BUENOS AIRES, Jun 3 2013 (IPS) – Poverty no longer explains the high secondary school dropout rate in Argentina, one of the richest countries in Latin America.
Experts say a growing number of adolescents express a lack of interest in education, a phenomenon that can be found across the region.
A recent survey of 13-15 year olds in eight Latin American countries, carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), found that “lack of interest” was the top reason youngsters had left school.
According to Graduate XXI, an IDB initiative to prevent high school dropout in Latin America, nearly one out of every two students in Latin America does not finish secondary school.
Argentina’s Education Ministry has the goal of guaranteeing universal access to and completion of secondary education. Enrolment rose eight percent between the 2001 and 2010 censuses.
But school absenteeism and dropout are still a big challenge.
According to the authorities, 89 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 are in high school. But the latest statistics show that many of them will not graduate on time.
However, two weeks after requesting precise official figures on school dropout rates, IPS had still not received a response.
A study published this year by the Ibero American Science and Technology Education Consortium (ISTEC) says economic difficulties have been replaced by a lack of interest as the main reason that teenagers are dropping out of school.
The report notes that 30 percent of youngsters who leave secondary school come from the middle and upper classes.
The issue was studied in 18 countries of the region by the Information System on Educational Trends in Latin America (SITEAL), developed by ISTEC and the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). The study was coordinated by Argentine experts Lilia Toranzos and Norberto López.
An extract on six countries, including Argentina, was later published.
“The statistics surprised us, because we were used to the traditional arguments explaining school desertion as being related to socioeconomic causes, access to the labour market, or teenage pregnancy. This means we have to rethink education,” Toranzos told IPS.
“In the past, the reasons kids dropped out were not linked to what school offered, but to the families themselves,” she said. But the new reasons mentioned in surveys indicate that schools are not catering properly to youngsters, she adding.
Toranzos said the growing access by adolescents to secondary education in the last few decades led to a much more heterogeneous student body than in the past, which poses new challenges for teachers. “The same old formulas are still followed, even when they don’t work,” she said.
“Forty years ago, the population that made it to secondary school was homogeneous and similar to the model of the urban middle-class student for whom the system was designed,” she said. “Now there is greater diversity, different family backgrounds and different interests, and schools continue to think in terms of a kind of student who is largely a thing of the past.”
In the face of the new diversity, many teachers believe the correct response is to “keep the bar high, because that way they can maintain the prestige of the school or of the teachers themselves. They don’t think that, if half of the students are failing, the strategy must not be working,” Toranzos said.
The director of the Fundación Cimientos, Agustina Cavanagh, concurred. The organisation she runs works with teenagers from poor families, providing support of different kinds, including scholarships, to students who would end up dropping out otherwise.
“They enroll, yes, but they have a hard time staying in school,” she told IPS. “They reach secondary school already behind in skills, and the challenge is just too big. They feel they are on their own, fail and repeat subjects, get frustrated, and start to skip class. They don’t see any reason to stay in school.
“In 1950, only 10 percent of adolescents enrolled in secondary school, compared to 90 or 95 percent today,” Cavanagh said. “But that huge leap was not accompanied by teaching approaches that sufficiently motivate students, which is why a lot of kids feel they can achieve more outside the classroom than in it.
“The contents of the curriculum do not really work to motivate them. They say they want to learn, but they describe school as a place that’s cold, unwelcoming, with broken glass in the windows. The thing is, although a great effort is made, there are schools with very little funding, which are attended by the kids with the greatest needs.”
The experts in Cimientos worked with young people to investigate what motivated them, and what hurdles they faced along the way. “For them, participation is a very important factor, but they say the teacher shouldn’t expect students to always follow the rule of raising their hands, because that complicates matters,” Cavanagh said.
Early parenthood is still a major reason that youngsters drop out of school. In the SITEAL study, the issue is included in the category of “domestic” problems, because teenagers also drop out of school to do housework and take care of younger siblings or elderly members of the family.
These factors account for 10 percent of school dropouts in the countries studied by SITEAL. And 97 percent of those who cite these reasons are female.
By contrast, 20 percent of youngsters leave school to work, and of that group, 70 percent are male.
But 31 percent, cutting across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, said they dropped out because of a lack of motivation or interest. That in fact was the number one reason cited.
Cavanagh said teachers continue to expect a different kind of student than the ones who show up in their classrooms. “It’s hard for them to understand that the educational backgrounds in the students’ homes vary greatly, that many come from poor families whose parents did not go to secondary school and whose families have no notion of what it’s like.”
In 2009, the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández introduced the Universal Child Allowance, a cash transfer to parents who are unemployed or work in the informal sector of the economy or as domestics, pregnant women, and disabled people of any age.
The allowance is 340 pesos (62 dollars) per month per child under 18, to be raised to 460 pesos (88 dollars) in June, and is conditional on school attendance and keeping up-to-date on vaccines and medical checkups. It is received by the families of more than 3.3 million children and adolescents in this country of 41 million people.
Another strong incentive for youngsters to stay in school came in 2010, when the Programa Conectar Igualdad (Connect Equality Programme) was launched.
So far, the programme has distributed 2.5 million laptops to public secondary school students around the country. The youngsters keep the laptops if they graduate, but have to give them back if they drop out.
But even with these measures, school dropout rates remain high.
The challenge, the experts say, is to make school more attractive and interesting, so classes are no longer seen as irrelevant, boring and pointless. “The question of incomes is no longer sufficient to explain this,” Cavanagh underscored.