I never heard the words “accountability” or “high stakes testing” once in a recent educator delegation to Venezuela. As a U.S. professor of teacher education, I seldom have discussions about education policies and realities in my own country without confronting these fraught concepts. But in the schools and educational systems of Venezuela? Not part of the discussion.
The dialogue there is more about education as a human right and what the government is responsible to provide. It’s not about outcomes, as we might say, but more about access and opportunity. What our small group from the U.S. encountered was a wealth of testimonials, not testing.
We also learned about some very concrete and positive results that have occurred since President Chavez began addressing the country’s widespread illiteracy and lack of access to schooling upon being elected to office in 1998. For example, by 2005, UNESCO declared that Venezuela had essentially eradicated illiteracy, with over 1.5 million people having newly learned to read and write, primarily through a Cuban-developed curriculum and pedagogical approach.
Elementary schools are now all-day schools
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background:white”>Our group of ten got to be guests of honor at an elementary school that was having an all-day graduation celebration that featured very skillful and beautiful student performances in dance and song, including traditional costumes and displays of original art. Graduating students came up to us and asked us to add our signatures to the t-shirts they were wearing – a custom akin to signing yearbooks in our country.
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background:white”>newly housed in a building completed in 2010 – a gift from President Chavez, who was personally persuaded to do so by its charismatic principal, Gaudy Garcia. The school’s curriculum focuses on
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";background:white”>is the adult education program that has been so successful in eliminating illiteracy in Venezuela. Irlanda Espinoza, the regional director of this program in the town of Sanare, met with us. She spoke movingly about how this program was a response to the social debt to the poor that had accrued for many years prior to Chavez, when the prevailing belief was that not all people had a right to education. She added that they had also stopped providing an education for pregnant girls prior to the revolution, so now there was a debt owed to the children of these girls.
10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>For example, the government sent her office education statistics culled from a recent census of people in the area who were enrolled in Amor Mayor, the mission for those over 60. Irlanda goes from house to house out in the country visiting those who said in the census that they do not know how to read and write, asking them if they want to learn. If not, they sign off that they do not want this service. The program is going for a 100% recruitment effort, which she believes is essential. “This is a way of making everyone an active citizen,” she says. “If you can’t read or write, you don’t know your rights and responsibilities and you really can’t serve on a community council.” She knows all about the liberationist educational philosophy of Paulo Freire.
In the city of Barquisimeto, we visited El Sistema, the local branch of the national music conservatory for youth.
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color:#333333″> is a government sponsored classical music education program that reaches 350,000 youth in 125 orchestras. They report that about 70% of their participants come from lower income brackets. It began in 1975 and has become a world famous system and has been adopted around Latin America and Europe. Well-known director Gustavo Dudamel, currently serving as music director of both the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black;background:white”>Local community colleges are being converted to territorial universities with the intention that they will educate everyone and also contribute to the strategic projects of the nation. The university we visited in Barquisimeto has 12,500 students who are studying science & technology, ergonomics, library research, integral systems, public administration, applied computer sciences, food sovereignty, security, conservation, and other areas. As in the Bolivarian schools at lower levels, the curricula are focused on projects intended to contribute to the local communities. And unlike the traditional universities, studies are not housed in disciplinary departments, but are generated by the faculty and students in an integrated, multidisciplinary approach. Professors and instructors do not always hold traditional degrees. “
background:white;font-weight:normal;mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Soraya El Achkar, mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#333333;background:white”>We met with Soraya at the academy in Caracas, where the construction of new buildings was still in process. The site was, pre-Chavez, a much-hated prison. Soraya persuaded Chavez to make this the site of the academy, a place of hope arising from the ashes of despair.
there are 25,000 students, and 4,000 staff (professors, administrators, workers). They teach police at all levels as well as district attorneys and prison guards.
The approach to education used is a collective decision-making process about what should be in the curriculum, with police, teachers, and human rights groups working together. There are three axes in the curriculum, Soraya said: eco-socialism, human rights, and equality of gender.
The curriculum itself revolves around four aspects of working with the community: youth; disarmament (what we would call gun control); culture, sports, music, and art; and living together (i.e., mediating difficulties). Community partnerships and coalitions are fostered and efforts made to help youth find jobs and productive activities.
There are two cross-cutting themes through all the policing coursework:
The progressive and differential use of force, adjusting police response to the people and context involved. Violence is prohibited. The judicious and appropriate use of force is what is taught.
Community policing. Police are taught to develop working and collaborative relationships in the community and to looking for community solutions to crime.
Soraya told us that Chavez was “big on education.” He would say, “We need to have more intelligence and less force.” Police reform, she said, “embodies the spirit of Chavez, the revolution, and human rights.”
Her vision for the academy is that it will go from UNES (national academy) to ULES (a Latin American academy), to be the equivalent of Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. Soraya also sees this work to be a counterweight to the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA) and to the U.S. International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), both of which are known for training military and police in methods or repression and whose graduates have a reputation for torture, assassinations, and coups. Venezuela is now taking its turn as the leader of Mercosur and police education may be one of the emphases it brings to that group of nations.
It was apparent to our delegation from this brief tour of Bolivarian education in Venezuela that what is meant by the term “education reform” in that country is virtually the opposite of what we call education reform in the United States. Here, that term has come to mean a centralized and standardized approach that works from a premise of blaming and disempowering public school teachers. It operates through a regimen of external testing and individualism, diminished public funding, and government-sponsored privatized decision-making. The rationale is to engender greater competitiveness on the world stage. The effect is exclusionary. It is a capitalist model, framed in terms of world domination.
In Venezuela, by contrast, education reform means inspiring local and diverse approaches that work from the premise of empowering the people working in the schools. It operates through an ethic of internal responsibility and collectivism, increased public funding, and government-sponsored local decision-making. The rationale is to build greater cooperation at the community level. The effect is inclusionary. It is a socialist model, framed in terms of “good living.”
One evening in Venezuela, as a few of us were discussing what we see as the tragic attacks on public education in the United States, one person asked where we could see hope. I answered, “In Venezuela.”
Ken Jones is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern Maine. He can be contacted at email@example.com