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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
07PANAMA1369 2007-08-15 16:38:00 UNCLASSIFIED Embassy Panama
Cable title:  

PANAMA: EDUCATION SYSTEM NEEDS DRASTIC REFORM

Tags:   ELAB PGOV PM SOCI 
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VZCZCXYZ0001
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #1369/01 2271638
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 151638Z AUG 07
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0974
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
					  UNCLAS PANAMA 001369 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB PGOV PM SOCI
SUBJECT: PANAMA: EDUCATION SYSTEM NEEDS DRASTIC REFORM

REF: PANAMA 01099

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SUMMARY
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1. (U) Most stakeholders interviewed recently view the most
significant challenges faced by Panama's education system as:
inequality, lack of quality, cronyism, corruption, poor
budget administration, antiquated technology, and politicized
education initiatives, the longevity of which lasts only as
long as the current presidential administration. Following
meetings with 11 education stakeholders (including teacher's
union leaders, a non-profit director, a Ministry of Education
official, and officials from local universities), POLINTERN
gained invaluable insight into the education system and its
need for drastic reform. If it is to take full advantage of
its growing economic opportunities and sustain a viable
democracy, Panama must have an educated, competent, and
technologically-savvy citizenry. End Summary.



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INEQUALITY AND LACK OF QUALITY


--------------------------




2. (U) An overwhelming number of interviewees view the
Panamanian public education system as one characterized by
inequality. The wealthier one's family is, the better the
education one receives and the greater one's access the to
tools needed to supplement learning outside the classroom,
most observers agreed. There are drastic differences in
resource allocation and education quality both between and
within the provinces, and particularly between the wealthier
province of Panama, and rural, poorer provinces with large
indigenous populations. For example, most schools in the
province of Panama have indoor plumbing and running water.
As noted reftel, some schools in provinces such as the Darien
must seek help and resources from non-profit organizations to
provide indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and
other resources. This can be attributed to the Panama
provinces's larger student population, for school funding is
based upon the number of students enrolled. Since provinces
like Panama have higher student enrollments, their schools
are much more likely to receive higher amounts of funding,
thus providing more resources.



--------------------------


LACK OF INFRASTRUCTURE/NEED FOR MODERNIZATION


--------------------------




3. (U) Many schools lacked adequate infrastructure,
interviewees reported. This lack of infrastructure ranges
from schools without indoor plumbing and running water to
vocational programs in carpentry that lack sufficient numbers
of functioning electric saws. Paula Rodriguez, a parent of
public school students in Veraguas province and a recent
graduate of the University of Panama's teacher education
program, recounted that her children's school lacked science
and computer laboratories. Even if these resources were
available, they would be useless because the school lacks
electricity. In more distant provinces like Chiriqui, only
schooling up to the 9th grade is available. To continue with
high school, students must travel, often for hours, to Colon
or Panama City. This added travel often deters poorer
students, who often have to use any extra time to earn money
to help support their families, from continuing their
education.



--------------------------


FUNDING


--------------------------


4.(U) While the GOP spends significant resources on its
educational system, most respondents noted poor budget
administration and resource allocation as a major management
problem in Panama's education system. Spending about 6
percent of its GDP on education, Panama allocates significant
monetary resources. For FY 2007, the Ministry of Education
had an operating budget of over $790 million. An education
tax (seguro educativo) deducts 1.5% of a person's wages from
their paycheck and generates about $80 million per year, of
which about $30 million goes to the Ministry of Education
(MEDUCA). MEDUCA is responsible for pre-kindergarten through
12th grade education.



5. (U) A substantial portion of education funding comes from
the Canal. According to Luis Lopez, Secretary General of the
National Front of Independent Educators, $0.10 for each ton
that goes through the Canal is allocated toward education.
For fiscal year 2006, over 296 million tons transited the
Canal, resulting in more than $2.9 million in education
funding generated from this source.



6. (U) In 2005 (the latest year for which statistics from
MEDUCA are available), there were 755,567 school-aged
children actually enrolled in school. (Note: GOP statistics
do not distinguish between students enrolled in public or
private schools.) MEDUCA allocates $33 per school year per
student to each school for local operating costs,
maintenance, and instructional materials.



7. (U) MEDUCA is widely believed to spend a majority of its
budget on employee salaries. However, after obtaining
MEDUCA's 2007 budget from the Ministry of Economy and Finance
website, POLINTERN found that MEDUCA spends only 38% of its
budget on employee salaries. This is a much lower percentage
than some school districts in the United States, which often
spend up to 55% or more of their budgets on employee salaries
and benefits.



