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International Comparison: Perspective From Nicaragua

Recently, amidst teacher bashing, budget cuts, and unimpressive international rankings, it's been hard to feel good about the state of education in this country. But having spent the last week in Nicaragua and seen a slice of the education system there, I have to say I'm feeling a bit better about the way things are going on our turf.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere—by most counts second only to Haiti. While primary school is officially compulsory there, enrollment is not enforced. Many students stay home to work or look after their siblings, or because they cannot afford the few cents it costs to ride the bus to class.


I visited a remote two-room school in the mountains of the Matagalpa region. My friend, a Peace Corps volunteer, teaches environmental education at this school (and several others in the surrounding mountains) for a few hours each week.

The students in the class I saw, who ranged in age from 10 to 14, began their school day working in the garden. Peace Corps volunteers often plant gardens in schools so that students can learn the process and take vegetables home to their families. The Nicaraguan co-teacher instructed several students to run home and fetch posts for the fence they were building. Over the next hour, the boys showed off their (frighteningly acute) skills with the machete, while the girls swung the pickax a few times and then retired to the shade.

After gardening, my friend, who previously taught middle school in Kentucky, led a lesson on sexually transmitted diseases, part of the United States Agency for International Development's curriculum. In a candid lecture, he discussed the differences between gonorrhea, syphilis, chancroid (an STD found mainly in the tropics), herpes, and HIV/AIDS. It was a sophisticated lesson for middle schoolers. I understood the importance of the message better toward the end, when students were encouraged to explain the risks of such diseases to their parents.

Throughout the lesson, the students were strangely stoic. There were no interruptions or giggles. Not one behavioral intervention was necessary. But they also did not ask or volunteer to answer any questions. They were attentive and respectful but unengaged. My friend explained that this reticence—encouraged by a culture of machismo in which children, like women, are rarely consulted or even addressed—is a consistent problem in schools.

From my observations, it seemed that about 80 percent of the students had basic reading skills. When compared to some our nation's worst schools, that percentage doesn't seem so dreadful. But the little reading these students did in class—during a game about STDs—is the only reading they will do all day. They'll return to homes devoid of books or newspapers or even words at all. Although there are USAID textbooks in the classroom, students are, in most cases, not allowed to take them home, my friend explained. The school leaders are afraid the books will be ruined or lost.


About three hours into the day, it was time for lunch—the real reason most students show up to classes, my friend said. The government doles out three months worth of beans and rice at a time, which the parents take turns cooking and bringing in for lunch. If the beans and rice run out in two and a half months, my friend explained, the students stop coming to school.

The school day—one of only three for that week, since Thursday and Friday had been declared local holidays—was over before noon. Students boarded the community bus and returned to their farm towns and families.

Test prep, common core, and value-added measures are not a part of the Nicaraguan system. But this is the other end of the education spectrum. Academic progress is not tracked, emphasized, or much discussed. There are few, if any, resources for students with disabilities or learning delays (in fact, there's so much stigma attached that most kids with disabilities do not attend school at all). Teachers are not evaluated or monitored or given professional development—and the majority of teachers hired are, not surprisingly, affiliated with the political party currently in power. The purpose of school is reduced to two simple tasks: feeding kids and taming public health epidemics.

When all else looks bleak around here, perhaps it's worth remembering that we are lucky to have a solid enough infrastructure that our schools can provide for more than just students' physiological needs.

Photos: A Peace Corps volunteer teaches a lesson on sexually transmitted diseases at a school in the Matagalpa department of Nicaragua. —Liana Heitin

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