Education

The Inter-American Dialogue’s Education Program aims to improve the quality of learning and skills development across Latin America. We do so by partnering with public and private organizations throughout the hemisphere to promote informed debate on education policy, identify and disseminate best practices, and monitor progress toward improvement. Our cutting-edge analysis of education policy and broad network of policymakers, education experts, business leaders, academics, and journalists have made it the strongest private voice on education in the region.


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At the Inter-American Dialogue and Teach For All, we believe that this is a critical time for education in Latin America and the Caribbean. After consulting with different educational stakeholders from the public and private sectors about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the educational systems of the region, we are pleased to share a brief analysis of the responses we received. Our aim is to understand the thinking behind efforts related to the delivery of education services, as well as what education systems are doing to ensure students continue learning.

At the institutional level, the responses from the Ministries of Education have been highly diverse in terms of the level of organization, comprehensiveness and capacity to mobilize actors beyond the Ministries themselves. In some cases, the Ministries of Education have organized high-level committees, working groups, and commissions to design plans and discuss actions and proposals in response to the crisis. Although several of these committees include non-governmental organizations, funders and cooperation agencies, the ongoing challenge for these committees and working groups has been the need to consider a technological response to continue providing distance education. In some cases, official responses have sought to integrate different approaches (distance learning programs, teacher training, support to students from vulnerable backgrounds), while in others, responses have so far been more targeted. Additionally, some countries have organized multi-sectoral alliances and campaigns with the participation of civil society to disseminate and accompany ministerial responses.

Peru and Nicaragua offer two contrasting examples of how Ministries are responding to the crisis. In the case of the Ministry of Education (MINEDU) in Peru, the national leadership came together to establish a Covid-19 commission within the MINEDU. Likewise, within the Planning Secretariat, specific roles were assigned to coordinate efforts with civil society and the private sector. The MINEDU also convened roundtables tables with civil society organizations to rethink the school year and the role of educators. The “Aprendo En Casa" national campaign was quickly designed and launched, consisting of an interactive, online learning platform, as well as TV and radio lessons for students in remote areas. In order to enhance learning, MINEDU established partnerships with organizations that already had distance education curricula available (such as Khan Academy) to be included on the “Aprendo en Casa” portal. In order to increase student access to this content, the MINEDU is also in the process of purchasing around 800,000 tablets with permanent internet connections to distribute in remote areas where connectivity is lacking. Beginning in April, academic content is offered to students on television and radio stations. Additionally, the MINEDU has set up another educational program to reach out to 15,000 families, involving over 1,000 volunteers from civil society organizations, and in close coordination with the Ministry of Social Inclusion, to bring the “Qali Warma” supplemental nutrition program to rural areas.

In Nicaragua, the Ministry of Education (MINED) did not close schools, and regular classes have continued. Emergency committees have not been convened nor other actors been called upon. To date, the only response has been a campaign to increase hand washing and a set of potential actions in case the crisis were to worsen significantly. Amongst these possible actions are online education, delivery of printed workbooks, and the use of TV. The remote education strategy supposes a series of guidelines emanating from the central government to educational centers. Despite public schools remaining open, there has still been an educational impact: around 70 percent of private schools have closed and only 60 percent of public school students continue to attend in-person classes.

Resurgence of television (TV) and radio as strategies to keep students learning. Countries are using a wide array of tools to enable distance education, with TV and radio being the main channels. Several countries have implemented programs supported by local non-governmental organizations to train teachers in the use of available platforms and materials in this new context. These same organizations are also developing content and strategies for radio and TV programs to support the ministries’ efforts. Despite the advances in TV, radio and virtual education—including learning platforms and information and communication portals—the limited access to communication technologies and low levels of connectivity continue to hinder equal learning opportunities for all students.

