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Under the Silver Lining

April 16, 2012

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m an optimist. At times, an insufferable one. This blog has been overwhelmingly positive so far, which I feel might be a symptom of my being a bit green here. Six weeks in and I’m still in the honeymoon stage. And while the country and training have actually been treating me well, in reality the Dominican Republic is not all sunshine and lollipops. (Okay, maybe 80% of it is sunshine, as evidenced by my red neck and farmer’s tan.)

I’m in the Education sector. Up until two months ago it was called the Information & Community Technology Education sector, back when the primary project was officially to teach computer literacy. But between the inception of that project and my arrival in country, Education volunteers realized that it is very difficult to teach computer literacy without a base of literacy literacy. If you can’t read a book, you won’t have much success navigating a computer. So the Education sector changed its primary focus to youth literacy (called alfabetización in Spanish—try saying that five times fast). So here I am, getting training in all sorts of fun ways to teach kids how to read. But no literacy program is an island—there are a lot of outside factors that affect the school system and our work within it.

I have a disclaimer on the sidebar, but I feel like this post may need another one. The following is in no way an expression of the views or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States government. They are solely my opinions based on information I’ve gathered from technical training sessions, Spanish classes, and conversations .

The 4%
I can’t go anywhere in this country without seeing some sort of political ad. We’re right at the end of campaign season; with elections coming up on May 20th, the candidates are scrambling to get last minute voters over to their sides. One issue that they’ve both endorsed is that of “the 4%.” Now you might have a knee-jerk interpretation of anything labeled “the whatever percent” thanks to the Occupy movement, but this is completely different. “The 4%” refers to a clause in the Constitution (last altered in 2010) that dictates that the government invest at least 4% of its GDP in the country’s public education system. Today, it invests 1.8%. In the two years since the latest iteration of the constitution, the government has not been investing the minimum amount required by law in its public schools.
Why is this a problem?
”The Capital doesn’t even send me chalk.” This is the common refrain of public school teachers, and it expresses why the 4% is such an issue. During his dictatorship Rafael Trujillo completely overhauled the education system, transforming it into a highly-centralized entity laden with bureaucracy. And it’s still that way today. The problem with a centralized system with no funding is that nothing gets done. There are schools all over the country that lack desks, modern textbooks, basic school supplies, and necessary repairs. Not to mention teacher salaries. When teachers are underpaid and have to use part of their salary to buy materials for their classroom that should be provided to them, they will not be as effective as they could be. Underfunding also affects coverage. If there isn’t money to build new schools in remote areas, students will continue to have to travel long distances to go to school. And the reality is that for many students, the transportation costs are too great to allow them to keep going to school after eighth grade. Cuba invests 10% of its GDP in education, and it has a 99% literacy rate. Unless the Dominican government wants to start investing financially in its education, children will continue to grow up to be only literate enough to write their names—if they’re lucky.

Mandatory Promotion
While the Ministry of Education struggles to make ends meet to provide for the country’s public schools, it has no problem wielding harmful legislation. There is a law that says teachers must pass students in first and second grade, regardless of whether or not they are ready to move forward. It was supposed to be a way to protect students’ self-esteem. “Failing” a six year-old student could possibly have horrible effects on his self-confidence. If a student doesn’t have the grades, it’s the teacher’s job to find a way to pass him.
Why is this a problem?
In first and second grade the focus is on learning to read, while in third grade it switches to comprehension (or reading to learn—see what I did there?). When students who cannot read or write get shuffled up to third grade, they suddenly find themselves way behind where they should be. These students end up repeating the third grade once or twice until they can finally read, which creates a ripple effect of overage students in later grades. I wonder what’s more damaging to someone’s feeling of self-worth: having to repeat first or second grade at a young age, or being eighteen years old and unable to read a book or newspaper?

The Tanda System
School days are organized into what are called tandas. Each tanda is a four-hour period of class, and students attend either a morning tanda or an afternoon tanda. During the tanda there is a 30-minute recess and a snack provided by the school under the reasoning that kids learn better on a full stomach. The combined distractions of recess, snack time, and the general rowdiness of children combine to bring the total time actually spent learning to an average of 2.4 hours a day. That works out to 12 hours a week.
Why is this a problem?
Twelve hours of learning a week is not enough to actually educate students. And even if the full 20 hours were full of teaching, the built-in distractions would still affect the quality of that education. Recess is important, but it takes a good half an hour for the kids to calm down afterwards. And while the snack is a good idea, it comes in the middle of the tanda and interrupts whatever momentum the teacher might have. Amid all this, teachers are expected to plan and give effective lessons and students are expected to learn enough to be reading by the third grade. Neither of those is happening at an acceptable level.

Politics and Teachers
Education, a common good, is not immune to some of the nastier effects of politics. A change of government can wipe out the Minister of Education, the district supervisors, and even teachers, to be replaced by people who are more in line with the new ruling party. In order to be hired as a teacher, you must first be named as a teacher by something called the national concurso. It was put in place three years ago as a way to weed out weak teachers and improve the overall quality of the country’s educators. While many agree that it has helped somewhat to improve the quality of teachers in classrooms, it has also become a political tool. To be named as a teacher and allowed to work in a school, you have to pass the concurso and provide them with a number of documents, including your political party’s membership card.
Why is this a problem?
If you don’t belong to the party in power, your job as a teacher is in danger. The concurso has been naming fewer and fewer new teachers, which has led to a shortage of teachers in schools. And a shortage means larger class sizes and exhausted teachers having to cover more classes. Large classes and tired teachers mean ineffective education. Without teachers, there can be no teaching.

So here I am, one person against all of this corruption, politics, and lack of resources. It feels daunting, of course. But I can’t spend all my time thinking of the macro. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we work in the micro in the hopes that something we do will affect someone’s life and allow them to change their world. So all I can do now is work with individuals, like my seven year-old neighbor. He loves to practice reading.

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