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. The rate of secondary school enrollment rose from 53.6% in 2000 to 73.3% in 2011. Recently, UNESCO put Venezuela in 5th place in the world for the percentage of people enrolled in higher education - in second place in Latin America, behind Cuba. Public education in Venezuela is free for all, from pre-school through university, with free meals and transportation also provided.
Chavez set into motion a new school system, called Bolivarian schools after the inspirational Latin American liberator Simón Bolivar for whom the country is now named – the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The educational aspect of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution is part of the new socialist fabric being woven into the society, working in concert with other governmental initiatives that are fostering work cooperatives, free health care (again in cooperation with Cuba), and subsidized food. Together, these and other new governmental initiatives are designed to empower the until-now disenfranchised and impoverished majority of people in the country and to build a socialist future rather than a capitalist one.
Our delegation visited a Bolivarian pre-school, elementary school, high school, vocational school, adult education program, university, music conservatory, and police academy. We also visited a women’s cooperative in a farm community, a cultural center in a barrio, and a government human rights agency. The common thread among all of these places and initiatives was a focus on building a new society through building new knowledge and skills, responsible citizenship, co-operativism, and contributing to and learning from the local community. We saw delight and accomplishment in the arts, project-oriented learning, and close attention being given to people’s well-being and the health of various eco-systems.
There was an almost tangible feeling of hope and energy connected with these schools, a sense of not only working productively towards one’s own betterment, but also on behalf of something bigger than one’s self. There was also a keen and informed political consciousness about the country and world – people were eager to talk about the changes happening in their country. They talked about their democratic vision of a future for their country free from exploitation by transnational companies and our own imperialist nation. They spoke knowingly about their national history of dictatorship and extreme capitalism and cried heartfelt tears over the death of their beloved leader and teacher, Hugo Chavez. They knew that Chavez and the revolution they are still enacting have been demonized in their own corporate-controlled media and that of the U.S. and western world. They wanted us to know the truth on the ground there.
We also met with a couple of university students who identified themselves as in the opposition to Chavez. They were not so positive about the changes, of course, calling into question the quality of the new educational missions and schools, and voicing concerns about the sustainability of these new programs that have been largely funded through oil revenues. They also expressed concerns about individual achievement, competitive advantage, and the disincentives and inequities built into what they saw as an educational system of “handouts.” Coming from the United States, this sounded very familiar to the members of our delegation and we could see the values of a capitalist worldview standing in stark contrast to those of a socialist one. An oversimplification maybe, but nonetheless apparent.
Bolivarian schools are taking seriously the idea of educating all people and offer U.S. educators a view of how this can be done in a way that differs markedly from what passes for education reform in our country. This can be seen in a variety of the details and perspectives we observed and heard about as we went from place to place.
Pre-schools are called Simoncitos, a reference to Simón Bolivar. According to government statistics, some 70% of Venezuelan children attend these free schools, where the government pays teachers’ salaries and local community councils (funded by the federal government) provide buildings and supplies. Parents often also come as volunteers, if they can. On our visit to a pre-school, we saw a group of 14 little ones with 3 adults. They told us their names, ages, favorite colors and animals, and danced the hokey-pokey with us.
Elementary schools are now all-day schools (most in the past were run on two half-day schedules for two different student populations) that include free meals and health services, and extra-curricular activities. Existing school buildings are being refurbished and new buildings are rapidly being constructed. All students are provided with a laptop (although, we learned, there is still a great need for teacher professional development in how to use them effectively). Through student projects and adult education services, they are closely connected to the life of their surrounding communities. 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.
The secondary school we visited was in a rural community, Monte Carmelo. It is 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 the study of the lives of people in the town through oral histories and also includes learning about natural ways of growing food, local traditions of crafts, sweets, and healers. Student projects this year are focused on the history of their own community, including the educational history. The projects are done in groups and must have social impact, not just be investigative. The student-chosen topics included agro-ecology, the women of the local women’s coop, plants that serve as bug repellants, worm cultures, and greenhouses.