Most teachers continue working virtually, on both professional development and to support students, but face significant challenges. Even though countries have designed training sessions for tech management and have enhanced their courses on academic and socio-emotional content, the crisis has highlighted the gap in the use of technologies and the difficulties ministries face in securing high quality trainings and flexible content delivery. The support of non-governmental organizations has proven useful in the design and delivery of these trainings in countries where ministries have expressed the need for such support during the crisis. Even as teachers find innovative ways to reach students via phone, email, and other portals, not all teachers have access to the necessary technology or have the basic conditions at home to teach virtually—nor do all students have internet access or mobile phones.

School reopening is still uncertain. There is uncertainty around the contingency plans for a possible wave of new infections in the second half of 2020, and actions around reopening schools have been different between the northern and southern hemispheres. In countries in the northern hemisphere where the school year was already well underway, it is unlikely that schools will reopen, with some countries already issuing an official announcement. For example, the Dominican Republic has decided to continue distance education through the end of the school year on June 19. In El Salvador, the school year will continue under different distance education modalities: online, printed study guides for students without access to the internet, and, once materials are prepared, radio and TV lessons. Mexico plans to continue distance education strategies through the end of July, beginning classes for the upcoming school year in August or September depending on the education level. The original goal was for all schools to reopen by June 1 and close the 2019-2020 school year on July 17, only a few weeks later than scheduled.

In the southern hemisphere, where school closures overlapped with the beginning of the school year, the landscape is not so clear. In Argentina, there is no official response. Unofficially, the media speculates that schools will only reopen in September or October. Paraguay has declared that there will be no in-person classes until December 2020, and that learning will continue virtually until then. In Colombia, the reopening of schools has been pushed to the end of June, and in Panama until August or September.

2020 will not be a regular academic year. Reacting flexibly to adjust the curriculum and adapt it to the new normal has proven difficult. The Dominican Republic undertook a curricular revision involving all eighteen regional directorates in the country, and determined that 70 percent of the curriculum had already been taught (according to the time of the school year when the virus hit the country). It established a mandatory diagnostic test when students reenter school in the upcoming school year, and is currently designing recovery plans for different levels of expected results. In Chile, the Unit for Curriculum and Evaluation has prioritized the learning objectives by subject area, although on-the-ground experience suggests that teachers are not knowledgeable on the topic and tend to push through the content regardless of students’ cognitive baseline. Some countries (El Salvador, Guatemala) have announced an adjustment to the curriculum, although it is not clear how this will be handled, and there are no support or recovery plans as of yet. Other countries (Argentina, Panama, Paraguay) have not made any public announcements on the topic. In some cases, there are already conversations around credit recovery (and subsequent curriculum adjustments), but there are no examples of countries that have definitively made that decision. In countries where schools have curricular autonomy (Colombia, Argentina), it will be up to individual education centers to define whether they will make adjustments or not. What is indeed clear is that national learning evaluations will not happen in 2020. It is not as clear how evaluation of learning at the school level will happen.

Reinforcement of the idea that schools have a role in coordinating resources and support for the community, especially in school feeding programs. Throughout this crisis, countries have adopted different strategies at both the national and the local levels. At the national level, some countries have used the police, ministry personnel or local organizations to deliver food to schools and community centers. Locally, schools prepare the food they offer, and families have organized amongst themselves to ensure the delivery of food to students. Most countries reported continuity in their feeding programs.

The Inter-American Dialogue in partnership with Teach For All and other likeminded organizations in the region will continue to monitor the situation and exploring possible responses to guarantee a quality education for all students in the region. In our next edition, we will focus on capturing the voices of teachers amidst the pandemic.

We thank education stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and other partners for their responses to our survey. Ana Florez is the regional director of Teach For All in the Americas. 

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The Covid-19 pandemic has created a crisis in the education systems of Latin America and the Caribbean the likes of which has never been seen before. Throughout the region, schools have closed (or the start of the school year has been delayed) so most students are not attending face-to-face classes. While the situation is still uncertain, in most cases, school closures have been announced until the end of April. Depending on how the health situation progresses, the closure may need to be extended for even more time.

