A Quick History
The Panamanian public education system began after the country gained independence from Columbia in 1903. Primary education has been in effect since the 1920s. The country made funding education a top priority, dedicating one-quarter of its national budget to the endeavor. With amazing results, Panama’s adult illiteracy rate dropped by half during the following decade, and continued to drop over the next thirty years. When the constitution was adopted in 1941 Panama established its current free and compulsory education system. By the 1980s, only 13% of (mostly rural) Panamanians were still considered illiterate. Panama still spends more on education than most countries in the same region.
Comparison to U.S. Education Statistics
Today Panama averages a 94% national literacy rate (defined as people over 15 years of age who can read and write) and a 95% attendance rate for grades one through six. Enrollment in secondary education holds around 60% attendance, with half of that completing high school. The Panamanian government spends a total of 5.7% of GDP on education of all levels (UNESCO 2003). University level study has progressed from the 7% enrollment rate prevalent in the 1950s to a current rate of 25%. Nevertheless, there are still significant socioeconomic discrepancies as only 3% of the poor attend university compared to 31% of the non-poor (PREAL-COSPAE 2002). [Wikipedia and Education USA Panama]
This is very similar or better to U.S. statistics on literacy. According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 14% of the population (32 million adults) in the U.S. can’t read, while 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19% of high school graduates can’t read. Reading below a 5th grade level means not “able to locate information in text,” could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials,” and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” However, America’s high school graduation rate hit 81% in 2012-13, the highest level since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago. Also, 40-45% of U.S. students go onto college – a much higher rate than Panama.
Obviously these are two very different countries with very different populations, GDP’s, cultures and histories. My point, I guess, is that Panama is doing well by its citizens, successfully providing a baseline of public education to create a literate society for all its people. However, just like in the United States, there there are disparities in education within the same system in Panama. Specifically, quality of education differs for urban and rural students.
Understanding The Statistics
Primary education is compulsory for all children ages 7-15. Yet Panama’s citizenry is comprised of eight different tribes of indigenous peoples, who make up almost 5% of the overall population. The diversity of culture, norms and economic situations across the Indio makes achieving higher student enrollment and retention rates difficult for the government.
The Guaymí and Ngöbe-Buglé comprise half of the indigenous peoples of Panama. The Ngöbe-Buglé are the Indio who live in the mountains between Panama and Costa Rica. They are literally the backbone of the coffee plantation industry of Panama, providing the sole means by which beans are harvested. Entire families migrate into the coffee plantations of the Chiriquí Province during picking season. For these families, the work they do during the season must support them for the entire year. A concept any worker in a transient or tourist economy understands well. The casualty of this portion of Panama’s economy is the 100% attendance rate at school for young children.
Educating Panama’s Indigenous Population
This is a tough issue, in my opinion, because one 5-gallon bucket of picked coffee beans yields the worker $1.75. Each person needs to pick eight to ten 5-gallon buckets per day to be profitable for the family. Children pick beans, but also guard already-picked buckets from thievery, shuttle full and empty buckets, run errands and provide childcare for younger siblings. It is easy to see why indigenous families place more value on their children’s ability to contribute to the economic sustainability of the family than learning to read in school for the benefit of the individual or greater society. They are no different than other pre-industrial or agricultural cultures around the world in this.
Yet where the 95% primary attendance rate is falling short, the government intervenes – by “raiding” coffee plantations during bean-picking season to find indigenous children who are not attending school, then forcing them to go. The government has a vested interest in creating a baseline of educational opportunity for all its citizens (children), regardless of tribal, cultural or economic affiliation. Alternately, indigenous families prioritize the economic necessity of their unschooled children. This is an on-going battle between two opposing viewpoints (pocket of citizenry vs. government) with different goals that will likely continue to affect the <100% attendance rate indefinitely.
Or maybe not. What do I really know about Panamanian politics at this point?
Disadvantaged Rural Schools
As in the U.S., where inner-city children are typically disadvantaged, the quality of education within Panama’s public system varies by geography, with rural schoolchildren receiving a lesser quality of education than their urban counterparts. One issue of note is a shortage of teachers in rural areas. Another is lack of resources, which are concentrated into the city.
Still another is that certain rural public schools are attended heavily by indigenous children whose social and educational norms vary drastically from other Panamanians’. According to our Panamanian friends, relations are strained between the Indio and non-Indio to the point that Indio men have begun dressing in non-Indio fashion when they come to town to avoid ridicule. There is no recognized commonality between Indio Panamanians and non-Indio Panamanians by either group. Though these rural schools meet the needs of the local transient Indio community, comprised of farm laborers, and less wealthy local Panamanians, they are not bastions of learning. And there is little push from the parents of either community for change.
A Panamanian friend explained to us that lack of motivation is a common theme among all Panamanians, but especially the Indio, who live primarily off the land. He explained that because natural resources such as mineral-rich volcanic soil, bountiful water systems, and verdant cloud forests are so abundant, Panamanians as a whole feel no overwhelming desire to achieve More. (Wow! Can you imagine not being indoctrinated into The American Dream?) They have only to drop seeds on the earth for food to grow. Their fertile country is their retirement package. He said that this attitude relegates school to something children do, but not adults, because adults don’t need to become more educated in order to live or eat well.
Aside: I imagine Panamanians to be much like Hawaiians when Americans first invaded their islands. They had it made, then the White Man intervened with an economic system that forced the Hawaiian away from his land and his leisure. Now Hawaiians are bitter. I feel like Panamanians are in the midst of a similar transition.
Why We Passed on Public School
Because we are in a very rural province of Panama, the public schools are poorly constructed, resourced and staffed. Frankly, we desire the highest quality of education we can provide for her. Panamanian public school, at least in rural Chiriquí Province, seems more like a sad educational placeholder than an opportunity.
We were also warned by Panamanian parents to expect reverse racism (maybe too strong a word) if we enrolled Rory there, as she would be the only white child. Not only are relations between the indigenous and ex-pat communities virtually non-existent, but they are extremely strained with the non-Indio Panamanians as well. Since our local Jaramillo school is 100% indigenous, and our Panamanian friends do not laude the quality of its curriculum, we struck this option off the list.
While in the future we would consider allowing Rory to experience being the only “different” child, like so many children do in this world, this isn’t the right moment for her to do so. She is already aware that she looks different than most of the kids in Panama. And she has the added stress of learning Spanish in order to interact.