The educational policy deficit

We can do better than this school in La Pastora

We can do better than this school in La Pastora

As the Hugo Chávez era comes to a close in Venezuela, it is time to begin taking stock of his legacy.

One of the oft-repeated lines is that Chávez was “good for the poor.” Certainly, poverty statistics – as measured by the percentage of the population living below a certain income threshhold – have improved under his watch. One could easily be tempted to believe that this shows success.

But while this certainly helps explain Chávez’s continued dominance at the polls, it is not enough to conclude that poverty has been abated in the medium run. Real poverty abatement – the kind of long-lasting generational shift in income levels that we saw in places such as Japan and South Korea in 1950-1990, or that we see in China today – comes from improved productivity, and one of the keys to achieving this is education.

Ah, chavistas will say, in education we also show marked improvements: why, just look at all the money we spend on Misiones. More kids go to school now than ever before!

This is all a mirage.

The other day I went to a conference where one of the speakers was José Piñera, one of the ideologues of many of Chile’s most succesful (or, some would say, horrific) economic reforms. Regardless of how you feel about him, Piñera threw out a line that stuck with me, and it is applicable to the chavista context.

“Loans, credits, spending on education,” he said, “this is not educational policy, it is social policy. Real educational policy comes from changes in content, from curricular reform, from looking at teaching practices. Without that, we cannot discuss educational policy.”

In other words, real education reform has more to do with quality than quantity. Reral education reform consists of increasing productivity so that people can achieve higher income levels on their own.

If we accept this definition, can we then say there has been serious educational reform under Hugo Chávez?


While there have been efforts to change the curriculum, most of it has been either harmful or irrelevant. Competition among students and performance evaluation have been hampered. Parental involvement in schools has been watered down. Content has been skewed to better reflect political indoctrination. Teaching of English has taken a back seat.

Aside from the Canaima program, whereby kids get laptops, has there been any serious effort to integrate technological content in our schools to improve productivity? Have there been any efforts at all to lower the student-to-teacher ratio, to bring about new pedagogical approaches, or to provide kids an environment where they can experiment or learn a trade?

I mean, if it takes a blog to equip poor school shops with tools, you know something isn’t working.

What about Misiones that purportedly help people finally earn their degrees? Has there been any assessment of, say, Misión Ribas’ effects on wages?

You know the answer to all these questions. Deep down, Hugo Chávez’s “educational” policy is simply social policy, tantamount to getting on a helicopter and throwing dollar bills – or cheap laptops – at poor parents, borrowed at credit card interest rates.

(Note: I’m really, really making an effort to stop talking about Chávez’s illness. I am pretty sick of the topic and we’re not even done with it yet. Last week’s “Diosdado and Maduro vs. the Constitution” Celebrity Death Match left me depressed and exhausted, and it’s only going to get more intense as nature continues its course. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sticking to more wonky-type posts in the next few days, unless and until something dramatic happens … )

25 thoughts on “The educational policy deficit

  1. Thank you Juan. I agree entirely. Chavez only lasting legacy will be that he helped the poor. Unfortunately this is not true except that they now have refrigerators, and washing machines. The poor do not all have cars to take advantage of the free gasoline.

    I would like to see some in-depth research comparing poverty over the last 14 years. Are the poor really better off? Do they have more opportunities? Are they better educated? Did the poor trade human rights, freedom, and democracy for what little they got? Do the food shortages and inflation hit the poor the hardest. What could have been done with the cash Chavez spent on other countries, stole by himself or his family, or went to corrupt military and politicians? Is the Cuba model helping Venezuelan poor? etc.

    Chavistas should not be allowed to write Chavez legacy. We do not need another Che.


  2. Great post. There is hardly anything more depressing than seeing smart, capable kids in the hands of a neglected and neglectful, ideologically driven system.

    I was told by a friend that the state recently pulled subsidies for Catholic schools, meaning now more than ever, only rich (i.e. chavista) kids have access to better quality education in his area. It makes no sense.