This widespread situation of “educational stress” will most likely have negative impacts on learning outcomes, given that no country is adequately prepared to move to large-scale virtual education as a replacement for traditional, face-to-face education. A major concern is the exacerbation of educational inequity, as children from lower-income households will be less likely to have the resources necessary to take advantage of limited opportunities for virtual education. At the same time, extended school closures will have harmful effects on food availability in households with limited resources, where schools often provide supplementary nutrition and assistance through feeding programs. Furthermore, extended quarantines in overcrowded conditions can be conducive to intensifying domestic violence and abuse that affect children physically and/or socio-emotionally.

Given the current situation, and considering the capacity constraints in most education systems in the region, what solutions can mitigate the negative impacts of school closures?

First and foremost, educational authorities—in addition to leading efforts to ensure continuity in virtual learning—must utilize their essential role as regulators to effectively develop and communicate strategic guidelines for the educational community as a whole. Given the ever-changing situation, families, students, and teachers need to know what is expected of them and under what basic criteria they should operate. Critical information such as the duration of the closure of schools and the standards for graduation, grade promotion, grades and exams should be communicated clearly and transparently to avoid confusion and provide guidance to all members of the educational community.

There is no doubt that, given the diversity of contexts and capacities across the countries of the region, there is hardly a single response that would make distance learning possible for all students. No country in the region has the connectivity, teaching platforms, or practical experience necessary to ensure that all children receive the same virtual education in these circumstances. In other words, it is necessary to consider a myriad of options, which include virtual classes, the use of applications (including through cell phones and not only computers and tablets) and videos, among others. The platforms developed by education authorities in Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay illustrate these multiple approaches to virtual education.

Many of these services are widely available, and numerous providers are opening access to their platforms for free, given the current situation. Nevertheless, connectivity constraints are very serious and leave many households with limited options, not just those in poverty. It is therefore very important that telecommunications companies offer special plans that allow access to free or highly subsidized data packages for educational use.

The obvious interest in new technologies should not make us forget the role that more traditional methods of distance learning such as TV and radio can provide. Examples such as 3-2-1 Edu-Action in Colombia, or radio and TV programming promoted in Peru, are illustrative of these approaches. While ministries of education play an important part in promoting these resources, commercial television and radio companies can also take on a more proactive role in this area.

In all the commotion to expand virtual learning options, it is essential not to forget about teachers. Whether accompanying students in using online platforms, email or text messages, teachers should not be pushed to the side in this emergency. Part of the answer to ensuring continuity of educational processes should be directed towards giving teachers the necessary support so that they are better prepared to respond to their students even while social distancing. The challenge for teachers is twofold: learning to use new technologies and redesigning the format of their classes for virtual learning. Both Uruguay and Costa Rica provide good examples of the resources that are available to teachers.

Unlike the health sector, which is experiencing a sharp increase in demand for qualified personnel, for the education sector the current situation does not require new staff, but rather a strong emphasis on building socio-emotional and leadership skills. In fact, this crisis makes clearer than ever the urgent need to transform the teaching profession from one that is based on an information-transfer model into a model for facilitating skill acquisition.

Parents and caregivers are key players in ensuring the continuity of educational processes. For most of them, this is a task for which they are not prepared and, often, one that they must balance with many other responsibilities. Therefore, the proposals that education systems put forth for virtual learning must be mindful of the role of these adults and do their best to support them in this new responsibility. Again, there must be continuous and transparent communication to avoid ambiguities and confusing messages. During this emergency, civil society organizations, especially those already working on a regular basis in low-resource neighborhoods and with vulnerable populations, can direct their efforts to accompany and support parents to ensure educational continuity, as well as offering support to children who need it most.

