How Chile's Growth Skipped Its Schools ; Students Have Ended Three Weeks of Protests, but Vow to Push for School Reform

By Jen Ross Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

How Chile's Growth Skipped Its Schools ; Students Have Ended Three Weeks of Protests, but Vow to Push for School Reform


Jen Ross Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


"A country's development is expressed by the quality of its schools, not by the quality of its highways." The hand-painted sign hung outside a Santiago high school last week, one of hundreds that have been paralyzed in recent weeks by massive student demonstrations calling for education reform in Chile.

The sign sums up the pent-up frustrations in one of Latin America's most stable economies, whose modern sewage plants, envied subway system, and automated-toll superhighways are icons of Chile's rapid economic growth. Meanwhile, many of the country's public schools are in dire need of new infrastructure, resources, and better-trained teachers.

Chile's education system has reached this state after years of neglect and outdated teacher training, says Rodrigo Vera, an education expert with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). "Even church ceremonies have changed more than our classrooms," says Vera.

He also blames what he calls a misguided faith in privatized services: "We've had a neoliberal-system way of trying to organize health and education, and after 30 years of this model we find that the market has produced differences and not equity."

In recent weeks, massive protests by high school students have captured the nation's attention with their cries for greater equity, becoming the largest mass mobilizations here in 30 years. Almost 800,000 students took to the streets in a national strike May 30.

The general public expressed widespread sympathy, with many hospitals and workplaces decked with posters of support. The Education Ministry was even shut down for a day as bureaucrats there joined the protest.

Since the return to democracy in 1990, the ruling center-left coalition, La Concertacion, has made strides in confronting many social inequalities, including halving the country's poverty rate (just 18 percent today). But, despite tripling its spending on public education, quality schooling is still only accessible to those who can afford costly private schools.

"Chile's model of development has relegated social progress at a key moment in its rapid development," says Alfredo Astorga, a regional education analyst with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Santiago, which was taken over by two dozen students last week in a passive sit-in to try to raise international awareness.

Astorga says Chile's educational system shines compared to other less-developed countries in the region. Its rural schools fare well comparatively, its literacy rate is high, and almost 100 percent of Chilean children now attend school.

But the protesters, it seems, expect more from a country that is in many respects already a developed nation. When compared to international indicators, Astorga says Chile's results are poor. In 2000, Chile came last in a test on reading levels held in 22 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Later that year, a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test on science and math levels ranked Chile 35th among 38 nations.

On the bright side, Astorga says an impressive 35 percent of Chileans go on to higher education, but he points out that there are huge disparities in access which reveal the gaping inequalities between public and private schools. …

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