Education in Panama – hopes and dreams

Last week was the first week of school for public schools in Panama.  Universities typically finished their “summer holidays” at the end of January, but primary and secondary schools still have a three month summer vacation.

And after seeing headlines in Panama in late February, I’ve been asking myself: What has happened during these three months of school holidays? What efforts are made to ensure that when students return in the new year, the teachers will be better equipped as well as the schools in a better state?  And what can we do differently?

Panamá Bilingüe:

I was stunned by the news a few weeks ago that of 5,200 teachers sent abroad to study, only 1.5% (70) teachers were “certified”. Of course, it turns out that headlines sell newspapers, but don’t tell you the whole story!

During these summer months, about 1,000 Panamanian teachers and 500 students traveled from Panama to the US, England, Canada and Barbados for full immersion English classes through the program “Panamá Bilingüe”.  The Panamá Bilingüe program has a budget of over 100 million dollars for the five year period it is intended to run, and costs about $8,000 – $12,000 per teacher for training, airfares and accommodation costs.

When this program started in 2015, it was slated to be the beginning of a new era of education in Panama.  Unfortunately, if you look at the quality of the translation on the President’s website, you may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much hope for the future if this is the best that can be done for the President!

During the 5 year program (2015 to 2020), some 10,000 teachers are slated to receive instruction both in English and educational classes to improve the quality of the education received in Panama in public schools and at public universities.  A further 20,000 high school students and 30,000 primary school students are expected to also benefit from this program.

Teacher Training:

  1. national – before they are given any opportunity to study abroad, all expenses paid, the selected teachers are given training in Panama, in order to reach a certain level in English (Private & Public).  They are then given an exam (such as TOEFL or Cambridge) to see the level of their English before they go.
  2. international – 10,000 are being sent overseas. They will not only study English, some will also be studying in science and Education. Of these 10,000 teachers that are slated to go overseas before 2020, 5,200 have already completed the training internationally.  When they are sent overseas, they are expected to work (side-by-side) with teachers internationally (some 25-35 hours per week), as well as study at their designated University.

Unfortunately, the initial (and badly explained) results that came in February 2018 were not very promising. Of the 5,200 teachers who have traveled internationally so far in this program, only 70 (1.5%) have  obtained the Cambridge certification in English. However, what was important to note is that the certification in question was a certification to become examiners in Panama of students in English (i.e. it was not whether they had attained or not a proficiency in English, but whether they had a proficiency and the additional certification to be an examiner in Panama).  Five hundred teachers volunteered to participate in the courses for certification, of these 389 have a level of proficiency that are certified, and 70 have actually received the Cambridge certification as examiners.  So, while it sounds terrible that only 70 of 5,200 got certified, I had to read more to understand what they were getting certified in. Not half as bad as the headlines sounded!

In the explanations given by the Ministry of Education, they indicate that in terms of the English levels of the 5,000 teachers sent overseas to study, only 5% have completely failed to reach the levels of proficiency required (according to where they are at the time they start the course), and in these cases the teachers involved will be required to pay back the cost of the studies from their salaries.

What does concern me, however, is that the minimum level required is High Intermediate English. This means that the English teachers in our primary and secondary schools is possibly only Intermediate English.  These are not teachers who are speaking fluent English. So, if they are at intermediate level, how will our high school students reach anything higher than just intermediate?

Kids program:

In addition to the training for teachers, Panamá Bilingüe also offers classes for kids.  And this is for kids all around the country, not just in Panama City. Some of the kids will be from different regions, such as the Guna in San Blas, the Ngobe in the Ngöbe comarca between Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. Of the 13,000 that started in the program, some 8000 children that have been participating in Panamá Bilingüe for the first three years were tested and 82% have reached Intermediate Level (as gauged by the TOEFL exams).

School buildings: Gazebo schools

Of the 1,080 gazebo schools (escuelas ranchos) found to exist in July 2014, the Ministry of Education has only been able to replace 504 so far with school buildings (some still under construction).  As expected, this project is taking longer and costing more than the current administration anticipated: they are half way there with only little more than a year left before elections (5 year term).

Although the numbers mention 1,080 “schools”, this really means buildings or class rooms, rather than the entire school.  So, for example, in 2018 they are undertaking 16 projects for 69 properties, which will eliminate 209 gazebo schools.  The new school properties will include dormitories for the teachers (as some are in remote areas), as well as play courts (with roofs) which can be used for assemblies as well as for exercise and gym class.

One of the biggest difficulties being faced is the remoteness and access of the regions where these gazebo schools exist.  Many contractors are not interested in bidding for the projects in these areas, because of the transportation issues (materials as well as workers).  So, the Ministry of Education puts out the details of the public bid, and no one responds.  And the Panamanian Ministry of Education does not seem to have its own maintenance and building division for these particular cases.

In these regions, the debate continues to be over school buildings, with no debate being entered into regarding the quality of the education that these children are receiving.

How do we combat poverty in these regions without any infrastructure to speak of?

Public Schools not ready

In addition to the issue of Gazebo schools, which is gradually being addressed and faced, every start of the school year, we hear of schools that simply are not opening for the first day of school because basic maintenance work has not been done.  So, for example, on March 5th we read that some 20 public schools were not ready and a further 32 schools were opening, but with either infrastructure issues or not having enough teachers.

Of these 20 schools, 10 are simply not opening and ready, and a further 10 are using alternative properties for the school year while their schools are being maintained. Once again, we’re talking about whether there WILL be any education, not what the quality of that education will be!

What makes for a first world education system?

When we look at the question of education, obviously these are very basic issues that Panama is facing.  Quite unlike the kinds of issues that you would face in say New Zealand or the Netherlands. Panama says that it aspires to be like Singapore, and yet Singapore often comes out as the best education worldwide!   If we look at the World Education Rankings, Panama doesn’t even make it onto the graph! Even the articles that criticize the US education system, providing graphs that include our neighbors Costa Rica and Colombia, completely ignore the existence of Panama.

How did (or does) Singapore make it to the top? For starters, education spending makes up about 20% of the annual national budget! Yes, you read that right: TWENTY percent.  Panama spends only 3.5% of its budget on education!  We get what we pay for!

English is the first language in the education system (since the 1960s), meaning that all children are fully bilingual, usually reaching fluency in primary school.  Admittedly, during the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore adapted their “survival driven” system into one which could provide a skilled workforce for their industrialization. They have also adopted the requirement that throughout primary and secondary school, all children must participate in one after school program (performing arts, clubs, sports, etc.).  Maybe these children aren’t perfectly well-rounded, but they are at least socialised and with some leadership skills.

Upon completion of secondary school, Singapore offers vocational education (since 1992), Polytechnics and Arts Institutions, Junior Colleges (2 years, pre-University), and Universities.  It also offers other alternatives, and encourages students to pursue further studies even after completing their Polytechnics or vocational training.

This strong focus on education in Singapore should be a shining example to Panama, as like Singapore, we lack natural resources (other than the Canal) and we need to develop our human resources and manpower to build a knowledge-based economy.  Obviously, there’s a lot more we could look at in Singapore’s system: meritocracy, investment and the priority that it has been given.

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