Monday, June 22, 2009

Reforming education in Chile

On Friday, we went to lunch as a group with Marlen and Joe to meet with a guest speaker. The speaker is an English professor here in Santiago at the Universidad de Católica and also works as an education consultant for the government. The lunch was designed to give us a better understanding of the different types of school systems here in Chile.

Chile’s system is basically divided into public and private universities. However, the distinction between the two systems is complicated because some private universities, that are considered traditional universities, received some government subsidies. These include both U of Chile and U of Católica, the two most prestigious universities here. Even some public schools ask parents to voluntarily pay a little tuition. Furthermore, students in public schools tend to do worse on national testing compared to students that can afford to study at private universities. The system is full of inequality.

In impeccable British-English, Mauricio described the transformation of Chile’s education system, especially for public schools. He focused on the quality of the instructors, which has long been a problem here. Teachers, on the whole, used to be those students that failed in other specialties, rather than passionate and intelligent individuals. Salaries were quite low, in the neighborhood of $1000 USD per month without solid retirement pensions. Educators lacked the respect that teachers in Finland enjoy. Using Finland, which has one of the best public education systems in the world, Mauricio described the importance of changing the cultural of teaching. Teaching degrees in Chile were looked down upon rather than respected. This sentiment is supported by Acción Emprendedora’s model. Although AE considers itself an educational NGO, there are no teaching professionals in the organization. Instead, there are successful lawyers, engineers, and businessmen.

By increasing the cultural capital of teachers, as well as strengthening teachers’ degrees across both public and private universities, Mauricio hopes that Chile’s lacking educational system will improve. This process will not be easy. However, goals have been laid out in an ambitious plan for 2020. According to Mauricio, if the government implements many of these measures, which will be costly, Chile will have one of the best systems in the world in a decade.

Mauricio also talked about a project he was working on with the government as a consultant. There are many rural schools throughout Chile, especially in the south where there are hundreds of little islands near the coast and students have to take boats to and from school. Usually, there are few teachers. It’d be too difficult to train these teachers to teach English, especially because many of the teachers are between 45 and 60. As a result, the government is going to launch an ambitious plan to provide schools throughout the country with a cartoon video, like the Simpsons, that will help every student learn Basic English. According to Mauricio, Chile will be the only country in the world to introduce this virtual classroom technology. It’s quite an ambitious plan. With a huge price tag, I’m quite skeptical.
The final point that I’d like to address is the incentives that politicians have to reform public schools in Chile. Most Chilean politicians can afford to send their children to better private schools. They aren’t personally exposed to some of the dire problems of the current system. Additionally, education reform is a long-term process. There are few short-term benefits to expansive and expensive reforms. Since politicians seek reelection, they are unlikely to commit numerous resources to projects that won’t likely see progress for decades. Even with these barriers to reform in Chile, it seems that the importance of improving education is taking hold throughout Chile.


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  2. (fran :>) this is by far the worst problem we have in Chile. I had the luck to study in an old english private school, which not only was great academically, but cared about all the other areas of education-sports, religion, tolerance, democracy, etc. And now I'm studying in la Catolica. I'm a privileged and I know it...but the problem becomes clear to anyone that read the news or cares about it. I'm a teacher in a pre-universitario for kids that come from public schools and can't pay for other-more formal-teaching, so for me the difference between public and private is obvious...I saw a mathematics PSU essay test they took the other day and most of them answered 20/75 questions! Some even less than that, when in my school by mid-year we could have answer 60/75 or more. Plus most of them didn't go to school for the last months because of the teachers strike; strikes in the public education system are so common that no one really cares about's horrible. And, as you said it, there's little hope for change, as politicians only care about elections and not about long-term solutions. If the education gaps keeps on growing, criminality and all that stuff will keep on growing too, as gloomy as it sounds :(

  3. hey grant, side correction note: the U of Chile, despite costing an arm and a leg, and being really prestigious, is actually a public university. technically. it's just inaccessible for a lot of the population.