        • I see. So the actual problem is the ban on increasing school tuition beyond 10%, not any pulling of any public money. This is by all means the wrong way to address a concern of many parents: how to make private schools more affordable. And to make matters worse, the government does not allow the school community to find another way of their own to deal with the situation. This sucks big time.


          • No, it isn’t the subsidy. The issue is the tuition that parents pay with their own money. Private schools claim it is insufficient for the children’s needs and can’t increase it more than 10% because the bolivarian government won’t allow it.


            • Gabriel: I appreciate your continuing input on this issue. You are obviously informed. My source of information is reliable, but perhaps I misunderstood the explanation given to me. It does not, however, seem to me to add up.

              If the school has a 10% cap on tuition increases (contrary to the specific case I am aware of- which is curious but you are right- there is a cap -by law at least) and there is no change in public funding equal with an increase in costs, does that not point to a shortfall (or put another way- effectively a “cut”) in public funding? As you have indicated- the government is putting price controls on subsidized education (in the name of inclusivity) without allowances in the subsidy for cost increases (as the result of its own inflationary policies). This is not the problem I initially identified, but it also leads to inequity as it will drive out successful schools that are reasonably affordable to many.

              Perhaps what has happened here is that the school is forced into a fully private system in order to get around the cap, although my undertsanding is that the cap applies to all Catholic schools, whether non-subsidized or fully subsidized.

              I am very curious as to how the system actually is working, and in this particular case, but so as not to bore the audience here, and you, I can satisfy my curiosity on my own time. I would say this: after a brief scan of articles on education over the past year in Venezuela, I am struck- STRUCK- by the Minister’s repeated insistence, to the point of what one might see as veiled threats- on transparency in Catholic school finances. If only her own government’s finances, and those of her ministry, were held to this standard.


  3. Chavez’s legacy on education is more than poor. Not only did he get rid of those ‘racist and elitist’ college admission tests. He also stopped funding CENAMEC science Olympiads. Truly disgraceful..


    • well, there’s one or two factual eliminations of funding. That’s contrary to Gabriel’s efforts to discredit the earlier rumor.


  4. Since there is no real study in Venezuela about the students’ improvement caused by the use of laptops, it can be seen, for comparative reasons, the same case in Peru. Here’s a link (in Spanish) to an article denouncing the failure of the one-laptop-per-child education program over there ->

    If the Chavez government hasn’t allegedly done anything relevant to improve the school curriculum then it is important to review what Venezuela already has in place.

    The last significant update to the core school curriculum was approved —and never evaluated after the fact— in 1980. Also, the course programs for the last two years of high school date back to 1969. Venezuelan experts say that the offset in the curriculum is a cause of inequality between public and private schools because teachers in private schools may give other research materials to work on. They also say students get bored not only by the lack of updating but also by old-fashioned teaching methods. The recent advances in all sciences are not included in the school curriculum.

    As a student of that era I ask myself: What happened during the first 15 years of that reform? What had all those ministers of education been doing? Was the economic crisis so dire that the government just thought of ongoing education reform as unimportant?

    Add up to that the last 14 years of everything all of you and I already know. This is a very worrying situation.

    I’m pissed. Really.


  5. Some people define poverty one way, others another. The word is not what’s important. What’s important is that supporters of chavez feel that their lot has improved. Whether a result of delusion, denial, or deception, it has real effects. Whether with washing machines, cash, or mere promises, lives have been improved. Ask any doctor; placebo effects are real.

    As to education, just a note. Giving someone money and having them decide how to spend it is educational. It’s exactly the best way to teach kids the value of money. Give them some and they learn by seeing what they can do with it. Analogously, people learn how to fish much better with a fishing pole and a day at the lake, than with a picture of a fishing pole and a day in a classroom.

