Photo: AP, retrieved

The Offspring song Why don’t you get a job? comes to mind when I wonder if today’s elementary education is Venezuela’s future. The government is condemning the country to be a source of cheap labor with forgotten schools, post-apocalyptic factories and pregnant teenagers, something that won’t be easy (or quick) to solve with a change of regime.

We live in a quiet mountain near Nirgua, a small farm-town of Yaracuy state. I’m a retired journalist and my husband a retired engineer. We came here looking for nature, organic seeding and raising our kids far from the chaos of the city. Yet looking to enroll the children in the nearest public school, I found a horrifying panorama: there’s a revisionist study of historical figures and basic math operations. And that’s all they teach you.

Children must spend eight hours (with their respective meals if they’re lucky) at dull classrooms more akin prisons, with cracked walls, peeling paint and a poor feeding program. To promote learning and the fun of acquiring knowledge, there are no libraries, computer classrooms, playgrounds or even running water.

While today’s global tendency is to provide new technologies for the educational system, how will a Venezuela without educated thinkers, technicians and innovators be? Is it government policy to get kids used to cheap labor?

If you come from a poor family and your only chance in life is your education, and if they do not give you these fundamentals, nothing will save you.

“The future of countries resembles the present of their schools” said the former Education Secretary of Miranda State, Juan Maragall. Last year, he described Venezuela as a “black sheep” when it comes to school performance: “In 2010, when we applied the Pisa international tests in Miranda to evaluate 15-year-old students, 80% had unacceptable levels in math, and the world average is 12%. That’s critical, if you don’t have mathematical thinking, you can’t have scientific or logical thinking, you have many personal and professional limitations.”

To take a look at any of my daughter’s friends notebooks is an act of intestinal fortitude; none of them knows how to write correctly in their native tongue, despite being in the 4th or 5th grade. They’re capable of receiving one subject a day. Maragall says that “if you’re not fully literate by the third grade, schooling is bound to fail.” I’m tutoring three girls between eight and nine years old, who ignore the basics of reading and writing in Spanish.

Andreas Schleicher is coordinator of The Programme of International Students Assessments (Pisa) and, speaking of Latin America’s low school performance in 2014, he stated: “We do not say that science, math and reading are the only things, but they are important foundations. If you come from a poor family and your only chance in life is your education, and if they do not give you these fundamentals, nothing will save you.” Unfortunately, Venezuela does not participate in Pisa tests and we cannot know our actual records of school performance.

Source: Improving learning outcomes worldwide: How PISA can help, April 2013

The line chart above presents the relationship of national wealth (as expressed by GNI per capita) with reading performance in Pisa; it shows Miranda State reading performance as a relevant sample of the educational situation of the country: In 2013, Venezuela was classified as a non-high income country (GNI < 12.476 USD per capita, according to World Bank Indicators of 2011) and an okay reading score close to 425 points, greater than Trinidad and Tobago and Qatar, both considered as high income countries that year. Costa Rica, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Lithuania, Serbia, Chinese Taipei and others classified as non-high income countries as well, with a considerable higher reading performance than ours.

When the Ministry of Education gives a Canaimita mini-laptop to a poor Venezuelan child, how does the State make sure it will benefit his educational development? With no internet supervision or filters to avoid adult content, these computers are surely misused, an unaddressed fact on the 39th session General Conference of Unesco on November 2017, by Elías Jaua.

Some of the main features of the best American public elementary schools, like highly effective environments at stimulating learning and fostering personal growth, institutional attention to variety, innovation, fun and strong parental involvement, and a highly-motivated faculty, staff and students, might provide us with a compass on how to improve.

One thing’s for sure: changes won’t happen as long as chavismo is in power.

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