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Why Should We Study Ecuador’s Education Reform?

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By Pablo Cevallos Estarellas*

Discussions of recent education reforms in Latin America seldom mention Ecuador. Since 2007, this South American republic of approximately 15 million people has attempted a profound reform of its school system, and managed some interesting successes. But it remains one of the least observed and least researched educational reforms in Latin America. The Ecuadorian case should be studied because we can all learn from it, for at least three reasons.

  1. Ecuador is the unusual case of a Latin American country that moved abruptly from having a nearly abandoned school system to a school system that is a central part of its public administration. Between 2006 and 2013, the country tripled its budget for non-university education, and—taking advantage of a rare period of political and economic stability—adopted and sustained policies of integral educational reform that generally coincide with the international consensus on what a country should do to improve the quality of its education system.
  2. Preliminary results from UNESCO’s third assessment of student learning in Latin America (Tercer Estudio Regional Comparativo y Explicativo—TERCE—in 2013), compared with those from the second assessment (SERCE, in 2006), suggest that Ecuador is among those countries in the region that have most rapidly improved education quality, as measured by student learning (UNESCO, 2015). In short, Ecuador went from being one of the lowest scoring countries in SERCE, to being near the average in TERCE—the second most-improved country in third-grade reading, fourth most-improved in third-grade mathematics, and second most-improved in sixth-grade mathematics.
  3. Ecuador is one of the few Latin American countries with “progressive” or leftist governments that have shown some success in improving education during the past decade, at a time when discourse has centered on re-conceptualizing education as a right rather than a commodity, restoring public education and bolstering the teaching profession, opposing privatization and decentralization of the education system, and striving for high-quality education with equity. This can be significant because it represents an alternative to better-known models of education reform that focus on privatization and deregulation, in accord with “neoliberal” recommendations.

In this article, I focus exclusively on the education policies that were devised and implemented between 2007 and 2013, during the administrations of Ministers Raul Vallejo and Gloria Vidal, since in both there were enough common elements to identify a policy continuity. Policies began to change in 2014 during the administration of Minister Augusto Espinosa, but it is probably too early to evaluate them.

What happened to Ecuador’s education system between 2007 and 2013 that should be made known? In the following paragraphs, I will try to summarize the essential elements of a story that would take up a lot more space if explained in detail (a more detailed version is available in Cevallos Estarellas & Bramwell, 2015). The story begins in 2006, when Ecuador had just undergone its most unstable decade in recent history: between 1996 and 2006, three democratic governments were overthrown, and seven people occupied the presidency of the republic. In that year, Ecuador’s school system could be summarized as follows:

  1. Weak control of the state over the school system, and a highly bureaucratized ministry.
  2. A legal framework that was outdated and unconnected with the needs of the education community.
  3. Low priority for education financing.
  4. Limited and unequitable access to education.
  5. Inadequate and insufficient physical conditions in the school system, despite growing demands.
  6. Privatized and commercialized educational services.
  7. Low levels of student learning, inappropriate curricula, and the absence of assessment and accountability systems.
  8. A devalued teaching profession.

In 2006 the team at the Ministry of Education under President Alfredo Palacio (who immediately preceded the current government), along with civil society organizations, launched a call for a referendum on education policies. In a public consultation on November 26 that same year, eight education policies were submitted for consideration and were approved by 66% of voters, thus becoming national education policies. The following are the approved policies, which became known as the Ten-year Education Plan (Plan Decenal de Educación), for the decade between 2006 and 2015.

  1. Universalize Early Education (for children aged 0-5).
  2. Universalize Basic General Education (for children aged 6-15).
  3. Increase upper secondary education (“bachillerato”) enrollment to reach at least 75% of the population of corresponding age (between 16 and 18).
  4. Eradicate illiteracy and strengthen adult education.
  5. Improve the physical infrastructure and equipment of schools.
  6. Improve the quality and equity of education, and implement a national system of assessment and social accountability.
  7. Strengthen the teaching profession and improve pre-service training, in-service training, working conditions, and quality of life.
  8. Increase funding of early, basic, and secondary education as a proportion of GDP by 0.5% annually, until reaching at least 6% investment in the sector.

In January 2007, President Rafael Correa was inaugurated and, in accordance with the Ten-year Education Plan, began to apply three sets of education policies, which I will try to summarize:

