In Costa Rica, the country with the best educational system in Central America, schools are closing: on average, nine primary education centers a year so far this decade. It is not, however, due to lack of teachers or resources: what more and more Tico schools lack are students.
Indeed, in the last 10 years the budget of the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) of Costa Rica has doubled and is currently equivalent to 7.4% of GDP. This is the highest average among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “the club of the most developed countries in the world” to which the Central American country is about to join.
But the fall in the birth rate has been reducing the number of school-age children, and with them the number of those who attend school. In this school year, for example, 21,288 fewer children enrolled in Costa Rican primary schools than in 2010 and almost 70,000 less than in the first year of the century.
And according to a recent audit report cited by the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación, the trend has already forced the closure of 92 public schools between 2010 and 2019, and the MEP plans to close four more this year. Another 30 public schools have a single student and 616 schools have fewer than 10 students.
“An open school will always be maintained where there is a student,” promises Guiselle Cruz, the Costa Rican Minister of Education. “But we know that due to the low birth rate there is a significant percentage of schools that in the next five, 10 years will have almost no students.”
The situation could not contrast more with that of the rest of Central American countries, where what is lacking are schools. And, as Minister Cruz highlights, it is largely the result of the efforts to guarantee universal educational coverage that Costa Rica has been doing since the 1960s.
In fact, the vast majority of schools closed or with few students are located in rural areas, with difficult access. “They are mountainous areas, areas through which a river passes. So, the idea was, instead of making the little ones cross the river to go to another school, to make one for them in their community,” explains Daniela Cerdas, from the newspaper La Nación.
“But they were not made so that they had only one student. They are small schools that with the drop in the birth rate are falling to zero,” she says. For Cerdas, the most significant thing about the story is that “it shows that there are schools in every corner of the country so as not to deny children the right to education.”
But the journalist also acknowledges that “the problem with so many small schools is that the quality of education is not the same for everyone.” And the same says Katherine Barquero, principal investigator of the chapter on primary of the most recent Report of the State of the Education (IEE), where the great percentage of “single-teacher” schools that still exist in Costa Rica stands out.
Quantity vs quality
As their name indicates, the “single-teacher” schools -which in Costa Rica can have up to 30 students- are centers where a single teacher teaches all the subjects, at all the cycles. And according to the seventh State of Education Report, published last year, three out of 10 Costa Rican primary schools belong to this category.
“Single-teacher schools exist because of the need to give primary education to all and achieve what we are very proud of, having a very high schooling rate in our population,” explains Barquero. “But the quality is unequal, in access to primary education (from that of schools with more students and teachers),” she states.
In fact, according to figures from the World Bank, with a 97% net primary school enrollment rate, Costa Rica is one of the undisputed educational leaders in Latin America, where it is only behind Uruguay and Cuba and far ahead of neighbors such as Honduras (80%), El Salvador (81%) and Guatemala (87%). But the Central American country is still below the average of the OECD countries in the tests of the Program for International Student Assessment (known as PISA tests, for its acronym in English), which assess the level of understanding in mathematics, science and reading.
And the latest edition of the IEE also records a significant drop in the net rate of schooling in primary school, which currently stands at 93.1%. According to Barquero, this reduction can be explained by three factors: a problem of internal efficiency of the system, expressed in more students repeating grade; a recent change in the calculation methodology used by the MEP, or as an effect of the demographic transition. “But the important thing is that we believed it was very high and it has been deteriorating. That is the problem, that we have been experiencing deterioration,” the researcher informs.
For Barquero, the situation also makes it increasingly clear that the structure of primary schools in Costa Rica “is obsolete.” But the researcher also recognizes that it has also been slowly changing. In 2008, for example, single-teacher elementary schools represented 49.9% of the total and currently constitute 33.4%.
According to Minister Cruz, the current government has well advanced a plan that would allow many of the current small schools to be “grouped” into larger centers, thus offering better conditions to students. “The idea is that the educational center that has the best conditions brings together neighboring educational centers and provides transportation to students, scholarship possibilities, etc.”, she explains.
“This would allow us to improve the quality of education, because in these schools with fewer than 30 students it is very difficult for them to have probabilities of (learning) a second language, the issue of connectivity and technology are another limitation, socialization is very low … “.
According to the official, after analyzing the geographical conditions, the road infrastructure and the facilities of numerous schools located in areas of no more than five kilometers, the MEP has identified “more than 500 schools that could be regrouped.” And Cruz hopes to conclude the necessary consultations and negotiations with residents and unions before the end of President Carlos Alvarado’s term.
“We have to move carefully, because many of our schools, not to tell you that most, have been a work of love for the community and are very important to them,” explains the minister.
“But we also have to make everyone – society, teachers, politicians – understand that a reduction in the number of schools does not have to mean fewer teachers,” she stresses. And adds: “What I see is a great opportunity to improve the quality (of education), because we know that the reduction of groups and individualized attention makes a difference.”
The future of small schools, in any case, is not the only challenge that must be overcome to achieve the leap in quality that Costa Rica aspires to. According to Katherine Barquero, the vast majority of public schools in the country, 93%, still “do not offer the complete curriculum.”
And for years, the State of Education Report has also pointed out problems in the process of training and incorporating teachers.
It is something that the current authorities are trying to solve with an update of the recruitment profiles and the institution of a suitability test. Minister Cruz also tells that a bill that would institutionalize a system of evaluation and accompaniment of teachers in the country’s public education system is already under discussion.
Meanwhile, the MEP is also making efforts to significantly improve the connectivity of its educational centers, to help compensate for the limits and inequalities of internet access that the COVID-19 Pandemic has exposed.
“Of the one hundred thousand students in Costa Rica, we have 50% with the possibility of a good or medium connection and with devices, and the other half of the students without connectivity,” Minister Cruz states.
This poses a challenge for an educational system that, however, has made important advances in distance education spurred by the Pandemic. In fact, for Daniela Cerdas, this could and should be the alternative for those students from remote areas and from difficult access in which the project of grouping schools is not viable.
“This unifying schools would be a bit complicated if, for example, a river passes in the middle of the communities, because that can put the student at risk,” says Cerdas. “But instead of investing in an entire infrastructure that may not have all the conditions, it is better to invest in giving the student the technological tool, the Internet, and that education is given at a distance.”
The journalist, however, also recognizes the economic difficulties the country is going through. “Finances were already depressed and with the Pandemic, they got worse,” she says. “But I know that the country is not going to leave any student without an education, no matter where they live. That is something that the country guarantees,” she concludes.