Sooner or later, this emergency will end. Even in these early days, it has already shown us that we must invest more and better in teaching models that incorporate new (and old) communication and information technologies into educational processes. In this sense, it will be essential to continue the many ongoing efforts that education authorities are implementing in response to the health emergency.

RELATED LINKS

Covid-19 in the Americas: The Dialogue's Coronavirus Updates

Educational Robotics

Transforming Learning Through the Use of Educational Technologies

Technology and Innovation

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Can schools in Latin America continue to function without digital infrastructure and internet connection? For many schools in Latin America, especially in rural areas, this is still the case, but for how long can they continue to function without the proper internet connection and using inefficient mechanisms for administrative purposes? Many schools operate with outdated administrative practices, this makes for slow and inefficient processes like keeping student records on paper. We talked with Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, former Minister of Education in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He details how he tackled the issue of administrative managing in the region and describes several long-lasting effects of equipping schools with the tools of the future. We welcome Gabriel Sánchez Zinny to the Education program's Working Group on Innovation and Technology in Education at the Dialogue to contribute his experience implementing technology in the ministry and the education system.

What role does technology play when doing administrative managing?

Technology was undoubtedly a key tool for the Office of Culture and Education in carrying out the educational reforms we have enacted. I want to highlight that it was integral to all our education efforts; not only in administrative processes, but also in fields such as teacher training. It helped us improve a lot of services, mainly by reducing process wait times and bureaucratic formalities that were previously slow and cumbersome. On top of that, it also aided us in revolutionizing all types of educational content, from connectivity to robotics.

What aspects of the Ministry's management improved with the incorporation of technology?

We began by standardizing the information of all students in the province and created an application to gather some basic information about them, their parents/guardians, and other economic data like their socio-economic status, certification, health, family assignments, and student ticket. As a result, today we have robust documentation for 3.8 million students.

In addition, remember that this is a ministry that interacts with more than 18 thousand schools, which millions of students attend every day. This system administers salary payments which are made to more than 400 thousand people, an average of six thousand medical licenses per day, and more than five thousand retirements every year. And all these processes were done on paper, making the system cumbersome, slow, and ineffective. At this point, technology and the modernization of these systems were a necessity.

I recently visited Primary School 10 of Videla Dorna Place, in San Miguel del Monte, as the educational community of the school celebrated its 75th anniversary. It is in a small town, located 14 kilometers from the center of its city and more than 100 kilometers from La Plata. I had a long conversation with Carolina, the director, who showed me the sheets of paper she was using for registration, attendance, and reporting, which have been the same since the founding of the school in 1943. This antiquated system seemed impractical in the age of artificial intelligence and digitization.

With the help of technology, we worked to replace those outdated processes through various initiatives. The implementation of Sistema Único de Novedades de Agentes (SUNA) meaning an integrated human resource information system in English, allowed all the news inherent in the educational system, such as requesting the incorporation of new staff or departure of employees, licenses, absences, etc., to be uploaded digitally. This enabled greater control and provided auditor data, in addition to the decrease processing wait times for the vacation of a position. The digital retirement was another great achievement in terms of modernization. This procedure can take more than four years that with the new system we reduced to 90 days without having to travel to the city of La Plata.

Another interesting innovation involved the digitization of licenses. The teachers’ medical licenses were slow because they were written on paper, and the discretionary way that they were granted invited corruption. Once we transformed this management model, we were able to minimize teacher turnover, which directly impacts the educational quality of the student. It’s important to remember that, in the end, that's what matters: We manage the system so that all students from the Province of Buenos Aires can receive a quality education.

What were the most important technological initiatives you promoted to improve the quality of education during your period in the Ministry of Education?

Undoubtedly, the implementation of the Robotics Plan in all the primary schools of the province was the most interesting from a technological perspective. This is a project in which fifth and sixth graders incorporate new knowledge of robotics and develop skills such as programming and computational thinking, something that undoubtedly empowers their problem-solving ability. The program emphasizes the critical thinking and analytic side of mathematical reasoning, which opens the way for new possibilities in the future. This program was so successful that we extended it to all the schools of the province.

