Many cities in Latin America have taken the lead in promoting education reform, demonstrating that city-wide reforms could have a greater impact and present less difficulty than attempting to reform the system at a national level.
One of the best examples may be the city of Buenos Aires, which undertook a comprehensive education reform five years ago led by Minister of Education Esteban Bullrich.
There was no lack of opposition to Bullrich’s efforts. At a recent event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Bullrich spoke about the politics behind education policy. “First, the support of the mayor, Mauricio Macri, who is running for president, was key to pushing for reform. The mayor believes that improving education is key to improving the city’s standard of living, and to promote the city as a knowledge-economy hub.”
In a city of 3 million people, of whom 50,000 are teachers, three-and-a-half years of no strikes and six successful salary negotiations with the 17 teachers’ unions is already a great achievement. The reform plan consisted of three main pillars: (1) ensuring that students’ success is the end goal of every reform they undertake, (2) evaluating everyone’s—the students, teachers, administrators, and ministry itself—performance, and (3) engaging families and the broader community in education.
During his first two years in office Minister Bullrich experienced 20 teacher strikes. This ended when he began communicating directly with teachers and administrators instead of through the unions. His version of communicating directly is unique for a government official. Bullrich started handing out his personal cell phone number to educators and parents. He explained at Brookings that this seemingly crazy system (that he calls “1-800-Bullrich”) has helped improve relations because educators feel that they are being heard and because his team now knows what issues matter most to him.
He described this as breaking the environment of mutual prejudice between unions and the government or “taking the temperature” to identify grievances, as noted in a recent BBC article. Teachers had a number of grievances, including low salaries. Consequently one of the first tasks Bullrich’s team undertook was raising salaries: Buenos Aires teachers went from being ranked 20th in pay in Argentina to seventh, which is notable considering that in certain provinces teachers receive higher pay due to working in difficult and remote locations. This has enabled six successful salary negotiations over the past three-and-a-half years, which allows the city government to focus on other reforms.
Although all of the reforms are geared towards ensuring the success of students, some are uniquely ambitious. For example, the city government is trying to ensure early education for all children ages 3 and above. Ninety percent of three, four, and five-year-olds in Buenos Aires are now enrolled. In addition, they completely changed the high school curriculum so that it is more flexible and students can begin focusing on their career paths at a younger age—the one requirement is an entrepreneurship course. Bullrich argues that this should lower dropout rates because students will see greater value in pursuing their studies due to the clear impact on their futures.
With regards to evaluating everyone’s performance, the city has undertaken numerous reforms. Buenos Aires students now take the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test separately from the rest of Argentine students, so that the city can evaluate and monitor student improvement more accurately. In the 2012 PISA Examination, Buenos Aires students did better on average than other Argentines, with average scores of 418 points in math compared with 388 for the wider Argentine population and 429 points in reading comprehension compared with 396 elsewhere in Argentina. In addition, each teacher now has mandatory evaluations and on-the-job training and a leadership course has been created for principals.
Resistance to other reforms as compared with the resistance to legislation governing the Juntas de Clasificacion was negligible. Passing legislation for the Juntas was a struggle because it meant shifting the power to appoint and promote teachers from teachers’ unions back to the Ministry of Education. This reshaped the teaching career and created the ability to help the most vulnerable schools and students with better teachers. The legislation also changed teacher requirements regarding tenure. Teachers in Buenos Aires must now work in one school for five years before receiving tenure; the requirement used to be six months, which meant that many less-advantaged schools had extraordinarily high turnover rates.
Bullrich said that schools used to be one of the community centers—along with civil society and city hall—that were critical to society; his team is trying to recreate this connection. They gave each student in Buenos Aires an internet-enabled laptop, which allows for easier studying and better communication and support with families. Distributing laptops to students had a wider impact as it also enabled the Familias en la Escuela program, which provides free online learning and tutoring for parents so they can complete their secondary degrees. The laptops were essential for the program’s success as most families with parents who lacked secondary degrees did not own computers or have access to the internet.
More than 350,000 adults have taken advantage Familias en la Escuela thus far, and Buenos Aires has undertaken other reforms to bring the whole family and community into the learning process so as to reduce recidivism and increase parental involvement in education. Some of the programs include keeping schools open later and on Saturdays to enable students and families to use the facilities, and the creation of parents’ unions so that parents can advocate for their children just as teachers’ unions advocate for teachers.
Minister Bullrich’s reforms are moving forward at a brisk pace, but Mayor Macri’s mandate ends in December. However, Macri is a contender in Argentina’s presidential election this fall. Bullrich hopes that Macri wins, so he can take “1-800 Bullrich” nationwide and improve national education quality.