Educational Challenges in Chile: A society protesting for change

Written by Ana María Ocampo C.

With research and collaboration from Joan Vilalta Flo.

Students protest in Chile. Photo by Simenon.

Students, teachers, and experts all agree that the education system in Chile needs some deep changes for it to maintain its relevance and traditional position at the top of the region. Some of the pressing challenges include existing segregation, differentiated quality, and high levels of indebtedness, all of which were heightened and highlighted by the pandemic and its effects. But the how and where should be addressed to remain at the center of the heated debates about the topic in the past years.

Some context and background

To understand some of the reasons behind the current challenges and demands, a look into the past proves to be helpful. Back in the 1980s, the Chilean education system underwent a major transformation. To change the regressive and unequal access to education, as well as to promote the creation of more schools and universities to assess the high demand and increase in the number of students, the government redistributed its investments in the area.

The project also included the involvement of the private sector, which would assure better coverage in the entire country, and would offer students and their families more options to choose from. With this approach, private education institutions increased across the country, allowing the wealthiest members of society to access higher-quality education. Despite the original idea of increasing coverage, this privatization of the system proved to deepen the social and economic divides in the country, as education was now “understood as a private investment by the family of the young person”, according to Ruben Covarrubias, former president of the Universidad Mayor in Chile.

Since the economic possibilities of the general population were still a big restriction for some capable students with low income, the estate created a credit system that aimed to assure every Chilean had access to education regardless of their economic situation. Ever since, the system has also increased the number of scholarships and payment agreements, allowing students and recently graduated professionals to pay back their loans in accordance with their income levels.

These profound changes in the system gave Chile a privileged position in the Latin American context. Two decades after the implementation Professor Jose Joaquin Brunner, UNESCO expert in comparative studies of education, acknowledged that “The Chilean population has 11.6 years of schooling, against 9.4 in the rest of Latin America; 28.6 % of people complete at least one year of tertiary education compared to 15.8% in the rest of the region. Among young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, Chile can boast that 41% are professionals, compared with 39% in OECD countries, to which we belong, and less than 20% in Latin America (UNESCO).” And, comparatively speaking, Chile was one of the countries with the highest spending on education relative to the GDP, going above the OECD average.

But the situation for students and families in the country was not as picture-perfect as the numbers showed. In 2011, a student movement emerged with the purpose of taking the demand for a free and high-quality education to the center of the national agenda. The movement’s demands focused on effectively addressing the unequal access and poor quality of education in the country, as well as the indebtedness that lower- and middle-class families were forced into to access higher education.

Protests were constant in the following years, a time when the students’ movement gained strength and organization. In 2014, for instance, a group of its leaders, all under the age of 30, secured spots in Congress, creating a coalition that pushed for some of the most relevant reforms in the area. And last year, in March, one of the leaders of the movement, Gabriel Boric, was elected president of the country. He has promised to keep discussions on reforms to the system among the priorities of his government’s agenda.

Colegio Municipal Marcela Paz, La Florida, Santiago de Chile. Photo by UNESCO/Carolina Jerez

Segregation: two realities that do not meet

When asked about the main challenges that Chilean education faces, experts like Álvaro González Torres, a researcher at the Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez, point out at the general social context in the country, where strong demands for “justice, liberties and rights” are still being discussed and demanded. One of those, education, is at the heart of the protests for equality in Chilean’s recent history, including the Constitutional reform that is underway.

“It is not because we have a critical situation, compared to other countries in the South American region; the problem in Chile is beyond educational attainment”. Instead, Mr. González explains, the problem is rooted in the design of a system following a neoliberal approach: “The privatization of public education has been a major obstacle, as well as the flourishing of a cultural environment that strengthens values that are dangerous for democracy: individualism and excessive competitiveness”.

As he describes, the stronger involvement of private capital and the business mindset behind educational institutions has resulted in a segregated system. So, while in the country the coverage of primary and secondary education reaches almost 90% of the corresponding population, once inside the system differences are stark. “Students coming from lower income groups are concentrated in institutions with lower quality, while those students from the wealthiest groups can access better quality education and, in the end, have almost direct access to power”, as Álvaro González describes.

The Research Center for the Socio-educational Transformation, which Mr. González directs, points out that this segregation leads to a reinforcement of “cycles of social and opportunities inequality”, which has also been sustained by a “systemic deficiency”, where resources are not equally distributed amongst the institutions across the country. “Overall, there is an education for the rich and another education for the poor”, Mr. González concludes.

The lingering ghosts of the pandemic

This differentiated reality was made more evident during the pandemic when a large section of the population faced issues with the lack of access to technological tools and internet connectivity, proper spaces, and/or parental accompaniment, not only in rural areas but even in urban centers. Chile was one of the countries in the world where schools were closed the longest, and the effects of these measures have also been seen in the mental and physical health of the students and teachers.

The immediate reaction from the government and the institutions has been focused on promoting a return to schools, reverting the dropout rates, and increasing evaluation processes to measure basic abilities in reading, writing, and math. “For a long time in Chile, we have implemented standardized tests to measure quality of the education, and schools focused their energy on preparing students for these tests. But the pandemic put a halt on these evaluations, and schools and institutions realized that there were other abilities and areas that needed more attention”. As Álvaro González explains, the emotional and psychosocial well-being of students is now a critical point for the design and development of education reforms for the future.

Students protest with a hunger strike. Photo by Hans Peters.

Education for the new century

Students took the streets with an additional demand: the curriculums need to be updated to address the challenges and requirements of the current times. Their claims, as described by the leaders of the students´ movement, criticize the disconnection between the education system and the workplaces of the 21st Century, where they are demanded new abilities that the traditional schooling system falls short of offering.

“A current approach is that of nuclearization of curriculums, where elements like a gender perspective, citizens competencies, critical thinking, or skills for the 21st Century are included ins a transversal way. However, we have seen that not all teachers and educators have the capacities or confidence to take this to their classrooms. We have inherited a system of evaluation of teachers that hinders their innovation since the students’ results reflect on their own evaluation”, Álvaro González explains.

Some reforms, yet not enough

The current government, which has been in power for just over a year, has tried to implement a series of reforms to address both the demands already described and the challenges that came with the pandemic. However, some of these reforms have been a source of controversy.

For instance, as Mr. González explains, a system for admissions, aided by an algorithm, has been introduced to randomly assign students to schools, increasing diversity in the institutions. However, criticism from both ends of the political spectrum has not been absent, and in practice, institutions are failing to provide enough tools to successfully integrate students with lacking or deficient academic backgrounds.

Nonetheless, “The Chilean situation is not as pronounced as in other countries”, says Mr. González, who acknowledges that in the past decade, access to higher education by students in rural areas has increased at the highest rate in the continent. And, in an effort to provide contextualized education for these communities, institutions have developed specialized programs overviewed by the National Ministry of Education to secure their quality.

There are also efforts from both the public and private sectors to improve the conditions of access and permanence of indigenous communities in the country. “These past years we have seen affirmative actions that acknowledge diversity in the students. For instance, there are adapted curricula, particularly a program of intercultural and bilingual education for these communities”, but what Mr. González describes has not proven to be enough. Intercultural approaches also demand the acknowledgment of traditional knowledge as valid. And this is currently an element of debate in the constitutional process in the country, where new ideas about the future of Chile are put on the table.



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