Latin America's future may well depend on what happens in classes like Monica Mosquera's.
The fourth-grade teacher, working in a middle-class town 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, has waited two years for any evidence of Argentina's multibillion-dollar education reform plan.
As one of the region's more affluent nations, Argentina boasts one of its highest literacy rates. But, as in other nations, officials know the economy will never grow fast enough to reduce poverty, attract foreign investment, and compete globally as long as most kids never enter high school.
"We believed in this reform," Ms. Mosquera says. But, she says angrily, "We're frustrated, we're mad, we feel cheated."
Her fellow teacher Ana Bentivenga pulls out a piece of jagged chalk from her pocket. That chalk, she says, came out of her $300 monthly salary. And all books used in class are bought by parents and teachers.
Both teachers say they have yet to see the updated curriculum, high-tech equipment, and intensive training courses promised in the plan.
Argentina passed a law in 1993 that called for investing at least $3 billion to create an educated labor force, trained in science and technology, that could carry the country into the 21st century. For a nation of 9 million students with an average dropout rate of 40 percent, the task is huge.
Across Latin America, governments are confronting long-neglected education systems that experts brand as among the worst in the world for their stage in development. According to the World Bank, Latin Americans average five years of education. A report says this accounts for the fact that 70 percent live below the poverty level. High school and college largely are reserved for the upper classes, who attend private schools. About 30 percent of children repeat at least one year of elementary school.
Education has increasingly drawn attention among business leaders, politicians, and international donors. Last year, the US donated $39 million for education reform in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Argentina alone, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have invested more than $1 billion in programs aimed at addressing disparities.
Argentina has long taken pride in being one of the region's best-educated societies. Officials boast of a 94 percent literacy rate. But educators say such numbers are misleading: One-third of the country's 13-year-olds are still in elementary school. And recent standardized tests show high school graduates scoring 30 percent below basic competence standards for math and reading.
"We are trying to attack the causes of inequality," says Manuel Garcia Sola, secretary of programming and education evaluation at the Ministry of Culture and Education, adding that government investment in education has risen to nearly 4 percent of the country's gross national product. "We have created more than 3,000 kindergartens to [get poor children] in school. We are increasing investment 20 percent every year. We extended the mandatory schooling to keep in school the 11- and 12-year-olds, the population in the greatest danger [of dropping out]."
THE plan calls for injecting schools with billions of dollars, extending obligatory education from six to 10 years, revamping coursework to ensure children read and write by age 11, giving teachers at least 200 hours of training, and reorganizing schools into specific cycles to retain youths most vulnerable to dropping out. And a multimillion-dollar social plan targets 40 percent of the most destitute schools, providing computers, food, and even shoes to keep the poorest children in school, Mr. Garcia Sola says.
In Washington, IDB officials say provinces throughout Argentina have been implementing new curriculums and training teachers and reject as baseless complaints about lack of funds.
But beyond the Education Ministry's palatial offices in Buenos Aires, school administrators contend that costs still fall upon them and parents, many of whom struggle under austerity measures that have plunged wages and hiked unemployment rates to 18 percent. "This is a science- fiction law," declares Rita Romano, a private teacher in Villa Maria. "How can you implement reforms when children are dropping out of school to work because their parents don't have jobs?"
Government funds usually only cover salaries and building repairs, so most schools create parent cooperatives to fund supplies. At Colegio Nacional high school, director Maria Teresa Maqi de Quevedo says she asks students to donate $8 a month. "The federal government washed their hands of the schools," she says. "They are supposed to be sending money to the provincial government. They say they sent the money, and the province squanders it. The provinces say they don't have it.... Either way, we don't get it."
In an effort to decentralize education, the plan gives each province discretion to adopt the changes at its own pace, as long as they're in place by 2000. As a result, educators say, each of the country's 23 provinces is improvising programs that bear no relationship to other zones.
So chaotic is the situation, one high school administrator says, that teachers are put in absurd positions. "We have a teacher who taught agriculture for 14 years," she says. "Suddenly, they told her to teach technology." She wasn't trained as a technology teacher. "But the students are supposed to study technology four hours a week, and the government needed to solve the labor problem," she adds. "Those four hours are lost."
Experts argue there can be no real change until governments reform top-heavy bureaucracies, stop teacher union interference, and improve training of instructors. But Garcia Sola defends Argentina's attempt to take on a system left untouched since World War II. "We cannot do everything in the same moment," he says. "In five years, we are trying to catch up with all that wasn't done in 40 years. It's a question of time."
Nevertheless, skepticism remains. "All the developing countries are dealing with problems with youth and desertion, with economic change," says Juan Carlos Polti, a seventh-grade teacher in Buenos Aires. "The law tries to deal with these problems. But ... there needs to be more planning. If not, [this reform] just compromises the whole education system. We're losing a generation of students," he says.