What is public education afraid of?

For almost a century, the Argentine public education system fulfilled its proposed objectives relatively well. Then he started having serious problems.

By Hector Ghiretti

Public education is usually conceived as threatened by external factors. The truth is that their main enemies are inside. This is what I will try to explain here. The usual way of basing the action of the State in a specific area of ​​social life is to identify a function or task that only it can fully perform, either because society cannot do it, or does not do it sufficiently or satisfactorily.

After defining the line of action and justifying its need, human and material resources are assigned to carry it out, which entails planning, organizing and institutionalizing the task: what defines its continuity is the function it performs and the results it achieves. gets.

State intervention in education is a controversial issue: there is no unanimity on the subject. It is also true that all the States in the horizon of Western culture have deemed it necessary to develop a public education system, which basically serves three purposes: 1) formation of a national identity; 2) education for citizen participation in a context of liberal-democratic legitimacy; 3) training for insertion in the world of work and production.

For almost a century, the Argentine public education system fulfilled its proposed objectives relatively well. Then he started having serious problems. It is possible to trace the origins of its decline to the mid-1960s. But the system deepened its fall from the mid-1980s, due to the fatal concurrence of three factors: one ideological, another economic, and another social.

ideology, economy, society

On the one hand, the military process favored the uncritical reception of the educational theories in vogue in the central countries. Argentina became the field of experimentation for critical, emancipatory, non-repressive pedagogies, because it was thought that in this way the cultural factors that were the foundation of the recurrent authoritarian drift would be eradicated. The ideological simplification was fatal: it was assumed that a “democratized” education would result in a democratic society: the result has been the opposite, as Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his book The Future of Liberty. Poorly structured individuals in terms of habits, skills and knowledge -what was known in other times as liberal knowledge- result in weak societies, with little participation and with little resistance to the impositions of power.

In our country, the erosion of the system initially occurred in the teaching staff and teaching careers. Later it spread to the lower levels of education, finally feeding back to the higher levels. What we see now is the disastrous result of several decades of pedagogical experimentation based on ideological assumptions, not functional ones.

The continuous economic crisis, meanwhile, was subtracting quality from the development of public policies in all its variants. Education was perhaps the one that suffered the most from its effects. Being an area of ​​the State that is essentially based on the quality but also on the significant quantity of human resources, in an inflationary context the allocation of the budget was derived almost exclusively in hiring personnel and paying salaries, and eventually in building investments. .

The bureaucratization of the sector was both cause and consequence of the abandonment of the application of evaluation methods in terms of performance and educational quality. Ideologically it was justified by the argument that no evaluation (whether of students, teachers or the system in general) could faithfully reflect the reality of educational processes and ended up legitimizing decisions based on rationalization, penalization and exclusion. .

The trade off of public education with society is clearly unfair: a very expensive system to maintain that provides a very poor service. This explains the decision of many parents to send their children to private education, even when it is a significant sacrifice for the family economy and the quality of private education is generally only slightly better than public education. In this way, those who are in a position to be more demanding in terms of results are withdrawn from the public system: middle sectors that continue to consider education as a vector for promotion or social success.

The Evaluation Imperative

The educational sector is a closed preserve that is divided between three corporations: unions, bureaucratized teachers and technocrats who experiment with fashionable pedagogical ideologies. When unions in the educational community hoist the banner of defending public education, the only thing they are looking for is a salary increase, directly or indirectly. This defense never refers to an improvement in educational results, but to a greater allocation of resources. Those results that it offers are increasingly poor, increasingly further away from the minimum program of a public education system.

A recent example of the way in which the public education system represents itself are the statements by Alberto Barbieri, outgoing rector of the UBA, who said that if the institution he leads had twice the budget, it would be among the top twenty in the world. It is hard to believe that this would be the case considering the allergy caused by national universities subjecting themselves to strict international evaluation standards.

The bureaucrat’s explanation for his inefficiency is the perennial lack of resources. And vice versa: when an official or politician thinks he is defending his management by mentioning the increase in the budget allocation in a certain area (education is one of the preferred ones), he replicates the irresponsible logic of allocating resources without evaluating results. He reflects at the same time a devalued conception of politics: in the end, it is only about money.

To the extent that it resists evaluation, the system loses the notion of a specific function, it continues to operate “as if” (the expression is from Mauricio Vázquez) it fulfilled its own function, without being able to determine with certainty whether it does so or not. . The phenomenon is known as simulation.

Every time genuine evaluation instruments are applied -that is, not generated by the flawed system itself- of the students’ academic performance, the results are terrifying. These results are due to the tenacious and determined resistance of the teachers, who unlike the students (the most vulnerable sector of the system) can put up obstacles to being evaluated. Only the final product is evaluated, not the process.

A good diagnosis is obviously not the solution, but it is not possible to apply policies to restore the system’s own function without having a complete and detailed picture. The solutions, on the other hand, do not seem simple: nobody knows very well how to organize a system that meets the aforementioned objectives in increasingly dynamic societies. It is a global problem.

But public policy experts are correct when they say that what cannot be measured cannot be improved. There is no alternative but to face the harsh reality. I am almost entirely a product of public education. Most of my professional work (teaching and research) takes place in public bodies. I understand that there is no better defense of the public system than working for the restoration of its specific function.

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