Development Roast

What do we really know about education quality in Bolivia

Since the main purpose of education is to raise the future income generating capacity of the students, it will take several decades before we can truly know how well our present education system is doing.

Past experience is of little help as both the education system and the structure of demand has changed tremendously over the last few decades.

A commonly used shortcut to evaluate current education quality is to use standardized academic aptitude tests. According to the last internationally comparable test that Bolivia participated in, public schools in Bolivia are in really bad shape (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Average score on 4th grade language tests in several Latin American countries, 1997
Source: CEPAL (2002). Note: Maximum possible score is 400.

But this was before the 1994 Education Reform really had had a chance to affect results, and it is possible that things have improved. We simply don't have much quantitative information to rely on when assessing changes in education quality.

There is some qualitative information which suggests that children in reformed rural schools are happier and more engaged in classroom activities, both because they are taught in their maternal language instead of Spanish and because teaching methods have been modernized to be more interactive and include less memorization and punishment (1) 1. More self-confidence and participation would certainly be an improvement, although it does not necessarily improve test scores.

But test scores probably have little to do with future income earning capacity and contributions to society. Test scores do not measure attitudes and values, team-spirit, leadership potential, ability to solve problems in a constructive manner, creativity, open-mindedness, motivation, and many other aspects that are important not only for the future income earning capacity of the individual but also for the smooth functioning of society.

As long as the school system produces well-adjusted, responsible, open-minded, cooperative, creative and productive citizens, I wouldn't worry about those test scores.

But do Bolivian schools really do that?

Last week I saw a bunch of people chasing a taxi driver with the intention of punishing him for not obeying the transportation strike (which, by the way, had no worthwhile foundation). Among the group members were many school kids (schools were closed due to the transportation strike), which suggests to me that school kids are not learning how to communicate and solve problems in a constructive manner nor learning to respect other people's decisions and property.

To be fair, it would be almost impossible for any school system to teach children how to treat other people with respect, how to cooperate, and how to solve problems if the kids constantly get the wrong signals from relatives, neighbors and TV.

As long as the adults routinely break the traffic laws, throw garbage in the streets and rivers, block roads, vandalize property, fight, steal and even kill without any apparent consequences, even the best teachers will have a hard time turning their pupils into model citizens.

We all have a responsibility for the education of our children, not just the teachers and the schools. We all have to be good role models, and provide positive examples, because all the important skills and traits in life are learned by example and experience rather than from school books.

In a society as difficult as the Bolivian, with so many negative role models, schools have a particular responsibility and challenge. Teachers have to be so strong positive role models that they counterbalance all the negative examples the kids see after school. The schools have to be outward looking and forward looking, to compensate for the tendency of ethnic fragmentation and the blaming of history.

Do Bolivian public schools live up to that responsibility? I don't think so. Teachers are just average citizens, earning more than average salaries, and striking a whole lot more than average. The new school system is supposedly multi-cultural and bi-lingual, which sounds fabulous, but rather than teaching students about other cultures and other languages, they learn about their own culture and their own indigenous language. With the risk of being politically incorrect, I would say that this is inward- and backward-looking.

I would be delighted to have my kids in a multi-cultural bi-lingual public school if this meant they would become fluent in several important languages and turn into flexible world citizens capable of adjusting to life in any country, without any expense for me. But this is clearly not the case, so I have to fork out substantial amounts of money (about 7 times of per capita GDP!) for a private school that gets reasonably close to that ideal.

Obviously, few Bolivians can afford that, so what can the rest do? I would recommend exploring the possibility of boarding schools. These are expensive too, so they would also require international subsidies, but they have the advantage of limiting the adverse outside influence on the children, making it easier to turn the pupils into productive, responsible, creative, open-minded, contributing citizens. At least it is an option that deserves more consideration.

Know of similar situations where education reform would help improve a child's performance more so than doing well on a standardized test? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:

(1) Albo, Xavier & Amalia Anaya (2004) "Niños alegres, libres, expresivos: La audacia de la educación intercultural bilingüe en Bolivia." Cuadernos de Investigación No. 58, CIPCA & UNICEF, La Paz.
  1. #footnote