Educational challenges in El Salvador: ensuring the right to education amid capricious times

Written by Joan Vilalta Flo

Since the end of the Salvadorian Civil War in 1992, the country has enjoyed many improvements to education, mainly from the implementation of legislation and educational policies to protect the rights of children and to promote quality, and inclusive education. Evidence of these improvements can be found in a 2018 National Council on Education (CONED) evaluation report of the 2016 “El Salvador Educado Plan” (PESE), which indicated developments such as the provision of student and teacher education on the prevention of violence, greater teacher training options and the creation of a Teacher Training National Institute, a significant increase in preschool coverage (from 1.4% in 2014 to 5.1% in 2018), improved literacy rates, the provision of adaptive educational programs to cater for student’s needs, and a 27.8 million dollar investment to improve school infrastructure.[1]

Despite this, teacher unions, media outlets, non-governmental organizations and academics continue to complain about deficiencies, political failures, and broken promises regarding the protection of the right to education. Salvadorans have recently lived through times of significant change in society, namely the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the policies brought about by Nayib Bukele’s presidency. Bukele’s most notable change was a crackdown on gang violence, El Salvador’s long-lasting scourge, through a controversial mass detention campaign against the powerful maras. Historically, gang presence has had a negative impact on educational development.[2] Thus, it is appropriate to take a close look at what are the main educational difficulties that the country has faced in the last decade, how have they evolved to this day, and which are the remaining educational challenges through a more nuanced examination of recent literature, data, and events.

Gang Violence and the Right to Education

El Salvador invests a large portion of its budget in security measures to respond to gang violence. Photo by Presidencia El Salvador.

During the last two decades El Salvador has grappled with the crippling effects of gang violence, mostly carried out by the gangs M-13 and Barrio-18, which had their origins in Los Angeles, USA, but extended their reach to Central America through the mass deportation of gang members to El Salvador over the years[3]. An example of the devastating effects of gang violence is the fact that in 2016, the capital of San Salvador had a homicide rate of around 100 per 100,000 inhabitants.[4] The intersection between gang criminality and education goes both ways: while low quality education and lack of access to schooling make individuals prone to join gangs and conduct crimes, the presence of gangs and their activities also hamper educational development, creating a vicious cycle.

A striking fact about gang members that are currently imprisoned is that around 90% of them never finished secondary education and more than 97% have not had access to tertiary education. Most of the gang members range between 12 and 24 years old.[5] These figures reflect the potential consequence of dropping out, lacking access to education, or receiving low-quality education. While there are many causes explaining why youths join gangs, education is an important protective factor. Gangs provide what the state cannot when there is a lack of welfare. Education can mitigate the risk of people slipping through the cracks.[6] Thus, the deficiencies of the educational system that will be explored below can help account for the systemic gang violence that has plagued the country over the last decades.

In 2016, when gang violence in El Salvador peaked, it was reported that children were abandoning school due to the dramatic rise of gang threats, and teacher unions estimated that around 100.000 students dropped out during the previous year due to such violence.[7]Teachers were affected as well by the threats and extortions, which also hindered their capacity to perform, and, by extension, the quality of education decreased. It was estimated that 60% of Salvadoran schools were affected by gang violence.[8] Students were not only deprived of education due to the violent climate created by the gangs, but also because they were (and still are) the main recruitment target of these groups, which evidently curtail the professional possibilities of their members.

Despite improvements to education, the challenges that gangs pose to educational development are the same. More recent studies, including the first empirical investigations into how gang presence affects education. Gang violence has also been found to lead to lower household incentives to invest in education, as well as lower academic performance due to victimization risks (accounting for the mental and physical wellbeing), the impact of crime on household budgets, and the impact on future expectations of families and students. [9]

Finally, it must be noted that Bukele’s presidency has been a turning point regarding gang violence in El Salvador. Adding to the steady decline of homicides since 2015, the latest government’s crackdown against gangs was possible due to the enactment of a state of emergency declared in March 2022, and has resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of more than 60.000 suspected gang members, with El Salvador reaching the highest incarceration rate in the world.[10] In dense urban areas where extortion was rampant, business seem to be finally flourishing, and homicides have plummeted (from 1.147 in 2021 to 495 in 2022).[11] Therefore it is legitimate to also expect a positive impact on education. However, it is too soon to have data on the impact that this might have had in education, but it should be noted that some experts see these repressive measures as a short-term solution, and that the best long-term strategy is, precisely, to invest in community-oriented strategies to improve educational quality and coverage. This does not only include the education of future generations but also that of imprisoned gang members.[12] The expectation is that educational rehabilitation will be provided by the program “Segundas Oportunidades”, but this is one of the most important educational challenges that El Salvador is yet to face.

