June 19, 2013

Guest Post: Thoughts on the Spanish Education System

We periodically post the work of Anderson students and alumni. Jordan Clark graduated from Anderson University in 2011 with a BA in Political Science. In this post, Jordan reflects on his experience the past two years teaching English to secondary students in Madrid. He is currently looking for opportunities to contribute to sustainability and urban planning & development in Indianapolis.

Thoughts on the Spanish Education System

Jordan Clark

In front of the Ministry of Education
Following my 2011 graduation from AU, I had the good fortune of spending a pair of school years working as an English assistant at the Instituto Arquitecto Ventura Rodriguez, a secondary school in Madrid. My auxiliary teaching role afforded me an up-close and protracted look at one slice of the Spanish education system -- widely regarded both within Spain and without as an institution in crisis. The last several years have been (to put it mildly) unkind to every area of Spanish life, and though education in Spain suffered significant problems before the economic collapse, many believe it faces an even bleaker future because of it.

Lately the conservative-led Spanish government and its Ministry of Education have been making headlines for reform efforts that would: increase teacher workload by adding additional teaching hours and packing more students into each classroom; impose further standardized testing on an already exam-heavy system (both to separate out the best candidates for higher education and prioritize resources for those schools that have lower dropout rates); and most significantly, reduce funding for the public school system by 15 percent, despite an upward trend in student enrollment. Spain caught the austerity bug thanks to the economic crisis, and it looks like leadership have decided that no sector is off-limits.

Of course, in any country, it's easy to pick out a certain sector (or more) that just does not have it together. But I think it's worth stressing some of what afflicts the Spanish education system because current reform efforts seem to have been borne out of ignorance of the system's defects.
So, these are a few of the things that stood out to me during my two years in Madrid:

First of all, Spanish young people are incredibly bright, engaging, and capable. They're highly social, witty, as web-literate as anyone in the world. But in the classroom, these characteristics are often stymied. During most of the school year, my students seemed to be constantly stressed out. This was more the case the higher the grade level, and the closer we got to the end of a term. The reason usually initially consisted of a single word: examenes. Exams are at the heart of just about everything academics-wise in the school. They dominate virtually every school week, and test scores are treated as the end result rather than a means to assess how a student has progressed.

Points can be hard to come by on most exams, and if a student simply doesn't have the makeup of a pen-and-paper test-taker, or the time it takes to effectively cram all the relevant information, she will quickly find her path toward eligibility for many university disciplines all but unnavigable. One of the students I tutored outside of school had already conceded that she wasn't going to make it into the university's art program because she'd never get her grade average up to the requisite 8.5/10. She had 10s in all her art-related classes but history and math gave her trouble. This is a weighty reality for a 15-year-old to swallow.

What I found to be the case is that, not only do tests come early and often, but they also tend to be virtually the only measure by which a student can succeed. That is, to get a desirable mark (on a 0-10 scale) for a certain course, students' margin for error on exams is slim because it makes up so much of the overall share. To generalize the students' experience in my school, homework was sometimes given, though it was never a very meaty portion of the overall grade, and often more of a formality. Out-of-school projects and writings of any heft were practically M.I.A. Ditto for most hands-on experience in any subject save physical education (due in part to lack of curricular creativity, but also to a lack of resources).

To me, this exam-centric approach turns education into a monolith, and short-changes the students for whom the public school system exists. It encourages far too much parroting of information (that will only be largely forgotten when it is no longer to appear on an upcoming test) and provides far too little encouragement for creativity and flexibility. While many students adapted to the program of cramming and repeating, far too high a percentage simply did not make the cut. It is only a slight hyperbole to say that out of my school of several hundred, I could count on two hands the number of students who passed every single class. It was incredibly common to have one or a few failed subjects throughout the year -- to be made up the following September through further exams, or by retaking the entire class.

I was discouraged by the widespread lack of training for longer-form writing or other kinds of serious projects that are often expected of high school students. This isn't to say that the ability to effectively compose a lengthy and well-researched school paper is any kind of panacea for the broad challenges Spanish youngsters will face once they exit the classroom. But surely the more diversified a student's learning experience is -- the more creative and explorative she is encouraged to be -- the better equipped she is for post-secondary schooling or post-academic life.

