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July 6, 2006—In a classroom in Lima, Peru, a second grade student holds a book and tries to read. His voice is hesitant, halting. He twists his hands nervously as he stumbles over letters, trying to make them add up to whole words.
Far away, in the mountains of Cuso, a 7-year-old girl confidently reads the same text in her native Quechua. Then, she reads it again in Spanish.
Here, in the isolated village of Ccochapata, it made no difference that the girl had to travel a long distance to school, or go to a school with only one teacher teaching four grades.
Grade 2: 60 words/min
Grade 3: 90 words/min
Grade 4: 110 words/min
In grade 2, she easily beat the standard of 60 words per minute set by proponents of child literacy around the world.
Her reading fluency in two languages—and the Lima boy’s lack of fluency in one—is shown in a video produced as part of a project financed by the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).
The video and its message—that quality of education is as important as quantity—was part of World Bank Peru team’s effort to raise the issue of literacy during the country’s presidential campaign, says Daniel Cotlear, World Bank Country Sector Leader for Peru.
“The main impact we wanted to have was to put this on the agenda of the candidates,” he says.
And the team largely succeeded, with three of four candidates making education an election issue before former President Alan Garcia was re-elected June 5, Cotlear says.
Quality vs. Quantity
Peru has made great strides in getting children into school in recent years—in fact, more children in Peru go to school than in many countries of similar income level, says Cotlear.
But the goal of greater access to education in the country was achieved, in part, “by lowering the standards, so that what you ended up with was very high levels of coverage, but very poor quality,” he says.
The main impact we wanted to have was to put this on the agenda of the candidates, says Daniel Cotlear, World Bank Country Sector Leader for Peru.
The joint Bank, DFID-funded project, RECURSO (also known as the Peru Governance and Accountability in the Decentralized Social Sectors Project), analysed the problem as part of a larger study on coverage and quality involving not just education, but health and social assistance programs in Peru.
Of 136 grade 2 children randomly selected for the video, 35 percent weren’t able to read a single word.
Yet, 80 percent of parents questioned were pleased with the quality of their child’s school, says Cotlear.
“The problem is that nobody really had a way of measuring the quality of the education,” he says. “In order to empower the parents, the voters, to demand greater quality of education, we needed to have a way to measure the quality of education.”
Resistance from Educators
Cotlear says the Bank team spent a year “trying to get educators to produce a standard—something that could be easily measured and understood by parents and voters.”
But that wasn’t easy and has not been easy in other Andean countries, he says.
“What we generally find is there’s a lot of resistance from the educators against producing clear, accountable, measurable, standards.”
Cotlear says Peru’s education establishment, including the teacher’s union, argued against a reading standard, saying that “education is about many things, it’s not just reading,” and children’s understanding is more important than they how fast they read.
“Or they would say that it’s not just reading that is important—we want them to be entrepreneurial,” he adds. “Others would say this is a very diverse country, so you cannot expect an urban child and a rural indigenous child to be measured and respond to the same standard.”
The arguments against standards prompted the team to make the video, says Cotlear.
“When you see at the beginning children trying to read and not being able to, and you feel how they’re trying to please you, and how disappointed and nervous they are because they cannot read, that really breaks your heart,” he says.
“And it really tells you that these kids should be getting more from the establishment that’s supposed to help them read.”
“There’s a minimum degree of fluency required to have some understanding,” Cotlear adds. “And it’s also obvious that you cannot be entrepreneurial or have any other educational qualities unless you can read.”
The video shows that a good teacher “who has a clear understanding of what she is supposed to do, can get kids who are minority, who are bilingual, who have uneducated parents, to read and understand at 60 words per minute for a child of 8,” he says.
The Bank began to publicize the quality education issue in January, as the presidential candidates ramped up their political campaigns.
Between January 19 and April 30, 76 press articles and news programs mentioned the World Bank and the RECURSO study.
In addition, the Bank team met privately with four political parties and held a series of meetings, the first with representatives of government, academia and non-governmental organizations, then two public meetings in the shantytowns south of Lima, and a regional meeting outside the Lima area.
The team “sought out press coverage very carefully,” says Cotlear. It gave interviews to influential magazines, television and radio to maximize publicity before the meetings.
The impact was “huge,” says Cotlear.
“We’ve been invited to explain this more to the press, to the Congress of Teachers, to the private sector.”
The Bank team has also been asked to help clarify standards for social protection and nutrition. Cotlear says his team’s findings on education, health care and Peru’s social safety net will likely influence the World Bank’s upcoming country assistance strategy for Peru.
One of the keys to successfully implementing educational standards is parents’ awareness of the success or failure of their local school, and their demands for better education, says Cotlear.
The Bank team plans more meetings—and more publicity—throughout Peru to raise awareness of the quality education issue.
In addition, Cotlear says RECURSO has been talking to the private sector about setting up an annual award for the 100 teachers “who can show the best results in reading in these indigenous, rural, multigrade schools.”
“We want to make them famous, and we want parents of children in those schools to know how good they are, to recognize them for what they’re worth.
“And we also want other teachers and other parents to know that this recognition is going on, and to want to achieve that.”