Over the past several years, a number of new players have been getting involved in the push for education reforms to increase school quality in Latin America. This includes civil society groups, Non-Governmental Organizations, the private sector, and –increasingly – parents and students.
The growing involvement of the latter of these groups is especially noteworthy. Parents and students are the most important beneficiaries of the education system, but they are too often absent from the major policy debates. Instead, the conversation is dominated by the usual stakeholders – like education ministers and teachers unions. Why? Why haven’t parents been more assertive in pushing for better education?
One answer is that up until now there haven’t been many incentives for students or their parents to get involved. Lorena, a mother to three school-age children in Bogota, Colombia, recently expressed a commonly-held view when she asked me, “What effect could I possibly have on my children’s school by getting involved in school reform?”
Lobbying from teacher groups has an immediate and identifiable impact: better salaries, more school funding, or improved working conditions. By contrast, an engaged parent population will have a more diluted and intangible impact, and its impact on the particular school their children attend may be imperceptible at first.
Matias Reeves, a founder of Chilean education reform group Educacion 2020, sees this as a major problem. Educacion 2020 seeks to involve citizens in the effort to improve educational quality, and Reeves argues that this effort is so difficult because of low trust levels among key players. “There’s no trust between teachers and school districts, or between teachers and parents,” he says. “Each side thinks the other is going to trip them up. Usually they don’t realize that working together would create a virtuous circle of change.”
However, Reeves points out that in Chile “at a national level, the students themselves have begun to take a leading role,” upending the traditional power dynamics of education reform. Especially since the massive protests of 2011, the student movement has been a force to be reckoned with by the old guard establishment of political parties and social movement leaders. This, in turn, sparks further participation as “the younger generation recognizes their power, and is increasingly eager to be part of these changes.”
Similar shifts are afoot in other countries in Latin America. In Mexico, for instance, parent groups have advocated the sweeping reforms of the Pena Nieto administration. And whether or not Latin American youth are actively taking to the streets, it is clear that they are worried about the quality of their education. A recent study by the Ibero-American Youth Organization (OIJ) found that of Latin American youth between 15 and 29 years old, more than 60 percent said their education was “just ok” and less than 10 percent said that it was “very good.” And in a major Telefonica survey of Millennial attitudes, 53 percent of Latin American youth thought that improving education was the most important way to make a difference, compared with other priorities such as environmental protection or sustainable energy.
The challenge for students is to find a way to turn their concerns into sustained, effective action. As Alejo Ramirez, Director of the OIJ, says, “youth indeed are participating more, but only on occasion – not always in a long term way that could deliver reforms.” And he continues, “the principal problem is that demonstrations themselves usually don’t lead directly to real changes.” It’s not enough to protest – a movement must also develop an institutional reality in order to be able to carry out serious improvements to the education system.
While students are making their opinions known, what about their parents? There is less information on the priorities of parents when it comes to education, but one such effort comes from the Fordham Foundation in Washington DC, which recently asked “What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade Offs.”
Fordham found that parents, even those from different socio-economic backgrounds, mostly share a set of basic demands: “we found that parents are more alike than they are different. A few key goals and school attributes rose to the top of almost all parents’ lists – features such as a strong core curriculum in reading and math; an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and the development of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills.”
But once these basics are taken care of, parent preferences begin to diverge. Some want a school that focuses on homework, some want a robust athletics program, and still others are looking for language programs or school-to-work training. As the Fordham study argues, “it would be hard, outside a system of school choice, for all of these parents to get what they want.” Above all, parents demand diversity – a fact which is largely lost in the current debates.
As Mike Petrilli of Fordham puts it: “Your local school stinks but you send your child there anyway? Then its badness is just something you object to in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you send your child elsewhere? If enough parents act like you then you are doing everything within your power to make it better.”Parents, like students, should realize that they have influence and responsibility to demand better quality of education, and start to use it.