Educational challenges in Costa Rica: human rights and sustainability

Written by Agnes Amaral


Costa Rica is located in Central America and has a population of over 5 million inhabitants. This population is made up of around 2.4% indigenous people and 8% of African descent.[1]. According to local laws, the country’s education system is divided into four levels: preschool, basic general education, diversified education, and higher education. To manage this system, there is a Higher Education Council. Since the indigenous population occupies a considerable space in the country’s historical and current process, Decree No. 22072 of the Ministry of Education establishes an indigenous education subsystem.

Generally, basic education in Costa Rica is separated into three cycles for children aged 6 to 14. The modalities vary, but most students attend in the traditional daytime mode. In addition, there are specific centres for students with particular needs, such as special education centres and the “Aula Edad” program for children with age-grade distortion. Another interesting fact about the country’s education system is that night schools offer educational programs for teenagers and adults aged 15 and over who still need to complete their schooling.

Looking at the continuum of Costa Rica’s educational model, you can see a diversified education for further study. There are three main branches: academic, technical, and artistic. Technical and professional education is offered in partnership between the state and private companies. The main centres are the technological institutes and centres (INA, TEC, and UTN). Higher education offers various bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. There are state and private universities.

Educational Policy

The Costa Rican Constitution emphasizes the state’s obligation to provide the right to education, as well as food and clothing, for people who will be attending school and cannot afford to buy these items. The policies developed by the state cover different dimensions, such as the presentation of an education system and the observation of the set of possible interventions to keep this system running.

The country has interesting policies for achieving education for all audiences. For example, they have “Creer y crear la Costa Rica del Siglo 21: compromiso país,” which sets out the government’s strategic objectives in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Another example of an exciting policy is “La persona: Centro del proceso educativo y sujeto transformador de la sociedad” (The person: centre of the educational process and transforming subject of society), which defines the axes and guidelines that guide education at all levels, encouraging a professional transformation of teachers, the institution and educational management.

Education has become a matter of access for marginalized groups, so the issue of gender and access to education has become a paradigm that affects many countries, especially in Latin America. Costa Rica, for its part, has a policy called the “Action Plan for the National Gender Equality and Equity Policy”, which lists axes around policies to achieve gender equality and equity. It also discusses women’s sexual and reproductive health and promotion against violence.

Photograph by free stock photos from on Pixabay

Human rights

Latin America has suffered from great inequality in general since the transition to democracy from authoritarian governments in the 1980s, which has implications for the region. Education for all is, therefore, difficult to achieve. For this reason, many countries are drawing up reforms to mitigate this inequality, and Costa Rica is one example. As an early adopter of the goal of achieving citizenship through education in the 1990s, it is possible to list the country as a model in the region.

In addition to focusing on elements such as study programs, teacher training, and re-evaluation of school materials, the government promoted education focused on respect for human rights and between people. Special attention was paid to learning about laws and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other regimes that strengthen human rights.[2].

Although human rights and other global themes remained essential topics in the curricular guidelines from Costa Rica in 2001 and 2005, their treatment underwent several changes. Principally, Costa Rica introduced many of these issues as cross-cutting themes. The study programme mentions three cross-cutting themes: (1) Education for Human Rights, Democracy, and Peace; (2) Education for Environmental Protection; and (3) Holistic Sexual Education (MEP 2005a). Rather than teaching human rights as a specific content topic in ninth grade as before, Costa Rica altered the curriculum to make human rights a central component of civic education (Suarez, 2008).

This concern with the cross-cutting nature of these issues establishes Costa Rica as a promoter of education, which has led to a modernization of this system. The attention given to diversity promotes greater integration of marginalized groups, expanding and strengthening the concept of citizenship.

Environmental sustainability

The country has also become a model in discussions on environmental education. Since the 1980s, Costa Rica has led efforts to promote ecological education.[3]Agenda 21 and the sustainable development decade are turning points for promoting environmental education and conservation. Costa Rica has been promoting these studies long before an international decision was taken, which shows it is at the forefront.

The state encourages various activities, especially those aimed at environmental education initiatives. For example, the curriculum includes specific topics for environmental conservation studies. The country has such well-established policies in this respect that it has become an international benchmark for environmental education projects due to the structural encouragement of NGOs and other actors promoting environmental conservation.


Although Costa Rica faces similar challenges to other Latin American countries, such as social inequality and its impact on access to education, the country has become a model in some areas of education. When looking at studies on access to education, it becomes clear how the financial issue linked to the historical-cultural process of the region influences mitigating inequality. It is, therefore, essential to highlight how Costa Rica has made efforts and gained ground in the education process, especially concerning human rights, citizenship, and environmental conservation.


[1] Perfil del pais | SITEAL. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2023, from

[2] Suarez, D. F. (2008). Rewriting citizenship? civic education in Costa Rica and Argentina. Comparative Education, 44(4), 485-503.

[3] Blum, N. (2008). Environmental education in Costa Rica: Building a framework for sustainable development? International Journal of Educational Development, 28(3), 348-358

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