Challenges of the Argentine Public Education System

By: Devin MacGoy

November 24, 2018

As soon as I walk through the door of Escuela Dominguito in western Buenos Aires, I'm hit by a wave of noise and energy. Fistbumping my seventh graders as I wade through recess to get to the classroom, I'm reminded of how kids are pretty much the same everywhere. These kids keep me on my toes, though, with their superior knowledge of Youtubers, K-pop, and reggaeton.

Escuela Dominguito is one of 26 full-day plurilingual public schools in Buenos Aires. Every Friday, I organize English games to help students with their grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. These schools are known for being the best public primary schools in the city because they put a strong emphasis on language education, require extra training for teachers, possess a strong culture of parent engagement, and provide free lunch for all students.

Working within this school has shown me this high quality education firsthand. The seventh graders that I work with are highly engaged; they light up at the challenge of playing charades, Heads Up, or Mafia in their second language. The government even paid for all students in this school to have their own laptop, which they use to both enrich their learning in the classroom and to stay connected with their teachers through online platforms.

However, as I dug deeper to learn more about the education system here in Argentina, I learned that these plurilingual schools are the exception. I sat down with the teachers I volunteer with over mate and coffee (two Porteño staples) to learn more about their experiences teaching, and these conversations highlighted for me the stark inequalities in the Argentine public education system.

Buenos Aires is an autonomous capital city, a bit like Washington, D.C., and is surrounded by the Province of Buenos Aires. The city and the province have distinct governments, and nowhere is this more apparent than in education. Schools have fewer resources in the poorer province, and schools in wealthy neighborhoods in the city are much better supplied than those in poverty-stricken areas.

Both of the teachers I work with have experience teaching in the villas miserias: the Argentine name for the sprawling slums that lack the basic services characteristic of most big Latin American cities. It is difficult to inspire kids in the villas to learn English because they see no value in learning a second language if they are never going to leave the slums. Broken families, drugs, racial prejudice, and hunger are a few of the challenges that make childhood education difficult in these neighborhoods that are largely ignored by the city and provincial governments. Education in this environment has become even more difficult in the face of an economic crisis that has prompted budget cuts of $10 billion to social services, including education.

As I have investigated more about how schools work here in Argentina, it has been frustrating to observe that the public education system—the very system that is supposed to level the playing field in society—replicates and reinforces social inequality.

I also had the opportunity to learn more about an organization that is tackling this inequality from a religious perspective. I spoke to an educator that I met at the G20 Interfaith Forum who is also a member of the executive committee of Fortalecer Familias, a Buenos Aires Christian non-governmental organization that works to prevent domestic violence, strengthen families, and promote healthy childhood development. In addition to providing counseling and legal services to women in violent relationships, the organization works with schools to prevent bullying through teacher training and the development of classroom materials. Throughout my brief conversation, I was able to see how this organization is inspired by the message of social justice that Jesus taught: a mission of "love your neighbor as yourself" and returning to the poor the dignity that they deserve.

During my short time here in Buenos Aires, I have been inspired by the passion of these educators to promote healthy childhood development, to make education enjoyable, and to establish bonds among young people. And their dedication to their students is readily apparent in the classroom of engaged, curious seventh graders that I see every week. Despite the challenges of public education in Argentina, it is teachers like these that are making a real difference in the lives of the youth.

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