Connecting schools was another key point. On top of simply incorporating technology, we began the connectivity plan with the goal of accompanying that technology with the necessary infrastructure. What would be the point of getting phones, computers, and tablets if the school didn't have fiber optics to use them?

As an example, visiting rural schools in the province, we met Primary 35 of Mapis Station, a small town in the Olavarría Partido, a county in rural Argentina. During the visit I met Silvana, the director of the establishment, who told me about the impact of the internet, not only on the school, but on the whole town. Thanks to the internet, the entire community could be connected through the school, something that seemed impossible a few months ago. We have connected more than seven thousand people, just like this school, throughout the province.

How do you ensure that the new technology is utilized adequately?

For the Robotics plan, for example, we provided teachers who were not accustomed to the use of technologies with guides developed in order to better include technologies in the classroom. This gave them the ability not only to learn how to use the new devices but also to accompany and guide students in the learning process. In addition to the guides, we have also had a virtual platform, edurobotica.abc.gob.ar, to provide online resources.

Another one of the changes that I think is important to highlight is the update of curricula, which were adapted to the real needs of today’s students. Most of the curricula that existed when we began the project were at least 15 years old, developed in a context in which information and communication technologies (ICTs) did not play a massive role. We had to change them, update them, and adapt them to the new times. Again, the delivery of robotics kits, 3D printers, tablets and computers doesn’t help if the curriculum has not adapted to these technologies.

We also focused our efforts on incorporating new ICTs into teacher training. Not only did we teach them virtual skills, we developed a detailed evaluation methodology that allows us to analyze the success of the training and plan future actions. Furthermore, we added pedagogical lessons to the virtual skills, so that teachers without an enabling degree can complete this section.

What did the joint work with IBM consist of?

We promoted the pilot of the P-TECH educational model, a joint project between IBM and our Office. IBM's idea arises in response to a lack of technological skills, the need to prepare young people for new types of technology jobs, and the lack of access to quality education in this area.

This model proposed a new type of public school ranging from the third year of the secondary school to the 2nd year of tertiary school, focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and technical education. The goal is to get students to master the skills they need, whether to graduate with a technology-linked tertiary degree, enter a growing STEM industry, or to continue and complete their studies at a four-year higher education institution. 

Being able to be part of this initiative was very rewarding, since we have been working and rethinking how to transform secondary schools to adapt them to this new digital age. In fact, our program of promoter schools deals with this by using project-based learning that is more related to technologies. It encourages exploration and experimentation, which generates curiosity and hopefully gets the students to be interested in finishing their studies.

The P-TECH educational model will be implemented in 2020 at the number two Technical School in Munro and with a curriculum based on the needs and opportunities of the IT industry from the first day of school. IBM argues that after finishing high school under this program, studies can be completed with the new Artificial Intelligence and Data Science Steanic at the new Higher Institute of Technique Training.

Thinking about the available data on school dropouts, what actions did you take to address this reality?

Reversing school dropouts was a clear goal from the beginning of this administration and one of the biggest needs to improve education in the province of Buenos Aires, where half of the students who start high school do not complete it on time.

Asistiré (I will attend) was one of the technology programs that helped us most in reducing school dropouts. With this project, we distributed devices (tablets) to schools in order to digitize attendance recording, which facilitated the early detection of repeated absenteeism of students through a dropout-risk alert system.

On top of addressing current students, we also had to think about former students that have already dropped out. Our statistics said that in the province of Buenos Aires, there were more than three million adults without primary or secondary school education. Here the challenge was to generate tools that facilitate the inclusion of adults and their return to the educational system. In this framework, we promoted different programs such as High School with Jobs, Adults 3.0, and Remote Education. These programs were designed for adults to complete their studies, expanding the accessibility and variety of classes offered to include in person, remote, and online courses.

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