Low-Quality Infrastructure

Recent news reports in El Salvador have made visible widespread teacher protests regarding the deficient state of most educational institutions’ infrastructure. According to Manuel Molina, the representative of a teacher union called Movimiento Magisterial Salvadoreño, around 85% of school infrastructure are in a bad condition. Together with large groups of education workers, Molina criticizes the inefficiency of the 2021 educational policy plan, “Mi Nueva Escuela,” claiming that only 70 centers in the metropolitan area of San Salvador have been provided with infrastructural improvements, while the remaining 600 sustain significant structural damages that hamper the quality of education and endanger students’ safety.[13]

El Salvador is in an area of high seismic activity, which costs an average of 0.7% of the country’s annual GDP. Other natural disasters, such as floods and landslides are also common in the country.[14] These have caused accumulated damages to educational centers, which are the most affected type of infrastructure according to a study conducted between 2015 and 2016.[15] Most centers do not have the proper infrastructure to withstand such disasters and that there has not been enough focus on the reparation of many schools. It has been widely documented in recent research about El Salvador’s educational system that poor infrastructure directly affects the learning quality of student and curtails the performance of teachers, thus making it a priority in order to fully ensure the right to education.

Bukele’s plan of “Mi Nueva Escuela” precisely acknowledges the importance of this issue and includes the promise of dedicating, in 2023 and with the aid of transnational banks, more than 289 million dollars to repair and build around 5.000 education centers.[16] However, it should be noted that this plan was initially launched in 2021 and its implementation has been slow or inactive, and no consistent follow-ups or data on it have been provided.[17] Media outlets and teacher unions have protested, as noted above, against the sluggish governmental action to solve the problem.

Insufficient Educational Budget

While it needs to be acknowledged that state budget in education has increased significantly over the last eight years (from 3.8% of the country’s GDP in 2014 to 4.6% in 2021), El Salvador is still far from the ideal benchmark of 7%, set and acknowledged by the governmental estimates of the 2016 PESE plan. In 2019, it was reported that the education budget for that year lacked around 1.2 million dollars to obtain the desired benchmark.[18] It is essential that education receives the budget it deserves, not only to provide adequate infrastructure and material, but also to provide better teacher trainings, technological tools to families and schools alike, scholarships for disadvantaged children, and to expand the curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

The Effects of COVID-19

Children in El Salvador use masks and face shields to protect them as they continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by USAID/EL Salvador.

El Salvador was one of the countries with stricter measures during the Covid-19 pandemic; educational centers remained closed from March 2020 to April 2021.[19] There is not yet a lot of information on the specific effects that the pandemic had on El Salvador, but some estimates expect a learning loss of 1.2 years.[20] It has also been reported that educational coverage has stagnated with the pandemic, and that inequalities were maintained throughout that period, even exacerbated (for instance, the poorest quintile’s rate of school assistance decreased from 65% in 2019 to 64.3% in 2021). The quality of education has suffered damage from the pandemic as well: in all learning areas, student performance decreased significantly in the last years of secondary education, attaining less than a 50% rate of successful achievement in languages and math.[21] These results suggest that remote education did not motivate students and that, even for those with the necessary resources, learning development proved to be difficult. On top of that, the percentage of high school students with notable symptoms of depression or anxiety rose from 13.5% in 2020 to 19.6% in 2021.[22]

Further studies on the educational challenges posed by Covid-19 in El Salvador align with the issues outlined above and point to a deeper problem that has become noticeable during the pandemic: the technological breach and the lack of digital literacy.

Students receive computers and lessons in San Bartolomé Perulapía. Photo by Presidencia El Salvador.

The technological breach refers to the significant portion of students who do not possess the adequate technological equipment nor appropriate connectivity to receive quality remote education. A recent survey suggests that around 13% of the students do not have technological equipment (e.g., a laptop or tablet), and that a 28.7% must share it with other family members, and only 3 out of 10 students report to have a good connectivity in their house. Moreover, around 45% of the students report to not have the adequate space at home to do remote education.[23] State-collected statistics confirm that the rate of student access to internet is lower than 50% for all levels of primary school and around 70% for secondary school, that such access rate is at least 10% higher in private schools for all levels of education, and around 20% higher in urban areas.[24] All in all, the evidence suggests that there is inequality in terms of access to technology between the rich and the poor, as well as between urban and rural populations.

