Teacher’s Day may have passed you by last week. It’s held here in Argentina to commemorate the death of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (see the 50-peso bill), sepia toned ex-President who summoned herculean efforts to reform Argentina’s education system around 140 years ago. He knew what an important duty it is making sure kids can read, write and count, and how it’s also an investment in people and the national future. “Educate the Sovereign” he said.
It’s something the country has done a pretty good job at down the years: Education has been universal, secular and free for all ever since 1884, on its own a remarkable achievement. Argentina also has the joint highest literacy rate in Latin America and as a country has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other on the continent.
In this spirit, Cristina’s sidekick Daniel Scioli, governor of the Buenos Aires province (that’s doesn’t include the city, remember), unveiled a new set of education reforms. He is heavily rumored to be a presidential candidate for next year, and so this isn’t just a worthy piece of legislation but one of a series of profile boosting measures. (Making yourself or your party bigger is of course a massive component of representational democracy for those doing the representing, unless they’d prefer voters’ first response when looking at the ballot paper to be “Who?”).
Though on the table for some time, the plans were in the spotlight again last week with the talking of all things education on Teacher’s Day, the national almost-holiday where we remember those who sweat daily over recess milk spillages, the deciphering of handwriting and those vast seas of marking. Despite taking industrial action against Scioli earlier this year over pay, the teachers of the province themselves, represented by their strike-friendly Union of Educational Workers in Buenos Aires (SUTEBA) boosted the Governor’s move by praising the reforms in general, while also stressing the need for more.
On the other side, the plans were met by indignation and resentment en-masse from the political opposition and by a great deal of the anti-CFK press too. It became a fiesta of ideological mud-slinging, made all the more contentious as the proposed changes will exclusively be for the Buenos Aires province and, so some say, increase la grieta or ‘crack’ between the wealthy province and the rest of the country.
So what is all the fuss about? What exactly is going to change? Well, the reforms are pretty modest on the whole. We’re not talking about a radical overhaul of the curriculum in favor of compulsory Kirchner-worship, or the introduction of Maradona Studies as a requisite entry exam. They are solely for the Buenos Aires province, and are really just aimed at putting less pressure on Argentine kids when it comes to grades and exam-time, something very few of us have any fond memories of. That is unless you’re a Hermione Granger acolyte who relishes a good algebra test- there’s always one.
The grading system is changing for years Four, Five and Six, so that the previous 1-10 scale will become 4-10, four being the lowest possible score and ten staying the highest. No, this doesn’t mean you’re immune from failing now, simply that it’s doing away with the lowest numbers on the scale and bumping the whole lot up a bit, so the less cerebrally inclined kids aren’t given a humiliating ‘One’ every time they struggle on a test.
Also, the province will be scrapping the controversial practice (‘Old School’, if you will) of holding children back a year and forcing them to repeat the same classes again should they fail their end of year tests.
So far, so reasonable right? Well, no, not according to all those up in arms over Scioli’s plans anyway. A central line of attack used again and again by the opponents is that this will stifle primary education by scrapping the ‘aplazo’ i.e. the Fail in exams, and therefore remove incentive, even though a Four will still count effectively as a Fail on the new scale.
Mauricio Macri, the center-right mayor in Buenos Aires City, has openly attacked the reforms with this line of argument, while his education minister Esteban Bullrich said that eliminating the lowest grade boundaries was ‘hiding the province’s failures’. More shall we say, passionate attacks have come from the non-friendly media. Take this tirade from a piece in the Argentine edition of USA Hispanic entitled ‘Education Mortally Wounded in Argentina’:
“Does anyone in their right mind imagine where the youth of the province of Buenos Aires will now find logical reasons to overcome and make progress as noble citizens? It is clear that the objective is spurious and disgusting….It is a maneuver of [Scioli’s] known, rankest communism.”
Of course! Where is the logical reason to study beyond the threat of a low grade or being held back a year?! Forget enjoyment of a subject; forget passion for learning more about the world. Without the rod of punitive measures against children, there can be no progress in their journey to becoming ‘noble citizens’, whatever that means. You must be a double-crossing communist if you think otherwise!
Macri and the political opposition have been more considered than this hyperbolic, Red Scare rant that wouldn’t go amiss in a Glenn Beck primetime show. But their own criticisms of the reforms are shades of the same color. They have argued similarly that by removing the punishments of the lowest grades and threat of repeating a school year, school kids will put less and less effort into studying, will slowly cease feeling motivated altogether and so start a brain-drain on the youth of the whole province.
This goes against a great deal of professional opinion on the subject. For example, the UNESCO Law and Policy Review on the Right to Education recommends all children should have the right to be educated among their peers. The report also suggests that whoever’s in charge
‘take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.’
This is precisely what the reforms aim to do. Take retention, for example. Being held back a year is overwhelmingly considered by those who’ve done research on it to have a negative, demoralizing effect on kids. They’re left to watch their ‘cleverer’ peers walk on to sunny horizons ahead while they slum it behind, repeating the same lessons they struggled with initially but with an alien, younger class where they might have trouble fitting in and so resent school all the more.
Yes, it’s true that many successful countries don’t comply with these guidelines. But many do, too. Are primary school kids in the UK or Sweden academically lazy by not living under the threat of retention? No, this seems increasingly like hot-air from the opposition who can, it must be said, have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to progressive reform, and State-intervention of any kind that isn’t the military.
They also can’t resist Scioli as a ripe target; maybe hoping to soften him up for the election skirmishes coming next year. And, for his own part, the governor is surely hoping this path-finding experiment in his province will help boost his street cred for next year. On both sides the reforms have become a platform for political posturing, and this has clouded their modesty and good intentions.
As the Argentine system has a pretty decent track record down the years, superb in terms of the region, opponents of these moves affecting the Buenos Aires province ultimately use arguments that boil down to the static logic of ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it.’ But arguing every time in favor of the trusty stick over the carrot approach in education falls into a pitfall of conservative caution that is just as risky an any overhaul, since it risks stagnating teaching and the way schools function.
Like the other public services, education is a living, breathing part of society, and so it needs constant care and attention to make sure it’s working as well as possible. This limited bit of legislation is trying to do just that, based on evidence and disinterested advice. And, just as it was democratically introduced, so it can be repealed if enough people still disagree with it or, which seems unlikely, it proves a complete failure. Either way, it’s not going to bring on the apocalypse. So it should at least be given a chance, not snuffed out at birth as the opponents have said they want it to be.
Why stop a piano prodigy moving through school if they struggle with their times tables, or dishearten a science whiz-kid who has trouble understanding a novel? Why risk putting them off a place that can hone their skills and help out with their shortcomings by forcing them to repeat a year (which exacerbates drop-out rates) or handing them another ‘One’ for a topic they just don’t get? Society doesn’t benefit much, and neither do the kids. For all his lofty ambition, Scioli is trying to do the right thing over these issues, and has been subjected to a witch-hunt for it.