There is also a focus in this high school on seed collection and on the dishes made from the crops produced by these seeds. Gaudy spoke knowingly about the problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2005, she did an inventory of local seeds and realized there were still many native seeds in her own local community and that they should collect and protect their seeds. “Monsanto has its hand everywhere,” she said. “We have to be careful they don’t take over our seeds, especially corn. We don’t want to have happen to us what happened to Mexico.” The school is creating a “reserve” or “reservoir” of seeds. Gaudy does not want to call it a “bank” of seeds. “We have to change our language from capitalism to socialism,” she said.
Mision Robinson 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.
Irlanda described the labor intensive efforts they use to try to include everyone in the literacy program. 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. El Sistema 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, was trained at this Barquisimeto branch. El Sistema has special programs for children with disabilities, and has a White Hands Choir for deaf children. Last month, the founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu, met with newly-elected President Maduro and got him to agree to expand this program to involve 1 million children learning to play musical instruments.
With 2,000 students enrolled in its programs, the Barquisimeto school was a beehive of rehearsals on our Saturday visit. There was a group of twenty 4-year olds playing violins and cellos in an open courtyard, hallways full of individuals playing all varieties of instruments, small rooms full of section practices, and two full youth orchestras rehearsing - one full ensemble with conductors, and one chamber music orchestra with no conductor (“It makes them listen to each other,” said our guide).
We were told that the pedagogical system used at the conservatory depends on co-operativism. “If you know a little bit, you teach a little bit,” was the saying they used. Our guide explained that music instruction provides a perfect balance of individual excellence and group cooperation – students of all ages play in an orchestra. “Music is a natural way to be in solidarity with each other,” he said.
In Barquisimeto, we also visited a vocational school for students of ages 14-25 who had left the formal school system. We Americans were surprised to learn that this is part of a national network of such schools administered by the Catholic Church, but funded by the federal government. Short term and long term vocational courses are offered in areas such as electricity, plumbing, hair styling, cooking, and ceramics. There are 222 of these programs in the country, located in the poorest sectors, according to the government. Even more surprising to learn was that, despite the fact that these schools are paid for by the government, the Church takes a strong anti-Chavez stance, seeing the government as “Castro communism.” The teacher meeting with us said, “It’s something they get in their heads, but it’s not the reality. They see it as a right to get money from the federal government.”
One of the most interesting parts of the Bolivarian school system is the new system of territorial universities. These new universities were begun by Chavez as an alternative to the traditional, so-called autonomous universities, which have primarily served the elites and still have the lion’s share of the government funding for higher education. 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. “It is important that popular wisdom be integrated with academic knowledge,” we were told.
One unique area of study at this university is called Free Studies and includes studies in popular culture, social transformation, gender equality, and “good living.” The latter focus is developed collaboratively with students in order to construct what “our socialism has to do with our way of living with each other,” and draws heavily from indigenous thinking related to living in harmony with nature.
Other universities are still in the process of being created, including a Worker’s University (where studies are conducted at the workplace and build on workers’ knowledge), an experimental art university, and an Indigenous University (located in a remote area near Angel’s Falls and designed by indigenous people).
Perhaps the biggest challenge being addressed by the Venezuelan educational system is the problem of police corruption and violence. In this country, the armed forces are understood to be solidly on the side of the government and generally trusted by the people. Chavez was a military man and those in the military have historically come from the working and poor classes. And so they defend the Bolivarian revolution. The police, on the other hand, are not so trusted, having had a role in violence and corruption through the years, including collusion in the current prevalence of kidnapping and homicide in Caracas.
In order to transform policing in the country, Chavez created a national police force and appointed Soraya El Achkar, a former Maryknoll lay volunteer and human rights activist, to be the head of a new police academy, the National Experimental Security University (UNES). 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.
Founded in 2009 with the idea of transforming policing methods so that officers are attentive to human rights and work closely with communities, UNES now has nine sites throughout the country, and plans for seven more. At this time, Soraya reports, 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 protected]