focused on three fundamental areas: a) improving the quality of the education offered in schools, b) increasing access to education, and c) improving teacher quality. These have been the priories of our administration, which addresses what schools have requested as well as what the students and the country need.
FS: Do you have a mechanism to evaluate the quality of schools in Miranda? Do you use specific indicators to monitor the progress in every school?
JM: Yes; our first strategy was to evaluate schools. We began with a very simple math and language evaluation in third grade, sixth grade, and third year of secondary school; an evaluation of the content that—according to the curriculum—students should know in these areas. It is important to point out that Venezuela lacks a culture of evaluation. Teachers get nervous about being evaluated, because they do not know what will come afterwards. So we went about it in a very respectful way, explaining to them that the school with the lowest performance would be the one to receive the most help and support. Our strategy was to provide every school with the corrected evaluations and a performance report within four or five weeks. We wanted people to know that evaluating was not something mysterious, and we wanted schools to feel that when they were evaluated, the results were their own.
Another decision we took from the beginning was that we would conduct evaluations on the entire population, and not just a sample. In other words, we could have created a sample to provide us with the same results we would have obtained had we evaluated everyone, but we still decided to evaluate the whole population. This was important to us because we are not researchers; we are public agents who care about the reactions and results of every student and every school. We need to evaluate all of our third grade students, and also make sure that every third grade teacher has a performance report of her students, so that they can react and become inspired to improve.
FS: What have been some of the most successful educational programs you have developed in Miranda?
JM: From the beginning of our term, we created a program called PILAS – Plan Integral de Lectura y Alfabetización Social (Integral Plan for Reading and Social Literacy). The PILAS Plan has a series of proposals. First, it promotes a specific work dynamic. We ask that every day, in every school, every child reads and writes. It is something that may seem trivial, but the reality is that every day, in every school, not all children read and write. This plan provides a checklist that is placed in a visible location in every classroom, which helps to ensure that these activities are completed daily. Afterwards, we began to promote training workshops for teachers on teaching methodologies. Today, every teacher has received some sort of training in pedagogical topics. When we first started, we served between one and two thousand teachers per year. Today, we serve about 7,000 teachers every year, out the 12,000 active teachers we have in all of our schools.
After establishing the performance evaluations, the PILAS Plan, and the pedagogical training workshops, in 2011 we created a program we called Anímate (Be Encouraged), similar to PILAS, but focused on mathematics. We have also played around with some public policies to promote learning in fundamental areas. For instance, in the back cover of our textbooks, we placed a summarized version of the math and language curricula. This message helps teachers organize themselves and provides a common framework of the topics they must cover. Additionally, we have endowed each of our 150,000 students with textbooks and school materials, and we improved the school food program. This important for the physical wellbeing of our students, but it is also a great motivator for school attendance.
FS: What initiatives have you carried out in Miranda to improve school access?
JM: In terms of educational access, we decided to focus on infrastructure, specifically in three main areas: repairing, expanding, and building new schools. With this plan in mind, it became clear to me that the president of the institute of infrastructure of the governorship had to become my new best friend. You cannot improve schools without a strong alliance with the infrastructure sector. With an approach that sought to bring these two areas of the administration closer, we were able to recover 500 schools, expand 32 schools, and build 47 new schools.
We had two more strategies to improve access. First, we created a program called Mi Proveeduría Escolar (My School Procurement). We took the school endowment budget, divided it by the total number of students in the state, and allotted each school a budget in proportion to their number of students. We built a webpage that showed all of the products that schools required. Each principal could access the webpage and “shop” until he exhausted his allotted budget. This was key in making an efficient use of limited resources, by transferring the purchasing decision to the school. Second, we created new school transportation routes, prioritizing those routes that took children to secondary schools, in order to target the issue of school drop-outs. Just to give you an idea, in Venezuela there are some 28,000 schools, but only a little over 5,000 of them offer secondary school studies. With this in mind, we began to create transportation routes that today transport more than 8,000 students to school on a daily basis.
FS: How are the selection, training, and evaluation of school principals? Is there some form of certification or compensation for principals with high performance?
