By Marino González, Universidad Simón Bolívar professor
It's not just bridges that collapse in the Chávez administration. The collapse of Viaduct No. 1 is shocking because it was easy for all to see, and because we witnessed the fall of one of the masterpieces of global engineering. However, another dramatic collapse is happening, one that is close to us but not so easily perceived by our eyes, and one that could undermine the viability of Venezuelan society in this century of knowledge.
The future of a country’s education system figures in more or less every government’s agenda. Many governments implement substantive reforms to increase the coverage of education, but many also try to improve its quality. History shows that guaranteeing universal coverage is not enough. Classrooms need to be full of students, but they also need to be full of students who want to learn, students who can participate actively and create their own education, without distinctions. Moreover, one of the prime concerns of a democratic government should be that poorer children seek and find in public schools the tools to lessen or eliminate the differences and socioeconomic disadvantages inherited from their parents. In other words, public education is the antidote par excellence against poverty and lack of opportunity.
Obviously, improving quality requires an instrument to measure it, a yardstick to hold up to policy to help correct its flaws, as well as to provide education administrators with the information they need to improve the performance of students, teachers and schools.
This idea was implemented in Venezuela through the National System for Measurement and Evaluation of Learning, or Sinea (after its Spanish acronym.) The first run of Sinea was done in 1998. The results showed that 36% of all third-graders were below the minimum standards in language-related tasks. The share below the minimum for ninth-graders was 40%. Only 9% of ninth-graders reached a fully satisfactory score.
In math, performance seemed even worse. 54% of ninth-graders did not meet minimum standards in that area. Only 2.9% reached a satisfactory score. Among sixth-graders, the percentage failing to reach the minimum was 34.7%.
It seemed evident that an education system with performance levels like these was clearly lagging. It was also clear that improving the quality of education should have been a key goal of the current administration.
As in many spheres of public policy, the results in this area are not known. Looking through the Ministry of Education and Sports' web site, you find lots of rhetoric and no data. We're told that Sinea provides “timely, valid, serial and trustworthy” information, but nowhere do they list percentages or data on achievement. There is lots about the benefits of Sinea, but these are merely words.
We know that the second set of Sinea tests were carried in 2003. Its results are probably the best-kept secret in the Chávez administration; nobody has seen them. Regrettably, without this kind of information, it is simply not possible to evaluate the performance of our students, teachers and schools. We are undoubtedly left with an educational system set adrift in a sea of missed opportunities and wasted resources.
This situation is certainly not the international norm. For example, Chile’s Ministry of Education website shows that, on average, eighth-grade students increased their performance in math by three points and language by six points between 2000 and 2004.
While others move ahead, we don't even know where we are. This is especially serious when the ones getting left behind are our kids and young people. It is a manifestation of incompetence at the highest level.
March 31, 2006
Katy says: This article shocked me; read it and weep. The author is a friend of mine, and he may be visiting the comments section. He gave me permission to translate it.