--------------------------


CORRUPTION AND POLITICS OF EDUCATION


--------------------------




8. (U) The majority of the stakeholders interviewed cited
corruption and cronyism as major obstacles to education
quality and equal resource allocation. Many stated that,
while Panamanian schools lacked many resources, teachers and
administrators could do better with existing funding if
corruption was not an issue. However, Aida Afu de Sanchez,
Deputy National Director of Education at MEDUCA, stated that
MEDUCA was implementing a competitive hiring process whereby
teachers and other education professionals would be hired
based on their credentials-- not who they know or because
someone owes them a favor, an implicit acknowledgement that
cronyism is a problem.



9. (U) Many stakeholders also said that education was too
politicized, noting that education programs and important
initiatives changed as the presidential administration
changes. For example, teacher's union leaders Luis Lopez and
Luzmila Sanchez, among others, noted that many of the
programs and initiatives run by the First Lady's office, such
as her initiative for inclusive education for disabled
students, would be discontinued once this presidential
administration term ended in 2009. Several stated that
education priorities should be a matter of "state policy",
not presidential and party politics.



--------------------------


SCHOOL ATTENDANCE


--------------------------




10. (U) Forty percent of children who are of preschool age do
not attend preschool, and most students do not remain in
school long enough to fully grasp basic subjects (Spanish
grammar, reading and writing; math; natural sciences; and
history/social studies.) In many schools several
interviewees noted that there are three shifts, (morning,
afternoon, and night), each lasting approximately four hours
each. Shifts are necessary because there are not enough
classrooms to accommodate all students at once. In many
instances, students do not get the full four hours worth of
instruction. According to one Peace Corps volunteer whose
work centers on education, the school in her community is
supposed to begin at 8:00 am but on average starts at about
8:30am. The school session is scheduled to end at around
12:00 noon, but numerous students often leave early, for no
reason at all. In between those times, there is a 30 minute
recess, a 15 minute break for snack, and lunch before
leaving. Therefore on average, these students get
approximately 2.5 hours of instruction per day.



11. (U) School dropout rates are high because many students
do not value education, according to several stakeholders.
Some students drop out because they must work to help support
a family. The average Panamanian has an eighth grade
education. In indigenous communities, most adults only have a
second or third grade education. Teacher's union leaders
stressed that coverage and availability of high school should
be expanded so that all students have the ability to finish
high school. Many note the potential benefit of the Network
of Opportunities (Red de Oportunidades) program, a program in
which the GOP gives a poor family a subsidy of about $35 per
month, to help offset the cost of medical expenses, food, or
the income that the student would normally generate. Many
interviewees noted that this program could help some students
stay in school because they have some additional financial
support for their families. Whether the Network of
Opportunities program will be continued after President
Torrijos' term remains to be seen.



--------------------------


TEACHER EDUCATION/TRAINING


--------------------------


12.(U) According to Luzmila Sanchez and Favio Trotman of the
Reformist Front of Panamanian Educators and Paula Rodriguez,
a prospective public school teacher, elementary school
teachers only need to attend "normal school", (a specialized
high school program), to be "qualified" to teach. Secondary
school teachers must complete a bachelor's degree program.
13.(U) Trotman stated that teacher education was not
sufficient, especially given changes in technology. He noted
that teacher education should be more advanced and should
include more in-depth training on teaching methods. He also
stated that educators should be trained to respond to social,
economic, and political problems that not only plague their
students, but the country as a whole. When teachers are not
properly educated overall, they are unable to adequately
educate their students, this union official concluded.



--------------------------


TEACHER PAY/COMPENSATION


--------------------------


14.(U) According to Luis Lopez, teacher's salaries are good
compared to the rest of the region (Central and parts of
South America). In light of Panama's cost of living,
teacher's union leaders believe that the salaries are
insufficient, particularly when compared to other
professionals with comparable levels of education. Melva
Lowe de Goodin, Professor of English at the University of
Panama, stated that teachers often had two or three jobs just
to make ends meet and that the only educators she knew who
hold one job were those that taught at private schools.
Although the GOP approved a $90 per month, phased salary
increase for educators in 2006, the starting salary for a
teacher in 2008 will be $575 per month. (The minimum wage for
all workers was recently raised to $300 per month). The
canasta basica, or monthly price of a basic basket of food
for a family of four, is $220.71-- approximately 45% of the
current minimum teacher's salary of $485 per month. The
canasta basica does not account for expenses related to
shelter, clothing, or health care. Higher positions such as
principals and assistant principals make substantially more
money, averaging about $1,200 per month.