I do not question the commitment of the teachers in my school to helping students learn and grow, but I did notice a troubling trend that to me reflected a structural issue in the education system. It was too common to hear the remark bandied about the teachers' lounge that the students "just don't study." To me it appeared to be the opposite: they did practically nothing but study, take tests, and quibble over fractions of points if they thought it made a difference. Their repeated underperformance says more about the shortcomings of an inflexible system itself than it does about the intellectual capacity of the students at large. Is an endless succession of receiving/cramming/regurgitating data really the way to get the best out of students? Can it honestly be maintained that this system effectively yields competent, well-rounded and learned human beings?

I think the sort of student-blaming I was just describing stems partly out of the fact that teachers routinely find themselves targeted by the school system's critics. Teachers in Spain really have something of an image problem -- at least among some -- and this likely damages their negotiating position with the unsympathetic conservative national leadership. Opinions usually track political leanings, and conservatives are likeliest to view educators (and other civil servants) with suspicion. A fairly common notion around the country is that becoming a teacher is an easy route to a secure, minimally challenging job with good benefits, short hours, and long vacations, and is generally well suited to people who aren't especially motivated workers. (This is more or less an extension of how many people view funcionarios, or civil servants, in general.)

That's not something I felt the need to ask any of my fellow teachers -- obviously they would have had a different take. I can see where some of the suspicion comes from, though. Spain's students, by any measure (the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment is a big one), are underperforming. They are unhappy with the school system's lack of dynamism and flexibility. They are falling behind, dropping out, and finding themselves woefully unprepared for life after school. Parents are understandably frustrated with the state of things.

Add to this the repeated education strikes (which cost teachers a significant amount for each day missed) and protests of proposed reforms. It's easy to see where the contempt might from: a group that has a long history of job stability and protection, getting up in arms (or at least matching green t-shirts) about the prospect of longer hours and more red tape), while millions of their neighbors face a future that daily looks bleaker and more uncertain.

The Spanish news daily ABC had a report earlier this year on Finland's approach to education, and why it is that they top the OECD reports for quality of public schools. It isn't because they sit long hours in classrooms; Spanish primary students actually spend almost 50 percent more time in school throughout the year than their Finnish counterparts. In Finland, early education (which, by the way doesn't even begin until age seven, with no numeric grades given until 5th grade) is considered the key to the country's future. The most qualified teachers are chosen to teach primary school, and the process for becoming a teacher at any level is the most selective and rigorous of any profession in the country. Contrast this with the relatively minimal qualifications for being a teacher in Spanish secondary schools: a four-year degree in any subject, followed by a four-month teaching course. (Primary school requires a specific degree.) Teachers, moreover, are among the most highly respected professionals in Finland, and this attitude is reflected by government spending. About 11 to 12 percent of state and local budgets is dedicated to financing this top-flight education system. In Spain, the government's current reform platform aims to substantially decrease its budget for schools.

Finland may be a difficult standard to live up to, for most any country, and obviously there are cultural and socioeconomic factors that come into play as well. But observing its example is a good way to point out the serious problems to the current approach in Spain.

Education reform is needed, and badly. But the current leadership cannot expect Spain's schools to make the giant leaps forward needed for future success if its policies are to ignore persistent shortcomings or even to actively exacerbate them. Budget-chopping might reduce some red numbers on an Excel document (surely to the delight of Chancellor Merkel), but it's a completely unserious way forward, when the schools are already chronically underfunded. Spreading teachers thinner is unlikely to increase their motivation or output, and making the classroom more rigidly test-centric won't produce more competent or adaptable graduates.

There are smart approaches to the future, which could perhaps include pursuing more developed apprenticeship programs or vocational training, more diversified and interactive methods of teaching, less of a narrow fixation with exams, and a greater number of well-prepared teachers with less bureaucratic fuss to deal with. Whatever the policy specifics, one thing is clear: positive education reform will mean more, not less, investment.

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