  1. Policies designed to restore state jurisdiction over the education system. Before 2006, the Ecuadorian State lacked effective control over what was happening in its schools; the Ministry of Education limited itself to centrally managing the education system (paying the salaries of teachers and other administrators, for example) but did not generate or manage public policies. Therefore, several steps were taken, such as: (a) reconfiguring the Ministry of Education as a leader of education policies rather than just an administrator; (b) reorganizing Ecuador’s school system into 9 zones, 140 districts, and 1,142 education circuits, through a new model of de-concentrated management; (c) developing a new legal framework for education (from the Constitution to the Organic Law of Intercultural Education and its Bylaws) that redefines education as a right and public service; (d) increasing public spending on education sector as a share of GDP by 0.5% annually (though it still has not reached the 6% target. The share in 2009 was 3.68%, and in 2013 4.5%); and (e) tripling the budget assigned to non-university education, which went from $1,094.6 million in 2006 to $2,908.4 million in 2012.
  1. Policies designed to universalize school enrollment. By 2006, the supply of public educational services was limited, as compared with the growing demands of the population, especially in pre-school and the six years of secondary school, all of which became mandatory education through the Constitution of 2008. Two types of policies were applied: (i) policies designed to stimulate demand for education, and (ii) policies designed to increase the supply of education. Among the first type were (a) guaranteeing free public education by eliminating charges that had become common until 2006, (b) conditioning the disbursement of a monthly $50 bonus for people living below the poverty line on school attendance by their children, and (c) eliminating barriers to accessing the education system by providing textbooks to all students, as well as uniforms and meals to the neediest students. Policies designed to increase the supply of education included: (a) increasing and improving school infrastructure, equipment and materials, especially in remote areas or among historically neglected populations, (b) increasing the number of teachers in the school system, and (c) building new schools, especially at levels and of kinds where supply was insufficient to meet demand.
  1. Policies designed to improve the quality of educational services. In Ecuador, as in most countries of the region, reaching near-universalization of educational services has by no means guaranteed that these services are of excellent quality, especially for the most impoverished sectors, which tend to be the users of public education. Therefore, an independent objective of education policy is to improve the quality of public education in order to guarantee equal educational opportunities for all. For this purpose, three policies were applied:
  • Redefine the general purpose of the education system, targeting equal opportunity. To accomplish this policy, authorities took the following actions: (a) reformed the national curricula for Initial Education, Basic General Education, and General Unified Upper Secondary Education (Bachillerato); (b) formulated three types of educational standards: student learning, professional development (for teachers and directors), and school management (to guide the work of the schools); and (c) supervised the publication of new textbooks aligned with the curricula and standards.
  • Strengthen the teaching profession and improve human resources in schools. To enforce this policy, authorities: (a) established rigorous selection mechanisms for new and future teachers (e.g., rigorous entry tests and minimum scores on university entry examinations to qualify for careers in education); (b) sought to improve pre-service training by establishing professional profiles for teachers and creating the government-operated National University of Education, UNAE (which began operations in 2015); (c) established in-service teacher evaluation systems, that would be able to diagnose needs in continuing training, and developed corresponding systems for remedial training and/or professional development through a system called SIPROFE; and (d) implemented strategies to retain the best teachers in the profession, including increasing the monthly salary of teachers with a bachelor’s degree, which grew from $396 in 2006 to $817 in 2012. A new organic law also introduced a merit-based teacher classification system as well as a career path with more job options.
  • Change the institutional architecture of the school system, and overcome the traditional dynamics of State intervention, and transform schools into principal agents of educational change. In this category, the Ministry of Education took the following actions: (a) eliminated educational supervision, and created in its place a system of educational support and monitoring, with two new professional positions (advisors and auditors) in charge of helping and assessing schools, respectively; (b) strengthened the role of school directors as pedagogical leaders, and for the first time assigned them a salary in accordance with their professional responsibilities; (c) established a comprehensive educational evaluation system charged with providing constant feedback to schools, so they can diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, the general outlook of the education system in Ecuador has changed radically in the last few years in terms of governability, access, and quality. With respect to the first, the Ecuadorian state gained jurisdiction over the education system through the Ministry of Education, which was re-designed to generate public policies and supervise their implementation nationwide. Concerning the second, results from available statistics show a sustained growth in school enrollment beginning in 2007 that reached near universalization of General Basic Education in 2012, as net enrollment rate grew from 91.2% in 2006 to 95.4% in 2012. Moreover, the net enrollment rate in upper secondary school (Bachillerato) rose from 47.9% to 62.1% over the same time period. However, the most important accomplishment was the fact that historically neglected ethnic groups—indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians—showed the greatest increase in school attendance, so that both groups’ enrollment rates are now comparable to the national average.

Finally, with respect to the goal of improving the quality of education, results are less conclusive. So far the only available evidence to suggest that Ecuadorian students have improved in this area is found in the 2013 TERCE results, which show a significant improvement in learning compared to 2006. Nonetheless, we can also argue that Ecuadorian students’ TERCE results are still unexceptional. While they have improved, they are still comparable to the low Latin American averages; thus there is still much to be done to improve education quality in Ecuador. This, however, is not surprising, since we know that qualitative changes in education happen slowly, but only as long as there is continuity in the application of appropriate public policies. Therefore it would be interesting to determine to what extent the policies applied since 2014 in Ecuador show continuity vis-à-vis those applied between 2007 and 2013, but that would be the topic of a different article.

*Pablo Cevallos Estarellas is a Professor and Researcher at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. He previously served as Vice Minister of Education in Ecuador. You can contact him by email (pablo.cevallos.estarellas@gmail.com) and follow him on Twitter (@patriotaultimo)

References

Cevallos Estarellas, P., & Bramwell, D. (2015). Ecuador, 2007-2014: Attempting a radical educational transformation. In S. Schwartzman (ed.), Education in South America (pp. 329-361). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

UNESCO, Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (2015). Resumen ejecutivo. Informe de resultados: Logros de aprendizaje TERCE. Santiago, Chile: Author. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Santiago/pdf/Cuadernillo2.pdf

Photo credit: Escuela Dilma Acosta de Alvarez 012 / Transbarca en Imágenes / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (with modifications).

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