--------------------------


SCHOOL CONDITIONS


--------------------------


15.(U) Many educators noted the need for a focus on
occupational health, most notably ensuring that violence
would not be tolerated in schools. Better behavior and
conduct from students is badly needed. Trotman stated that a
greater emphasis should be placed on mental health and that
all schools should have a psychologist on staff to assist
both students and teachers. The Panamanian education system
should also be more flexible to respond to the varying needs
of students in different areas, rather than the "one size
fits all" education system that is currently in place. In
this regard, Trotman cited the example that people in some
indigenous reservations (comarcas) did not speak Spanish,
while the MEDUCA-funded school(s) in those areas only taught
in Spanish. In such cases, students and parents were unlikely
to appreciate the value of obtaining an education, especially
if it was in a language that they did not fully understand.
He stated that children in these types of communities should
have the chance to learn in their own language and that
studies on how to implement bilingual education should be
undertaken.



--------------------------



--------------------------


INCLUSIVE EDUCATION (CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS)


--------------------------



--------------------------


16.(U) Inclusive education, in which students with
disabilities are integrated into classrooms with typically
developing students, is a "hot" topic at the moment, several
interviewees noted. It is a special focus and programmatic
area in the First Lady's Office, and as a result, in the
schools as well. When speaking with educators in two
teacher's unions, the overall sentiment was that most
educators did not oppose inclusive education-- they actually
advocated it-- but they said that more studies and analysis
had to be done for the benefit of all students, teachers and
other stakeholders involved. They emphasize that
international standards regarding the integration of special
needs students must be created and implemented.

17.(U) Luis Lopez stated that many special education
students were integrated into classrooms without sufficient
time to transition effectively. This particular teacher
actually taught in an inclusive classroom. Teachers in
inclusive classrooms were often thrust into teaching special
needs students without the necessary training and skills to
effectively teach and respond not only to the special needs
child(ren), but also to the tension and issues that arose
between students. Through his experience, he said that in an
inclusive classroom, there should be no more than 20-25
students total in a class that contained one to two special
needs students. Given an average student-to-teacher ratio of
21:1 for the entire country (in 2005), this would seem
feasible, although student to-teacher ratios vary widely
depending upon grade level and province. Central Panama's
primary schools (grades one to six) have the highest
student-to-teacher ratio of all provinces at 30 to 1. Los
Santos province's middle and high schools have the lowest
student-to-tacher ratio at 13 to 1. These ratios cannot
necessarily be attributed to more teacher availability in
some areas. Other factors like dropout rates should also be
considered.

18.(U) Aida Afu de Sanchez emphasized that although the First
Lady's Office focused on inclusion in the sense of
integrating special needs students, inclusive education also
concerned the inclusion of different racial, cultural, and
other groups-- similar to diversity initiatives in the U.S.
While inclusive education is touted, issues related to race
and ethnicity have surfaced in school settings, according to
Professor Melva Goodin, former president of the
Afro-Pananamian society and an English professor at the
University of Panama. One example of this issue occurred at
a private school in Panama (the same private school that the
President and First Lady's disabled daughter attends). One of
the school's few black students was on track to graduate as
valedictorian of his class. There was a massive attempt to
oust him, on the basis of behavior problems, although his
behavior was no worse than any other boy's behavior at the
school. His parents fought to keep him at the school, and he
eventually graduated.



--------------------------


VALUES AND EDUCATION FOR AN ENGAGED CITIZENRY


--------------------------


19.(U) One sentiment that resonated throughout the majority
of conversations with educators was the need for an
educational system that contributed to the development of
moral, civic-minded and value-oriented citizens. Many
stakeholders stated that there was a sense of little hope
among many students and this sentiment, in addition to the
education system's other deficiencies, contributes to their
low academic achievement. Nobody specifically stated what
types of morals and values should be taught nor how to teach
these concepts to students. Etilvia Arjona, an
educator/administrator at the Universidad Santa Maria la
Antigua (USMA), said that teachers need values the most and
that they were downright corrupt. Teachers have lost a sense
of mission, duty, and calling to the education profession.
Even Paula Rodriguez, a prospective teacher, noted that many
teachers lack the patience and desire to help students with
major learning difficulties reach their fullest potential.
Arjona blamed these attitudes on the revolution and 30 years
of military rule. In her opinion, 30 years of military rule
disrupted the morals and values of the Panamanian people.
Because of military rule, populism, and the lack of values
that ensued, standards of quality and excellence had been
lost and most people going into the education profession
simply wanted a credential and a job, according to Arjona.



