Decentralization Didn't Work in Argentine Education Historian Says
World Bank plan to decentralize Argentina's education system did more harm than good Buenos Aires historian tells educators at UCLA.
Published: Thursday, April 11, 2002
46% of teachers have more than 500 students in their classes, while 18% have more than 1,000
Despite a World Bank reorganization of the Argentine education system in the early 1990s to counter the economic slide, and substantial funding from the Bank, the Bank's imposition of a scheme to decentralize education had mostly negative results, according to Dr. Adriana Puiggros, a professor of the History of Argentine and Latin American Education at the University of Buenos Aires. Professor Puiggros spoke to an audience at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies April 4 in a meeting sponsored by UCLA's Latin American Center as part of its Interdisciplinary Workshop Series, funded by the Hewlett Foundation. The economic crisis had a serious impact in lowering the quality of education and driving many skilled teachers out of the profession, but the Bank's remedies did not help, Dr Puiggros said.
Effects of the Economic Crisis
During the 1990s, many of Argentina's provinces were devastatingly impoverished. The economic crisis spilled over and began to negatively affect the country's educational system, especially institutions of secondary education. According to the World Bank, rates of return to primary education are extremely low (about 3%), although returns to tertiary education are about 29%. But the poor are generally unable to get a college education, or even a high school degree, to benefit from the higher pay these promise. Repetition rates are high, as are dropouts. Only 24% of those aged 18-24 among the poor have a secondary education.
Argentina's economic crisis raised international concern and led the World Bank to intervene in the early 1990s with a series of economic, social, and political reforms, as well as generous amounts of aid intended primarily to increase the social and educational standards of the provinces, particularly in Buenos Aires.
The World Bank's Decentralization Plan
The World Bank began an immediate deconstruction of the existing system followed by an extensive reconstruction, with decentralization as the centerpiece of its reform effort. The undertaking, named the "Decentralization and Improvement of Secondary Education Project," gave a total of US$190 million to the struggling country.
It should be noted, Puiggros said, that the Argentine education system had been originally modeled on the American one. It had been principally shaped by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who had visited the United States in the 1840s. He was to serve as minister of education, and later President of the Republic (1868-1874). He imported scores of American women teachers for a massive reform that he hoped would strengthen democracy as well as learning.
Professor Puiggros felt that the World Bank's decentralization effort eliminated important mainstays provided by the former centralized system: Many of the Argentinian state-sponsored programs that had previously provided schools with books and supplies were terminated. Even worse, teacher salaries were dramatically reduced as well.
Puiggros pointed to the recent devaluation of the peso from a one-to-one exchange with the U.S. dollar to the current 3 pesos to the dollar. Argentinian teachers are paid in pesos-- 247 pesos on average--and their wages now have only a third the buying power they had the month before. The social impact of this drop is considerable, as some 40% of teachers are heads of households.
Conditions other than salary are poor as well. A teachers union in Argentina recently conducted a survey revealing that 46% of teachers in science schools report that their schools do not meet the minimum standards of the International Labor Organization. Sporadic initiatives for improvement often fail to realize their goal for lack of a more comprehensive plan. Puiggros gave the example of a government donation of 500 new computers to schools, but without teacher training in their use.
Argentine schools suffer from overcrowding that dwarfs the problems of American schools by an order of magnitude. Puiggros reported that 46% of teachers have more than 500 students in their classes, while 18% have more than 1,000 students. These conditions have even been deemed unhealthy by the Pan-American Institute of Health.
Puiggros saw some cause for optimism. Despite low pay there is not a great shortage of teachers in the country, although many need better training. In addition, until recently Argentina has the highest enrollment rate, second only to Uruguay, in Latin America, with 99% of students attending at their correct grade level. But in the present economic crisis, many have dropped out or at least stopped attending classes. One government program that puts a floor under attendance is its social welfare that provides students with free lunches. Many come to school to receive their daily lunch since they would otherwise go hungry.
Puiggros advocated autonomy from the World Bank initiative, as the decentralization program had been more harmful than helpful. Puiggros suggested that Argentina definitely has the tools to improve its educational system, it just needs to have the autonomy to use them.