JM: Venezuela has a bylaw regulating the teaching profession since 1991, but while it worked in the nineties, by 2000 the national government stopped using it. Nowadays, principals are handpicked. The bylaw contains an association in which the executive participates, and teachers are represented through the unions. It also holds a competition where jobs are publically assigned. There is a written and oral evaluation of credentials. All of this is based on points, and the candidates with the best results get to pick the schools where they want to work. It is fairly well thought out, and we put it to work since 2009. Until now, we have promoted more than 500 principals through this competition process. However, we are an island in the country; no other state in Venezuela does this. We do not have a program to evaluate principals’ performance. We have implemented a few activities, but they are not reliable enough to link their results to any single incentive or sanction. One of our limitations is that the structure that manages the state school system is very weak and has few resources to move around and supervise. This is why it is so important to have good principals in all schools.
FS: I know Miranda participated in the 2009 PISA assessment. What did you and your team learn from your experience participating in this international test? Can we expect Venezuela or Miranda to participate in this type of assessments in the future?
JM: Well, I always say that we must analyze Miranda’s results in PISA with caution. The fact that the national government opposed our taking the test meant that we administered the exam only in high schools of the governorship and in private schools. In other words, national and municipal high schools did not participate. Since the private sector is over-represented, the results are more favorable than what they would have been had the sample used the actual public-private school proportion. Now, what did we learn? Well, first of all, PISA does not only evaluate performance in reading, mathematics, and science. It also keeps a very complete record of the socioeconomic conditions of the students and the schools. So, PISA was helpful in explaining that in Miranda and the country at large, there is an evident social division in schools. PISA allowed us to compare, for instance, students of low and high socioeconomic status in Venezuela, with students of low and high socioeconomic status in other Latin American countries.
PISA distributes the population across six levels. The three lowest levels are considered not acceptable for the selected age (15 years old). In Miranda, we found that in reading, 40% of students were in the non-acceptable level, whereas in OECD countries an average of only 20% of students scored at this level (see Graph 1).
In mathematics, the results were even worse. A third of students in Miranda were in the lowest level of performance and 80% were below the acceptable level, while in OECD countries, on average, 44% of students were below the acceptable level (see Graph 2).
FS: How have you engaged Miranda’s parents and community in this process of transformation in education?
JM: Our priority has been to engage principals and teachers, but we have always promoted a good relationship with the community. In fact, when the national government proposed the elimination of the old parent associations and the creation of the so-called education councils in the schools, we decided to lead the transition. The decree that created these education councils is very disorganized and ideological, and there was a lot of backlash against it in the country. We did not waste our time in legal battles against the decree, in a country where no one has won a trial against the state in 15 years. On the contrary, we assumed that this was the way the new system would be organized and acted immediately. In this way, we were the first ones to found the education councils in all of our schools. We have given them basic training and support, and we often summon them to meetings and invite them to partake in our events… For example, when principals buy school supplies, the education council has an opinion over which items will be ordered. And we have also engaged them in topics pertaining to academic improvement.
FS: What do you think Venezuela can learn from what you are doing in Miranda? What lessons can you draw for the country? What strategies do you suggest could be applied at a national level?
JM: I would say the main problem we have had at the school level in Venezuela is that several years have passed without an education agenda that truly prioritizes primary education. The country has focused on higher education and adult education, and has forgotten about primary education. What we have learned is that a working agenda centered on school quality is capable of capturing the attention, commitment, and cooperation of a great number of actors. When teachers and unions see that we are governing with an agenda truly centered on the improvement of school quality, there is a growing feeling of respect vis-à-vis the policies which can surpass difficulties and ideological differences. I believe one of the greatest lessons is that we have to create an agenda that is genuinely centered on the quality of the schools at a national level. Such an agenda has a high probability of gaining support among people in the country. In the end, the engine that runs the schools are the mothers and the communities that aspire for a better future for their children, and what these mothers want is to see their children reading better, developing mathematical skills, graduating, and becoming university students someday. Thus, if they feel as if policies are oriented towards improving their children’s education, these communities will support the initiatives and progress will be possible.