--------------------------


EDUCATION AND PREPARATION FOR THE WORKFORCE


--------------------------


20.(U) Most say that the Panamanian educational system is not
preparing the vast majority of students for the workforce of
the 21st century because many schools lack the necessary
technology. In addition, most students are unable to pass
tests that measure basic academic skills, thus illustrating
large deficiencies and ill-preparation for a technology and
service-based economy-- particularly the workforce that will
be needed for the Canal expansion project and to take full
advantage of the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.

21.(U) Asked if the Panamanian education system was
adequately preparing students for the workforce, Aida Afu de
Sanchez stated that relatively speaking, the Panamanian
education system educated students effectively, although
there were some deficiencies. Turning the question, she then
asked, "Where is the market for graduating students?,"
implying that few jobs were available for recent graduates.
This view runs counter to extensive media coverage
highlighting the enormous difficulty in filling positions for
bilingual and technologically-savvy workers. One example of
this is Occidental Petroleum Corporation's pending
construction of an oil refinery in Puerto Armuelles. This
project will require more resources and the possible import
of skilled labor to complete, since the skilled scientific
and technical labor is simply not available within Panama's
local population. Also, according to a June article in Panama
America, 80% of administrative positions in Panama require an
advanced-level command of the English language.



22. (U) Leaving aside openings in the high technology sector
or where English-Spanish bilingual skills were desired,
Etilvia Arjona cited the example of trying to fill a
Spanish-language secretarial position. Of the 15 resumes she
received for the open secretarial position, only three
resumes were written properly and without basic Spanish
grammatical mistakes. All applicants spoke Spanish as their
first language and were high school graduates.


--------------------------


HYPOTHETICAL PROGRAMS TO ADDRESS DEFICIENCIES


--------------------------


23.(U) When asked if they could design a program to address
the country's educational deficiencies, most interviewees had
simple answers, which include the following:
- Add classrooms so that each grade is taught separately
and students no longer have to attend school in shifts.
- Make the school day longer with a set schedule of
subjects.
- Have penalties for children who are tardy and awards for
those that are on-time or early.
- Foster more cooperation between the educational system
and large companies to provide scholarships and training (at
the high school and university levels.)
- Increase teacher salaries and teacher training
opportunities, in hopes of improving morale.



--------------------------


INTERVIEWEE NAMES AND AFFILIATIONS


--------------------------




24. (SBU) From June 25 through July 31, POLINTERN met with
the following individuals:
- Larry Brady, Director, Panama Missions (NGO)
- Luis Lopez, Secretary General, National Front of
Independent Educators
- Luzmila Sanchez, Secretary General, Reformist Front of
Panamanian Educators (FREP)
- Favio Trotman, Finance Secretary, FREP
- Dionesia Cossio, Secretary of National Relations, FREP
- Carlos Langoni, Rector, Florida State University
(Panama Branch)
- Etilvia Arjona, Director of the Educational Advising
Center, Santa Maria la Antigua Catholic University
- Aida Afu de Sanchez, Deputy National Director of
Education, Ministry of Education (MEDUCA)
- Melva Goodin, Former President and Member,
Afro-Panamanian Society and Professor of English, University
of Panama
- Peace Corps volunteer in Colon province
- Paula Rodriguez, Parent of public school students,
recent graduate of University of Panama teacher education
program, and prospective public school teacher



--------------------------


COMMENT


--------------------------


25.(SBU) Education is a perennial issue of concern among
average Panamanian citizens and political leaders alike.
Given the information provided by stakeholders and extensive
media coverage regarding difficulty in hiring employees with
the needed skills and talent, it is clear that Panama's
education system is in dire need of reform. Expectations for
employment are high, particularly given the Canal expansion
and the construction of an oil refinery in Puerto Armuelles.
However, for Panama to truly progress, education reform is
essential to ensure that the country can not only take
advantage of its many economic opportunities, but also to
deepen and broaden its democracy. In order for Panama to
realize its fullest potential, it must have an educated
public and a talented workforce. This type of dynamism is
not possible if the majority of the workforce cannot speak
Spanish properly, use basic computer functions, and can only
qualify for low-skilled jobs. Therefore, modernization,
transformation, and reform of the Panamanian educational
system is of the utmost importance if Panamanians wish to
benefit from the many forthcoming economic, investment, and
development opportunities.
Arreaga