Teachers in Guatemala Protest Education Policy Reforms

By Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Opponents say a Guatemalan education reform set for implementation next year creates an unfair burden on future educators, but supporters say it will give a much-needed boost to the quality of education. 

In recent months, Guatemalan teachers repeatedly protested proposed educational reforms, with the latest round of demonstrations taking place in early October. The reform, which goes into effect January 2013, would require new teachers to attend five years of schooling instead of three. The changes are unpopular with aspiring educators who say that the government can improve education quality without placing new burdens on teachers. Proponents of the reform say the changes could help Guatemala improve its education system. In a July blog post for Americas Quarterly about the reform, Nic Wirtz explained: “This has split public opinion between those who believe the country's educators should be well educated and those who are concerned that there will be fewer teachers because of the increased costs that will result from more training.” 

Unlike in many other Latin American countries, Guatemalan teacher training takes place at technical high schools rather than at universities. A recent study by Guatemala’s Ministry of Education found that less than 4 percent of the country’s teachers reached minimum standards in math and quantitative skills. These issues are at play in a country where UN Data from 2005 to 2010 showed that one in four Guatemalans over age 15 was illiterate during that period. María Ortega, a Guatemalan education policy expert, said the reform is important because “in last year’s standardized tests…not even two out of every hundred students reached the minimum level.” 

Guatemala’s Ministry of Education’s Strategic Education Plan explains that one of the government’s goals via the reform is “improving the abilities of teachers” and “updating basic qualifications.” Guatemala’s schools hire 2,500 teachers a year. The reform will require teacher-training programs to create courses equivalent to a Bachelor’s in arts and science with a focus on education. The policy is also designed to make sure that the incoming class of aspiring teachers completes at least three years of university coursework, as well as two years of education-focused studies. The new requirements would apply to prospective teachers who start their academic training after this date. Current students and teachers will not be required to complete additional training.

Proponents of the change hope it will increase new teachers’ skills. In May, Siglo21 published an editorial stating “with better teachers the possibility of having students [achieve] better results increases greatly.” A document published by the Ministry of Education in March explains the government’s position that “this [reform] can resolve the teacher training situation.” 

Critics of the reform agree on the need for widespread improvements of Guatemala’s education system, but challenge the focus of the new policy. Jorge Mario Joloma, a teacher in training who studies at the Rafael Aqueche Institute in Guatemala City said “education quality can’t be improved by increasing the [period of] studies to five years; there are other factors that really have an effect, such as the shortage of teachers.” Other aspiring teachers protested that they will not be able to afford additional years of schooling. 

After a number of high-profile protests, the Education Committee of Guatemala’s Congress held a consultative hearing with teaching students, who complained about the absence of dialogue. On October 7, representatives from 24 different teacher-training schools met with representatives from the Ministry of Education to discuss the reforms. On October 15, teaching schools students marched to the president’s residence to voice opposition to the reform and demand the resignation of Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila. The new requirements for incoming teaching students remain scheduled to come into force on January 1, 2013.

In other Central American news:

  • On October 15, the Women’s Refugee Commission published a report on child refugees fleeing violence in Central America and migrating to the United States. In April, the U.S. agency tasked with the care and custody of these children, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, had more than 10,000 unaccompanied children under its care—nearly double the number from the same period last year. 
  • On October 11, a group of teachers in Honduras barricaded the doors of the country’s Education Ministry in protest of a new law which would ban protests at schools. 
  • Nicaragua signed a new trade and investment agreement with the European Union on October 18. Legislators in other Central American countries are now debating signing onto the deal.