Nurturing Ecuador’s Most Important National Resource
By Gloria Vidal Illingworth, Minister of Education of Ecuador
Ecuador, where the theory of evolution was first conceived, is home to a unique richness of life and natural resources. However, like all countries, our most precious resources are our young people. The true measure of our success as country and a people is how well we prepare them for the future. In fact, the education of our young is so important that we have tripled our investment in this sector over the last six years. No other national resource will impact our social and economic well-being as this.
Last month, at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of sharing the progresses we've made in Ecuador over the last few years since the implementation of wide-reaching reforms to our educational system. I also outlined the challenges ahead to reap the full benefits of these reforms and, hopefully, to become a model for the region in terms of providing quality education to all citizens across every economic and social strata.
I was invited to share Ecuador's experience because we've moved education policies from paper to progress. The world, including Ecuadorians, has taken note. For example, in a recent survey by the Organization of Ibero-American States, 58% of Ecuadorians believe that our educational system offers more opportunities today than it did five years ago. This same study showed that more than 80% of our citizens believe that guaranteeing primary education is the sacred responsibility of our government.
But, what has specifically changed about Ecuador's educational system that made such an impression on our own citizens in such a short period of time?
First, we made sure that costs associated with school attendance - for uniforms, textbooks, and lunch money - are covered for poor families so that no child has to stay at home because they can't afford to go to class.
We refused to allow racism, discrimination, and exclusion to play a role in the molding of young minds by making respect for cultural diversity, such as strengthening support for bilingual education and the inclusion of indigenous languages, an integral part of the curriculum.
We have made the inclusion of children with special needs and disabilities a requirement in the planning and execution of educational policies and programs in every school in our country.
We encourage greater participation by children's families in their education because learning and growing starts at home and doesn't end when children leave school at the end of each day.
We have enshrined standards of academic honesty in our curriculums, which adds credibility and integrity to our educational system in the short term and contributes to building honest, accountable citizens in the long-term.
We have broadened the future opportunities for our students by instituting a uniform baccalaureate, which still allows specializing in a particular area of study, but emphasizes general core competencies, which are transferable across various fields.
Finally, we recognize that for our students to be the best, they must be taught by the best. New, stricter standards of quality and training ensure that those entrusted with teaching our young people are highly qualified professionals. For example, an aspiring teacher of a foreign language, such as English, must not only have the training and background in the language, but must pass international accreditation tests for the language in order to teach it. We changed our promotion system for tenure to one that is merit based - factoring in improving student performance and pursuing continuing education activities - not just the number of years in the classroom. We also put our money where our mouth is by increasing teachers' salaries - in some cases by 100% -- to reflect the critical public service they perform for our nation.
So, is Ecuador's national education system where it should be? Not yet, because there are considerable challenges of implementing the reforms I have outlined and numerous others. But, our education system is where it must be - moving forward with a plan and a vision that the government is genuinely committed to, recognizing that our most important national resource is not only full of untapped potential but indeed renewable.
Gloria Vidal Illingworth is Ecuador's Minister of Education.