Transforming public education in Bolivia

Canadian unions contribute to Bolivian teacher training

OSSTF/FEESO and BCTF reps seen here with FUNDE 2016 graduates.

It’s early Saturday morning on a bright summer day in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and in a room tucked off a main street, a class on how to teach using the Internet is underway. About 35 adults, with their own laptops opened in front of them, listen intently to the instructor. They are mostly teachers, many from rural areas, along with a smattering of other professionals. Together they dedicate their Saturdays to a master’s degree in higher education, subsidized by the international programs of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).

Among them is Eva Cordoba, who teaches the Indigenous language Quechua and English at a rural technical institute. “This master’s program works well for me because it is on the weekends and the cost is so much lower than other programs—only Bs. 300 (a little less than $60) for each one of 18 modules.”

Igor Ampuero, a Bolivian who studied at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, is the founder of the Foundation for Development and Education (FUNDE), which runs the program. This Bolivian foundation has partnered directly with OSSTF/FEESO and BCTF for the past four years. It’s a project that actually began ten years ago, initially funded by Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through the Canadian Labour Congress’s Labour International Development Program (LIDP).

It started as a union training program which stressed public speaking skills and how to best represent union members, with an emphasis on including women and Indigenous peoples. Since then, the program has evolved into a variety of diploma and university-accredited graduate level programs with between 40 and 70 participants each year. “We still incorporate aspects of union training and gender, too, into the program,” explained Ampuero. “The money we receive from the Canadian teachers’ federations pays our rent, our staff, and provides 40 scholarships every year.”

The unions nominate the students considered for participation. “At the beginning, even though most teachers are women, the unions sent us 80 per cent male students,” said Ampuero. “We complained and now the participants are just over half women.”

Libertad Guzmán teaches math to primary school students in a village outside Cochabamba. “This program is a huge help,” she says. “My partner, who is also a teacher, and I have been looking for programs for five years, but they were all too expensive for us. This one is the only one we found that was affordable, had a strong curriculum that meets our classroom needs, and has good quality professors.”

Education master’s programs in state universities cost just about $2,300, and private universities charge even more. For FUNDE students, a degree costs $1,025. “Everyone on a full scholarship provided by Canadian teachers has Bs. 250 ($48) in counterpart funds from their local federation if they are rural teachers. Their urban counterparts pay this themselves,” clarified Ampuero. “We find that this helps to ensure seriousness and reduces dependence.”

The program’s vision of education extends beyond the traditional classroom. Thirty-four-year-old Enrique Ledesma runs a small business with his wife making cookies and crackers from Bolivia’s native seed quinoa. “I’m trained as an industrial engineer but we find ourselves teaching people in rural communities about how to convert their crops such as quinoa, fava beans or wheat into bread and snacks. This program is a great help in improving our teaching skills as we now work with about 16 rural and impoverished communities. I really like that this program has a very broad vision of education, and that it includes people from a lot of different disciplines.”

Bolivia suffers from one of the weakest educational systems in Latin America and that puts a serious brake on economic development. By the start of the twenty-first century, the country suffered from South America’s highest adult illiteracy rate. Women were three times as likely as men to be unable to read and write, particularly in rural areas where the illiteracy rate of 40 per cent was double that of cities. According to a 2016 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) study, education levels reflected class, race and gender differences, ranging from 13 years on average among wealthier, lighter-skinned male students to only 2.5 years for poor, indigenous and highland women.

When Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first Indigenous president in 2006, the new government moved quickly to increase literacy, launching a “Yes I can” campaign in March 2006. Over 500,000 people graduated from literacy classes in Spanish and Indigenous languages. “Not being able to read and write is like being blind,” Cochabamba’s Margarita Pérez recalled, “Now I feel like a real person for the first time.”

Education policy was re-framed as part of a broad commitment to decolonize society, put Indigenous and western knowledge on the same footing, and make education community-based and participatory. It was a daunting challenge. By 2015, the country was investing 8.7 per cent of its GDP in education, which places it second only to Cuba in Latin American education spending. School desertion rates dropped from 6 per cent to 1.2 per cent in the ten years between 2005 and 2015; temporary and untrained teachers declined from 25 per cent to 2.5 per cent in the same period; and over 3000 new schools, 10 new technical training institutes and 1500 distance learning centres have been constructed. The government has also significantly expanded the instruction of Indigenous languages.

Teachers’ unions in Bolivia are split into two: one rural and the other urban. Just as in the rest of Latin America, teachers are on the front lines of struggles for social change, and face low salaries, poor working conditions, and often unfair teacher evaluations. Some 70 per cent of Bolivia’s teachers are women, and almost the entire teachers’ union leadership
is male.