    So, wake up and stop thinking chavismo hasn’t achieved improvement in the poors’ lives. They think so, therefore it is so. The first step towards becoming electible is having a platform that convinces them that A) you understand the truth of their improvement, and B) that you offer even *more* improvement.

    Think of it this way. You have a strong belief system. Imagine someone trying to get your vote by first trying to convince you that your religion is a mirage. You think they would get anywhere with you? Same thing. Don’t be telling them their lives have not improved when they truly believe their lives have improved. Tell them how you plan to make their lives waaay better. (you already know how I would do that…)


    • By the way, as to curriculum, consider how much it has improved that finally the poor are not being told that it’s their lazy ass fault that they are poor, but rather that it’s a fat, rich, imperialist’s fault. I bet they think their education has improved.


  6. I think one of the best achievements in these very early days of revolution is that all Venezuelans are now big fans of social justice, whereas before, the poor were dirt poor and nobody cared much.

    With regard to education, it is indeed all about quality. I wonder whether anyone here has read Paulo Freire?


    • Paolo Freire is probably on most undergraduate liberal arts curricula in North America, meaning, vast numbers of gringos in gringolandia graduate with a knowledge of Paolo Freire. Like you. Now tell me…how does Paolo Freire account for the abysmal state of public education in Venezuela, after 14 years of ’21st Century Socialism’? The big fans of social justice in the Chavez government should put down their Paolo Freire, stop the pontificating, step out of the private schools they send their kids to, and see what is actually going on.


    • Venezuelans are big fans of social justice? What the hell does that even mean? That they pay homage to a personalistic leadership in exchange for appliances and maybe a job in government if they’re lucky? That they chant slogans in the streets and pump their fists for a leader that won’t even tell them how he’s doing? That everything falls apart, crime rises and no one demands that the government that has been in power 14 years do something about it? If anything education in Venezuela reflects a severe lack of critical thinking in the curriculum. Rather than becoming individuals who know their rights, demand those rights be respected (yes, social justice is one of many values that a well-rounded citizen holds dear) the Venezuelan education system creates ideologized kids who parrot the same stale lines when they get older.


    • Venezuelans were big fans of social justice in the 60’s, the difference was Governments really did something about it. How many schools has Chavez really built? Compare with the adecos in the 60’s. Read a little history before joining the chorus.


  7. Not mentioned here is the sorry state of higher public education , how at every step the public universities have been starved of funds and resources or pressured into lowering their admission standards . The other subject not mentioned is the creation of undergrade medical schools that mass manufacture so called -doctors- whom experience has shown are anything but real doctors, known in public hospital as ‘mirones’ or onlookers because their ignorance prevents them from doing any actuall medical work . The third thing to mention is that huge spending in public schooling means absolutely nothing because the educational system is so full of waste , so riddled with mismanagement that they tell us nothing about the real results of such spending . I would want to know more about any improvement in the quality of the education of recent high school graduates , do they make better candidates for admission into universities or technical schools than used to be the case ?? Numbers mean nothing if the resulting quality of the education is poor. Maybe its true that ordinary people feel that their chance at a better education has improved , but this may be a false impression , the result of the wizard of oz like manipulation that this regime is so adept at but which really doesnt change the fundamentals .


  8. What type of improvement of education are we talking about here? Passing every illiterate teen that goes through the public system schools just to add them to an stat that says “Hey, look, more children are graduating from high school!”


  9. TOtal lack of critical thinking in the curriculum and even more chauvinism and fake history, according to what I see in my little brother’s school.


  10. Ladies, gentlemen, boys, girls…

    Education in venezuela sucks, and every year it sucks more, let me elaborate.

    My brother graduated from high school last year, I graduated on 2004, my mother and uncles graduated back in the early-mid 70’s. From what my uncles told me, because all of our family has studied in the same school, I could see that education degraded from when they studied to when I studied, and even while I was studying at that high school, I could see how it degraded year after year, not by my direct experience, but from what I could see on the people a couple of years behind me… no big deal… until my brother reached his final year and I could see that all of that years mean complete BS for his brain, he knew nothing about nothing, he didn’t know things that I knew when I was in 8th grade (3 years less), how come if we were in the same school?