The lack of digital literacy is especially important as regards teachers: only 3 out of 10 students consider that teachers are appropriately capacitated to teach online.[25] A recent study that measures the quality of education in El Salvador reports that the staff of most educational centers, especially those located outside major urban areas, have not received any training on digital skills and literacy. Those staff are unable to provide quality remote education and to make the best use of Text Box:   Retrieved from: technologies in class, since the presence of material is impractical if the educator does not have the skill to use it. Furthermore, most educational centers in less populated regions do not possess the adequate technology to provide quality, up-to-date education, and often have poor access to internet.[26] The most recent state-recorded statistics on the matter align with the described problem: in 2018, the average number of students per computer at school was 19, and the percentage of teachers able to access internet at school on the same year was only 60.4%.[27]

Problems in Public Superior Education

Higher education is often essential to develop professionally in a globalized world. Due to a lack of monetary resources and weak political will, public higher education in El Salvador faces a range of problems that hamper the universal provision of quality, university-level training:

First, it has been reported that public university infrastructure is insufficient to host the vast quantity of students that wish to attend it. In fact, in public universities it is not rare to have more than a hundred students per one teacher, which obviously diminishes the quality of education for all. In comparison, private institutions might take in more students overall, but they have the appropriate infrastructure to avoid overcrowding.[28]

Secondly, the capacity constraint of public universities leads them to impose a highly strict admission filter: in 2019, 51.5% of first year university aspirants were ruled out by the admission tests at the Universidad de El Salvador (UES). While, by law, the right to higher education is to be ensured by the state, in practice, the opportunity is formally given to all but only obtained by a few. Equality of opportunity should not be confused with equality of possibility; and it seems that the possibility to access higher education is greater for those who can afford private education or the conditions to prepare access to public education, than for those who live in poverty (29.2% of the population in 2018).[29] Even in a society that values merit (a contestable term), the numbers seem excessive, and the term public seems to be drained of meaning.

Stagnated Educational Coverage and Low-Quality Education

In El Salvador, Adventist Church graduates thousands from its decade-long literacy program. Photo by Adventist News.

El Salvador finds itself in quite a decent position with a 90% rate in 2021 (the latest recorded).[30] However, when considering the average of its Latin American neighbors, El Salvador finds itself 4 percentual points below the average, a 94%.[31] Furthermore, it should be noted that since 2014, El Salvador’s literacy rate has remained almost unchanged, albeit slowly increasing (in 2014 the rate was of 89.1%).[32] This signals that around 10% of the population consistently remains illiterate, that efforts in that area could have been more fruitful, and that full educational coverage is still quite ahead of the current situation. In addition, the illiteracy rates show that women are significantly more affected than men (in 2021 the rate was of 8.1% for the women and 11.7% for the men), and that rural communities have a higher portion of illiterate population than urban areas (in 2021, the rate was of 15.5% for the former and of 6.8% for the latter).[33]

Beyond the issue of illiteracy, the 2022 rate of out-of-school population also leaves much to be desired: with an average rate of 40.38%, it is striking to note that the rate is greater than 46% for all ages under 5 years-old, decreasing throughout primary school levels, and then increasing notably from the age of 16 onwards, reaching almost 60% at the age of 18. When differentiating by gender, it seems that there is a greater proportion of men out of school.[34] Similarly, the dropout rates reach a concerning historic high of 14.7% in 2021 (the latest recorded) in secondary education. Again, the statistics indicate that men are significantly more likely to drop out than women, especially during the last years of primary education.[35] It seems that the challenge that lays ahead is not only to widen basic educational coverage but also to specifically do it in rural areas, with a focus on secondary education and with a gender lens.

Quality in education has been a longstanding concern in El Salvador. The most recent state-collected statistics display an astounding difference between the gross and the net rate of enrollment per level in 2022, that is, the difference between calculating the proportion of students enrolled in each level without regard for their age, and calculating the proportion of students with the corresponding theoretical age enrolled in each level. While the former shows rates of around 80% for the levels of primary and secondary school, each figure drops to a 10% less (approximately) in the latter.[36] That signals that there is an important educational lag at every level of education, something that is confirmed by the high rates of overage students at each level of education.[37] Another fact that signals that educational quality requires improvement in El Salvador is that the most common reason to abandon school in the country is low student performance, accounting for 22.4% of school dropouts.[38] Moreover, in previous sections it has already been shown how educational attainment, especially in the post-Covid context, is low.[39]

