July 13, 2009

Honduras crisis: Teachers on strike

Photo: El Heraldo
photos below: La Prensa, Honduras

In the past eight years, the teachers have been on strike, oh, probably more than 100 times. A newspaper article two years ago reported that students had not received the required 200 days of classes in the prior 5 years, some years were as low as 150 days. Keep in mind also that the Honduran public school day is only half a day.

During the presidency of Mel Zelaya, teacher strikes have been almost monthly. When the teachers aren't striking, the students are. Various promises have been made to teach on Saturdays or holidays or to extend the school year to make up for missed days, but to my knowledge that never happens. The primary reason for the strikes has been to stand up for their fellow teachers who haven't been paid.

Yes, that's right. At various times during the past three years, 1,000-3,000 teachers went months without receiving a single dime of their paychecks. My own brother-in-law went seven months without a paycheck. So, rather than being able to help his mother which was his purpose in coming back to Honduras from the US, he was dependent upon her and relatives who live in other countries.

The state of education in Honduras is probably one of the worst in this hemisphere. Children do not learn to think. They learn by rote memorization, mostly without books of any kind. Anything that has not been previously written on the blackboard and memorized is as foreign to most students as Chinese.

A UN study of education in Latin America in 2002 placed Honduras at or near the bottom in every category. Honduras dropped out of the follow up study in 2004.

The World Bank's 2006 Country Assistance Evaluation provides a dismal review of education in Honduras (pages 37-38), stating, "IDA came to see the teachers' union as an obstacle to quality education."

An abstract of a 2008 World Bank Community-Based Education Project report summarizes, "This Project, like its predecessor, failed to achieve the expected strengthening of the [education] sector."

Sometimes extended families all chip in to allow one child in the family to go to a private school in the hope that at least one child in the family will receive a decent education. While some private schools are very good, many are not much better than the public schools.

Despite the teachers' problems with Zelaya, now, strangely, some of the teachers unions have come out in support of Zelaya and have declared strikes again.

Unions in Honduras are typically corrupt, with their leaders selling out the workers for personal gain. I don't know if that is the case this time or if their purpose is to achieve more raises or special concessions, but I suspect that it is based on everything that has happened in the past years.

President Micheletti has called for the teachers to go back to work today. We will see what happens. Initial reports indicate that some but not most teachers have returned to work. Many teachers do not agree with the strikes, or with supporting Zelaya or Chavismo. Dedicated teachers are putting the rights of the children ahead of politics and are continuing to teach in playgrounds and under trees.

One of those teachers was interviewed on the news the other night. She denounced that a man with his face masked, in a car with no license plate, came to her house and threatened her with violence if she taught anymore. She was visibly shaken and asked people to please consider the rights of the children first.

Gerardo, a Honduran who blogs at Peragamino de Derecha, wrote yesterday (in English) about his life, his own quest for education, and his views on the current teacher strike.

If you couldn't make it through those lengthy education reports linked above, try these shorter summaries:

A brief summary of the status of education in Honduras at Country Studies/Honduras.

Global exchange also has a 2004 summary of education in Honduras and states, "Honduras has the most backward educational system in Central America." I think everyone will admit that rather than improving since then, education has only gotten worse.

Questionable UN statistics show that literacy has improved in Honduras over the past decade, but 'literacy' in UN terms has a different meaning than most in the first world would think. It doesn't mean that the person could, for example, read and understand a newspaper article, summarize what it reported or form an opinion on based upon what was read. Learning to recognize or write written words and numbers is a start, but true education is much more than that.

The Honduran constitution stipulates that children have the right to an education. How can teachers educated in a broken system hope to educate the children?
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