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Stormy times ahead for teacher education reforms

Last March, the new government in Guatemala announced a series of educational reforms intended to create a new mechanism for the training and professional development of teachers. The proposed educational reforms seek to increase initial teacher training from three to five years.

Students of high schools, who are known for their militancy – the escuelas normales – have strongly opposed the changes. They fear they will be disadvantaged financially as they will have to spend two more years studying. Students also fear the reforms will lessen the incentives for people to become teachers.

In recent weeks, students who oppose the reforms have clashed with riot police across the country, resulting in dozens of people being injured and requiring medical attention.

The focus of the reforms is to shift training from senior secondary education to higher education and create the levers for professional development for current teachers without a higher education qualification. The proposal seeks to add two years to initial teacher training and for the qualification to be awarded by a university.

The reform was put forward by the national Universidad de San Carlos and the National Teachers’ Union following a study undertaken to establish a system to develop teachers professionally, under the auspices of the United States Agency for International Development.

One of the peculiarities of the Guatemalan education system is that students who complete three years of study after their intermediate secondary education can become teachers. Guatemala is one of the very few countries in the world where initial teacher training still happens in the intermediate years of education.

As a person who grew up and completed secondary education in Guatemala, I had the option of enrolling in a normal school to become a qualified teacher after completing year nine (or at the end of intermediate secondary education).

Instead, I opted to complete a diploma in sciences and letters (of two years’ duration), which gave me the opportunity to enrol at university. Another option was to study for three years to become an accountant-bookkeeper.

Understanding student opposition

As a former student leader during my high-school years in Guatemala in the late 1970s and early 1980s – which coincidentally was the period that marked the height of conflict that resulted in more than 40,000 deaths and the disappearance of 100,000 Guatemalans – the current student protests attracted my attention. I wanted to understand the issues that have prompted the riots.

Given the inequality and uneven distribution of wealth in the country, student activism has been a constant in the social and political Guatemalan landscape. Students have been at the heart of the popular movement together with unions, indigenous rights groups and other progressive organisations.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the education reforms are being fiercely opposed by high-school students. The protests of recent weeks started in the same high schools that were politically active during the years of conflict, which ceased in 1996 with a peace accord between the government and guerrilla forces.

Most concerning about the current student protests is their potential to polarise the debate around moves to provide opportunities for social mobility in Guatemala. The country has a weak political system and there remain many unresolved issues from the years of conflict.

The national government has a relatively poor revenue base, which constrains the implementation of a proper agenda for educational reforms aimed at improving standards, which are currently among the lowest in the Americas.

Student fears are understandable, as the reforms will have a financial impact on their training. However, the proposed reforms will also enhance teachers’ professional standing as the extra two years of education should broaden their knowledge base, competence and confidence in teaching.

The possibility that the expanded curriculum will put students off training to be teachers should not be a factor in student opposition.

As matters stand, there has been mass production of teachers in Guatemala – there are 417 normal schools, which produce more than 20,000 teachers annually and the government’s capacity to employ new teachers stands at 4,000 per year.

Certainly there is an oversupply of teachers and the evidence suggests that many of those only attain the qualification to work part-time and-or pursue opportunities in other occupations and industries.

It seems reasonable that the government should enhance and expand preparations for those seeking the initial teaching qualification.

Discussions of such reforms have been under way since 1922, but the political will has been lacking to embark on such a long overdue reform. Several times over the years there have been attempts to shift responsibility for teacher training to the tertiary level, only to be postponed.

Reforms are imperative

On the human development index (HDI) Guatemala is ranked 131 out of 187 – the lowest HDI in Latin America. Given that the reforms will impact on students’ ability to afford two further years of education, their dissent is understandable.

But it is imperative that Guatemala embark on reforms that will both enhance the nation’s overall human development and support political stability. Such reforms should bring sustained economic growth and social harmony.

The student unrest cannot be allowed to create instability, nor can it become a possible excuse for the new Guatemalan government to silence opposition.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity attain a university education abroad and pursue a career in higher education management. I would like to think that Guatemala’s education standards would systematically improve in the coming years and attain parity with those in the region.

I aspire for Guatemalans to attain a higher level of social mobility so that they have the opportunity to bring the country out of the impoverished state it has been in for centuries. Such a project may take the efforts of two to three generations, but it deserves a good go.

Ideally, the training of teachers for all levels – pre-primary, primary and secondary – should take place at the tertiary level. The current system for preparing teachers is unsustainable and the proposed reforms can only be sustained in the short to medium term.

Furthermore, the professionalisation of teachers and the creation of a system for promotion based on merit, rather than cronyism or nepotism, should offset the number of people who decide not to opt for the profession or to leave it, and result in higher pupil retention rates.

Currently, a child of school entrance age can expect to have 10.6 years of schooling, which is below all other countries in the region. This cannot be sustained in the long term.

Boosting expenditure on improving health, living standards and education would be a good start to promoting sustainable development – particularly among the Mayan indigenous population and the poor. However, it may not be easy to make this happen as there is no surplus money in the government’s kitty.

Reordering the government's priorities may be the way to do it, but that requires political will in a country that faces so many challenges on different fronts. It can only be achieved if all political and social forces collaborate and engage in a national dialogue with the intention of sustaining national development.

* Angel Calderon is principal advisor for planning and research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
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