All things considered, El Salvador needs to boost student performance. Therefore, it seems important to shed light on what might be the causes of such figures, and according to recent reports and literature, some of these elements have already been discovered. Leaving the inescapable and damaging effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on educational development aside, studies suggest that to improve student motivation, possibilities and curricula, educational centers need to increase their contact with local communities and families. Working together with the immediate context of the students would propitiate the ideal learning conditions, in terms of support mechanisms and motivation through the applicability of knowledge.[40] Besides that, it is also important to consider that the low educational budget, reported lack of material and educational infrastructure hinders the learning possibilities and performance of students; something that seems to be especially present in most areas outside the capital.[41] On top of that, it is extremely important to increase teacher training programs and to address the critical teacher shortage in the country. In 2018, the statistics indicated that there were 27 students per teacher in El Salvador, while the regional average is at 21 students per teacher.[42] It should be noted that the teacher shortage was significantly higher in public schools and in rural areas.[43]

Multilevel Discrimination

Students participate in an environmental fair. Photo by Codelco.

As it might have been picked up from some of the data provided in the previous sections, there are clear discriminatory divides in the educational system of El Salvador. It has been shown how schools in rural areas receive less resources and attention than those in urban areas, how low student performance and low educational quality seems to primarily affect rural areas and the public sector, indicating that wealth might play a role in such difference, and how the gender lens allows for the identification of higher illiteracy among women and higher dropout rates among men. This final section will explore more deeply the main educational inequalities that need to be overcome in El Salvador.

Although it has shown great improvement over the last decade[44], El Salvador still shows significant levels of economic inequality, while low levels of economic power have been directly associated with having less educational opportunities, especially in the later years of educational development, due to the impossible costs of higher education and necessity to leave education in order to work for the family, or even due to joining a gang in contexts where state control and support is more absent.[45] Some accounts state that the issue of poverty (and, by extension, lack of access to education) is a matter of government prioritization of rich over the poor, actively contributing to (educational) inequality and a cycle of crime and poverty.

Gender parity in education has shown good results in 2022, often indicating a disparity in favor of women. However, El Salvador has been reported to be a country where patriarchal systems prevail and discrimination and violence against women is rampant, including at school.[46] In 2017, 67% of women aged 25 and older reported being victims of gender-based violence, and the pervasiveness of school-based gender-based violence has also been reported.[47] It has been argued and investigated, that while access to education has been fairly ensured for women, the sexist environment that they encounter at school can be an obstacle to their development.[48] The issue is, then, that girls receive a poorer quality education than boys, especially indigenous girls, who face more prejudice due to an intersection of discriminations. The complaint has often been directed towards the fact that gender and violence against girls has not been specifically named as a target area in the recent and current national education plans and inclusive policies. It would be through such focus that teachers would be able to obtain the training and tools to ensure an environment of true equality and to eliminate gender-based prejudice from its root.

More broadly, it has been pointed out that while normative frameworks have been set up to activate inclusive programs in education, no monitoring and evaluation mechanisms have been established yet. The previous national educational plans, such as the “Política de Educación Inclusiva” or the PESE, have not addressed the same issues over the years although such issues were ever-present, making for a scattered landscape of mechanisms to address inclusivity. Moreover, it is argued that these plans only offer temporary (but necessary) solutions such as food programs or support mechanisms for families but overlook the possibility of implementing structural changes. In order to obtain long-lasting improvements, it would be necessary to address poverty in rural areas and to provide them with appropriate infrastructure. Just like it has been argued with the issue of gender, there is also a broad need to be specific when defining the objects of inclusion too (e.g., race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity), so that their difference and value can be acknowledged in the process of providing quality education.[49]

Lastly, it is important to highlight the clear inequalities existing between the rural and urban areas in El Salvador. Resource allocation, better student performance, lower dropout rates, and higher school attendance all concentrate in urban areas. The lack of access to digital tools and connectivity (less than 20% of rural families had internet access during Covid-19, and in 2019 only 19.6% of rural families had computer access) is also a salient issue for rural schools and families, and a much greater one compared to the situation in urban centers. Aside from material deprivation, it has also been reported that children in rural areas often do not find appropriate parental support on school tasks due to the labor conditions of the parents and their (relatively low) educational level. It is also often the case that the profile of families in rural areas is of low economic level, possibly adding the issues mentioned above as regards poverty and education. It should be noted that, in 2018, around 74.88% of the educational centers found themselves in rural areas. Educational issues associated to rural areas such as school dropout due to pursuing jobs (and child labor, for that matter), lack of material and technological conditions, poor transportation options in areas where schools are too far for some students, and the low training levels that some teachers present need to be addressed through integral solutions to avoid perpetuating inequality.