    I had a terrific universal history teacher, he made us think, his exams were like “analyze the causes and their impact in the development of the renaissance”, not just name them as much others…and he was tough when it came to grade the tests… 8 years later that same teacher’s exams were single choice questions that were OBVIOUS, like “the process in which the rock is ERODED is called: a) erosion b) sedimentation c) meteorization” (he was also a geography teacher). Why?

    I see schools, be them upper, middle, low class, private or public… and I see why venezuela is what it is

    private schools, general: these are just daycare centers for teenagers, basically they go to do nothing all day, come to the house at noon and then facebook all day long… homeworks? bleh, google that and you’re done. These kids dare to fail english even if they are completely surrounded by it when they’re on the internet all day every day, at night, like the song says “everybody is in the house tonight, everybody’s having a real good time”, just parties…

    public schools: these are just like jails, a completely pitiful, damaged structure, all the inmates in the yard, grouped by gangs, doing their business, they do whatever they want and still they pass year after year getting excellent grades, until they are released to the society where they will “claim their rights”

    The upper classes are completely disconnected from the lower, the first believe they’re the best and the rest suck, the later think they are tough and they will take what’s their’s by any means.Common factor is mediocrity, going to school is just “a formality” to get the title, so is studying, learning… “dame lo que me toca”

    Universities are the only ones doing an effort, and I must say: it’s not enough.

    Part of the problem is that people think we need more schools, that anyone has to get a university degree, and both are completely wrong.

    We don’t need more crappy schools, we need BETTER schools and educational system, even if some must be left behind in the first stages, is better to have 100 really good (aka, received excellent education) students and 20 that didn’t get anything that 120 students that get their high school diploma and they barely can add, because that, in the end, means excatly the same as nothing.

    A university degree is not a guarantee of success, much less if EVERYONE has one, and a lot, I mean, A LOT of people have done incredible things with their lives without having one.

    People has to understand that massification = crappyfication

    To those who think that what I say is elitist and discriminatory, I reply, if that is so, how come that most of the venezuelan overseas, valued because of their excellent formation, knowledge and abilities, have been educated under a system that closely (compared that today’s standards) resembles what I have described above. They were formed in a system that made them work through it, they were interested in learning, they wanted to be their own mans and womans, they studied hard, worked hard and now they are living much more interesting lives outside venezuela than if they were here. They were formed in a system that rewarded good work and punished lazyness and sinverguenzeria. That system was not perfect, but sure it had good results, and that’s where we must start if we want to fix this mess.

    The transformation has to begin at every level, first at universities, to define the role of their graduates and their role as an education and research institution with a direct impact on the welfare of the country, then define what would be an excellent starting point for those students and set it as a goal for primary and secondary educational levels, and develop an educational program to fullfill those goals.

    For funding, I think that we venezuelans have had the ENORMOUS luck of having free universities, and I think it should still be that way, BUT, ensuring that this opportunity is given to those that truly deserve it, those that truly work for it and that will truly keep working for at their fullest. Instead of having free education, give a “national superior studies scholarship” with strict terms to those proven worhty and open up a certain % of places in the public universities for private students, as to increase funding. “Only for riquitos?”, yes, a minuscule percent, but the biggest percent is yours if you work hard for it, and those riquitos aren’t paying for their education alone, they are paying yours too!

    For those that don’t make it to the university, it’s not the end of the road, and I dont mean they have to be buhoneros. A businessman doesn’t (strictly) require a business degree, I know quite a few that earn more by themselves that what several tenured professors, PhD and all, make together, even if their salaries were quintupled.

    But above all, to do this, we will have to engrave in people’s hearts and minds what certain quasipusillanimous public figure rightfully said: education must be the way, hard work must be the way. Only when we all understand that and live by that, any real change can take place…


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