“As complicated as union politics are here, at FUNDE we’ve managed to maintain a healthy and productive relationship with both unions,” Ampuero said. “It has helped that we have been very transparent about where our funds come from and how they are spent. It also helps that we renew our contract with the teachers’ union every two years. They have come to trust that we won’t get involved in their internal politics. At the same time, we don’t let the unions manage the funds directly, because some leaders will attempt to use the funds for political campaigns.”
Almost a third of urban teachers live in poverty, with as many as half holding a second job. Rosario Ayala teaches 39 four- and five-year-olds for four hours every afternoon in a public kindergarten. “I work in a private school every morning just to cover my expenses,” she said. In 2012, with ten years’ experience, she earned a little less than US$400 a month working two
taxing jobs.

Now an average teacher earns US$800 per month, and is supplied with a laptop assembled in-country and loaded with the current curriculum. Math teacher and FUNDE master’s student Marcelo Martinez said, “I find FUNDE technical training on computers useful, and wish more of my colleagues had access to it. We have the government-issued computers, but too many teachers don’t know how to use them.” FUNDE has stepped in to help. “We do other programs based on what we and the unions perceive as outstanding needs. So far this year we have held two training sessions for 200 teachers on how to use computers, in both software and hardware troubleshooting,” said Ampuero.

Yery Saravia, President of the Rural Teachers union of suburban Quillacollo, is a young man who is passionate about improving training for rural teachers. “We have been working with FUNDE for eight years. They were the first organization to work with us who asked us what we needed as opposed to telling us what they were going to do for us. They treat us as colleagues, which is important because some of our teachers travel up to 10 hours to participate. We are really excited about new projects that we are talking about, such as a master’s in teaching technical training.”

Educational policy and practice has struggled to overcome the country’s neocolonial legacy. The Ministry of Education formed Indigenous Educational Councils (CEPOs), which drafted a new law based on consultation with local communities. Named after the founders of Warisata, a pioneering 1930’s effort to provide Indigenous education, and inspired by the liberation pedagogy of Brazilian Paolo Freire, the Avelino Siñani y Elizardo Pérez Education Law, was signed into effect in December 2010. Every child is obligated to learn an Indigenous language and culture alongside Spanish and western subjects. The new model is both intracultural and intercultural, fortifying culture within Indigenous communities. “We dream of a decolonizing education,” Morales asserted when the law was enacted.

In practice, however, the law has proven difficult to apply. FUNDE’s master’s student and rural school teacher Marcelo Martina explained, “We are having a hard time applying the new law, which is quite difficult to understand. There is a lot of bureaucratic requirements and too much paperwork.” Ampuero explained that after the law’s passage, “FUNDE was quick to incorporate the four pillars the new law envisioned to achieve a communitarian, decolonialized, participatory and inter-cultural education.” However, he continued, “While the law transformed education, we are not engaging with the law in a significant way, largely because of the structural limitations we face. If we continue with the same educational system—where we have both public and private schools and where we have two unions—one for rural teachers and one for urban—the transformative aspects of the new law will be weakened.” Added to this is a lack of consensus about how the law should be applied between teachers, students and parents.

The Ministry of Education’s Jiovanny Samanamud reported that “One of our biggest tasks is to improve teacher quality.” To accomplish this, the government set up a retraining program called
PROFOCOM, but according to Ampuero, “It has not proven very effective. It had the goal of training 150,000 teachers but lacks the necessary resources to carry out this ambitious goal. A challenge we face in improving teacher training is that the unions place little value on continuing education and helping teachers improve their classroom teaching. As teachers are now required to get continuing education, we decided to partner with a local university to provide accreditation.” Alina Guardia has taught architecture in the local state university. “I think FUNDE curriculum is excellent because it’s tied to what the state requires us to do, but is more innovative.”

During its 10 years, FUNDE has trained state deputies, mayors and legislative assembly representatives. “I’m particularly proud that we have trained two government ministers,” says Ampuero. “However, it is important to stress that we don’t have a direct relationship with the state because we need to ensure the independence of FUNDE. We support the process of change but we are not activists in the process itself. We have a cordial relationship, but one that is not too close. Our focus is academic not political, and our goal is to strengthen academic training to increase educational quality.”

Ampuero thinks of the support from Canadian teachers’ unions as solidarity, not charity. “We realize that our funds come from individual teachers who are union members, so that gives us a great sense of responsibility in the way we spend them.” Rural math teacher Libertad Guzman would like to see, “more exchanges, more sharing of experiences between teachers in the north and people who teach in the conditions we face.” In 2005 a delegation of eight teachers from OSSTF/FEESO visited Cochabamba, and from that visit developed Ontario classroom curriculum about the world water crisis.

As the students pile out into an interior courtyard for their mid-morning break, what emerges as they munch on sandwiches is their commitment. They have all worked as teachers or in teaching in some form, and their assessment of the challenges they face is sobering and often stark. But their hope and optimism still come through. “If we continue with the education we received when we were growing up, we never advance as a country,” said Edwin Gutierrez who teaches elementary school in Tiraque in rural Cochabamba. “This program gives us a chance to
change that.”

About Linda Farthing
Linda Farthing has written three books on Bolivia. In the 1990s she worked with Bolivia’s urban teachers’ unions on pedagogy and increasing women’s union participation.

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