[1] UNDP. (2018, July 27). Presentan avances y desafíos del Plan El Salvador Educado. Retrieved from:

[2] Cruz, J. M., & Speck, M. (2022, October 13). Ending El Salvador’s Cycle of Gang Violence. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from:

[3] Kalsi, P. (2018). The impact of US deportation of criminals on gang development and education in El Salvador. Journal of Development Economics, 135, 433-448.

[4] Dahbura, J. N. M. (2018). The short-term impact of crime on school enrollment and school choice: evidence from El Salvador. Economía, 18(2), 121-145.

[5] Speck, M. (2023, May 10). Mientras represión de las bandas en El Salvador continúa, los ciudadanos se preguntan qué vendrá después. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from: ; Dahbura, J. N. M. (2018). The short-term impact of crime on school enrollment and school choice: evidence from El Salvador. Economía, 18(2), 121-145.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tjaden, S., & Lasusa, M. (2016, July 22). El Salvador Gangs Cause Tens of Thousands to Leave School. Insight Crime. Retrieved from:

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dahbura, J. N. M. (2018). The short-term impact of crime on school enrollment and school choice: evidence from El Salvador. Economía, 18(2), 121-145.

[10] Speck, M. (2023, May 10). Mientras represión de las bandas en El Salvador continúa, los ciudadanos se preguntan qué vendrá después. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from: ; Cruz, J. M., & Speck, M. (2022, October 13). Ending El Salvador’s Cycle of Gang Violence. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from:

[11] Appleby, P., Dalby, C., Doherty, S., Mistler-Ferguson, S., & Shuldiner, H. (2023, February 8). Insight Crime 2022 Homicide Round-Up. Insight Crime. Retrieved from: ; Speck, M. (2023, May 10). Mientras represión de las bandas en El Salvador continúa, los ciudadanos se preguntan qué vendrá después. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from:

[12] Speck, M. (2023, May 10). Mientras represión de las bandas en El Salvador continúa, los ciudadanos se preguntan qué vendrá después. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from: 

[13] Prensa Latina. (2023, February 24). Latente crisis en sector educacional en El Salvador. Retrieved from:

[14] World Bank. (2022, May 19). Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management into El Salvador’s Education Sector. Retrieved from

[15] ESSA. (2016). Natural Hazard Risks for Infrastructure in El Salvador [PDF document]. Retrieved from:

[16] Gobierno de El Salvador. Ministerio de Educación. (n.d.). Mi Nueva Escuela. El Salvador [PDF file]. Retrieved from:

[17] La Prensa Gráfica. (2022, September 8). Por tercera vez, Gobierno promete remodelar escuelas. Retrieved from:

[18] El Faro. (2019, January). Los presidenciables reprueban en educación. Retrieved from:

[19] Fusades. (2022, December). Como está y hacia dónde va la educación en El Salvador. Nota de Política Pública, NPP No. 27 [PDF file]. Retrieved from:

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Picardo Joao, O., Ábrego, A. M., & Cuchillac, V. (2020). Educación y la COVID-19: estudio de factores asociados con el rendimiento académico online en tiempos de pandemia (caso El Salvador).

[24] Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from:

[25] ibid

[26] Iraheta Argueta, W. A. (2020). Índice de Calidad Educativa en El Salvador: Una propuesta desde la Academia.

[27] Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from:

[28] Santiago, M. (2020). El acceso a la educación superior pública en El Salvador. Una aproximación al problema. AKADEMOS, 83-96.

[29] Ibid.

[30] World Bank. (n.d.). Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above). Retrieved 10/06/2023, from:  ; Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from:

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from:

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Iraheta Argueta, W. A. (2020). Índice de Calidad Educativa en El Salvador: Una propuesta desde la Academia.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from: Bank. (n.d.). Gross enrollment ratio, primary, both sexes (% of relevant age group) in ZJ. Retrieved from:

[43] Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador. (2020, November 19). Estadísticas e indicadores. Retrieved from:

[44] World Bank. (n.d.). El Salvador. Retrieved from:

[45] Bissonnette, I. (2019). El Salvador’s drivers of poverty: Low levels of education, lack of access to water and sanitation, and violence and crime. Global Majority E-Journal4.

[46] Vandzura, A. (2021). Inclusive Education in El Salvador: Ensuring Quality Education and Gender Equality at the Primary Level. University of Ottawa.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Muñoz Morán, C. A. (2019). Educación inclusiva en El Salvador. Una reflexión desde las políticas educativas. Revista latinoamericana de educación inclusiva13(1), 21-36.

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