6 Alarming Facts About Education in Guatemala
Long-term, sustainable development in the Guatemala education system is only possible if children and youth receive a quality education.
Sadly, the Guatemala education system is low quality. It maintains a cycle of poor education that keeps people impoverished, fearful, and ignorant. Poor education means unprepared teachers, which means poor education—fueling a vicious cycle.
Public schooling in Guatemala fails to meet the needs of those who need it most: Mayan children who live in the country’s rural communities. Although there are schools across the country where both girls and boys attend classes, the quality of the education they receive is so low that learning is negligible.
In Guatemala, decades of underfunding and neglect are the foundation of a broken education system. Clearly, the Guatemala education system is in crisis.
Keep reading to learn six startling Guatemala education facts and, most importantly, find out how you can help.
Guatemala Education System Basics
Guatemala has a five-tier system of education that spans from primary school to secondary school and tertiary education. It’s free and compulsory for six years, yet riddled with problems that prevent meaningful learning.
The first three years of secondary education—known as básico—are similar to middle-high school in the U.S.
The latter three years of secondary school—called diversificado—are more specialized. At state schools, most students study either teaching or accounting.
Students’ range of choice at private secondary schools includes agronomy, auto-mechanics, computers, secretarial services, and tourism.
6 Alarming Guatemala Education Facts
In the Guatemala education system, primary school enrollment rates have improved over the past 20 years.
However, disparities in high school persist between boys and girls, urban versus rural, and ladino versus indigenous communities.
Read on to inform yourself about six alarming Guatemala education facts.
1. Teachers Are Poorly Trained
The majority of teachers in Guatemalan primary schools have a high school-level education and lack exposure to best practices in teaching.
In the classroom, teachers receive little to no support from administrators or fellow teachers. It’s an everyday struggle to provide an effective learning environment for students.
Most teachers are unfamiliar with the subjects, techniques, and methods that would enable them to transform their teaching style.
According to ChildAid, Guatemala has one of the highest illiteracy rates and most profound income gaps in the Western hemisphere.
2. Classrooms Lack Books
The typical Guatemalan classroom environment is chaotic. Students are often distracted or bored, and teachers feel unprepared and overwhelmed.
Most primary schools in Guatemala simply do not have the key resources they need, namely age-appropriate Spanish-language books.
Teachers and students in Guatemala may have a few copies of outdated textbooks or scraps of newspapers as reading materials. Students have little opportunity to read independently or explore their interests.
Shockingly, 70% of children are in school and not learning basic reading and writing skills, according to ChildAid. The country faces major challenges in education quality. Only approximately 40% of sixth graders reached performance standards in reading. Most Guatemalan youth do not reach high school, and 41% of teenagers nationwide are out of school. This rate rises to 61% in the western highlands, a predominantly indigenous region.
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3. The Guatemalan Government Provides Little Funding for Education
The Guatemalan government does not budget the funds necessary to provide the education system, even the basics.
Guatemala spends 2.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education—far less than the regional average in Central America.
This minimal funding, coupled with poor government effectiveness, means that the system is corrupt and ineffective. The learning outcomes of the students are hence dismal.
At many schools, there are no desks or blackboards—only tables and chairs that are old and deteriorating.
In 2016 the value budgeted for each student’s lunch meal at school was Q1.11 ($0.15), a nonsensical figure that does not cover the cost of a balanced meal.
4. High School Graduation Is Not Synonymous With Knowledge
According to Brenda Sanchinelli’s 2017 article in Prensa Libre, “Graduating from high school in Guatemala is not synonymous with knowledge. This is reflected in tests organized by authorities in the Guatemalan Ministry of Education in 2013. 137,460 teens were evaluated, and 92.7% failed the mathematics portion, and 75.5% failed the language portion, according to Digeduca data.”
5. The US Congress Is Involved in Education in Guatemala
In 2019, the US House of Representatives introduced legislation regarding education in Central America that focuses on the Northern Triangle region of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
70% of migrants from the Northern Triangle claim that they received no education beyond primary school. This factor contributes to their desire to migrate north with their families.
The U.S. is providing data to Guatemala about its educational systems to show them the high-need areas that need the most attention.
6. Guatemalans Are Migrating for a Better Education
Current migration rates from Central America to the U.S. are fueled in part by parents’ desires to access better education for their children.
As noted above, public schools in Guatemala (and Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador) are underfunded.
Private schools in the region are prohibitively expensive for many families. In some cases, parents spend over half of their income to send their children to private schools, which is not financially sustainable.
Many Guatemalans seek opportunity and safety for their children by emigrating and sending them to US public schools.
Children and youth need to stay in school or find another way to gain the basic skills necessary to work and earn an income as an adult. This educational foundation is critical to providing a realistic alternative to migration.
The Future of Education in Guatemala
The good news is that Guatemala is taking steps to remedy this dire situation within its education system. The challenges of the learning crisis are profound, but the solutions are known and within reach.
Studies have consistently shown that the best way to close the learning gap and improve student outcomes is to improve the quality of teaching.
Effective training with long-term, personalized coaching is the ideal way to help teachers gain the knowledge and skills they need to teach well.
The Guatemala vocational education system aims to teach people in under-employed areas new skills to help them build a better life.
Follow these links to learn more about organizations large and small that are dedicated to improving education in Guatemala:
Join Guatemala in Its Efforts to Improve Education
As a literate and caring person who is conscious of your role as a global citizen, you may feel spurred to act and create positive change in your own community, in Guatemala, or elsewhere.
You have the power to make changes so that our children and future generations will live in a better world.
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