The Teaching Profession in Guatemala at the Crossroads: Students Fight against Neoliberal Policies

On January 28, 2013, students of the organization, El movimiento estudiantil normalista, entered the premises of their college, the Instituto Nacional Escuela Normal Central de Señoritas in Guatemala City, to demonstrate in a non-violent display of protest. The director and police detained the young, female student leaders for eight hours for unspecified reasons and were finally released at 4 a.m. the following day.

A few days later, on February 6th, hundreds, perhaps, a thousand university students and community members marched in the streets of Guatemala City in defense of the magisterio, their teacher training program/system. The manifestation was transmitted live and posted in their Facebook page, Marcha por la defense de la Carrera de Magisterio.

Then, the students thought their voice would be finally heard, but the planned meeting slated for Feb. 20th between them and the Minister of Education, Cynthia del Aquila, was canceled despite the assistance of the mediator from the office of Human Rights, Jorge De León Duque, citing the lack of disagreement as a barrier to communication. (See news article.) Frustration and anger persist among protesting students, but they will not give up the fight. They realize more than anyone that their future and that of their country depends on their leadership. Many students, camped out in front of the Ministry in Guatemala since the February 6th march, vow to continue their peaceful resistance as have others throughout the country.

Education in Guatemala

Guatemalans are living in the most challenging of times; some would argue that conditions are just as worst or more so as during the armed conflict of 1960-1996. Perhaps, the country’s most principle need for change lies in the educational system. Even though the people have achieved great strides through the sheer determination and persistence, Guatemala has the lowest level of educational attainment in Central America. The government statistics point to 96% attendance level of children in primary grades, but this number excludes the 1.5 million children with excessive school absences, mostly due to economic hardships (See article “For many children in Guatemala….”). Dropout rates are extremely high and only less than 10% of the student population attend the university. The crisis level is significant when considering the fact that over half the country’s population is under 18 years of age.

Reform Efforts

At the heart of the current political struggle that pits community and students against the government is the training of teachers. Many arguments point to the need for improvement and change in the preparation of teachers as the most important strategy to positively impact educational achievement. Students pursuing their preparation in teacher training colleges, called Escuelas Normales, and the communities that support them, have embarked in an intense campaign to repudiate the proposal from the Minister of Education to eliminate the current gratuitous programs and replace them with costly university-based designs that remotely address the true nature of the educational problems. The students attending escuelas normales, or normalistas, object to the proposal for many reasons, and have been vocal in opposing these measures for almost a year.  Still, to date, the Ministry of Education has refused to engage in working out a solution with the students.

What is the Ministry of Education’s Proposal?

Prerequisite to understanding the content and implications of the Ministry of Education’s (MINEDUC) proposal are some vital facts. In Guatemala’s educational system students first complete six years of their compulsory primary education, then continue to Ciclo Prevocacional or Middle School for three years.  Students that follow the carrera magisterial to become primary teachers continue to Secondary Education, Ciclo Diversificado or Diversified Secondary for two years. At Tertiary Education stage, students complete three years of study at a teacher training college or escuela normal, which allows them to teach at a primary school. To receive the title of “professor” students must complete an additional three-year program at a university. A four-year university program leads to a Baccalaureate in Arts and Science. (See information on the educational system.)

Equally important to the pathways of becoming teachers is the understanding of the physical, geopolitical, economic, and demographic landscape of the country. Over half of Guatemalans lives within a measure of poverty, some very extreme, and a majority of the people live within territorial boundaries, in small, medium, and large-sized pueblos, some of these in remote mountain regions, characterized by specific culture, language, politics, and history, to name a few. Thus, diversity, with all its amplifications, is a major factor that underlies every aspect of the government’s proposal and the students’ rebuttal.

The main points in the MINEDUC proposal are:

  • Eliminate the “magisterio,” which essentially means to change radically the current system of preparing primary school teachers.
  • Replace the “magisterial” system of preparing teachers with a university program that requires students to complete a Bachillerato en Ciencias y Letras. So in essence, students must enroll and complete a three-year university program in order to qualify for the title of “professor.”
  • To implement a teacher training program for pre-primary teachers in the Escuelas Normales, public or private.  Technical assistance is slated for this program and for the Bachillerato en Ciencas y Letras.
  • To seek incentives to increase the salary of graduates from the proposed program wherever they are hired to teach.
  • To provide scholarships (in 2015) for graduates of the proposed program to continue their studies (as post-graduates) in private or public universities (the only public university is University of San Carlos).
  • To offer courses in conjunction with the Bachillerato in Ciencias y Letras that includes agroforestal (forestry), turismo (tourism), and textiles, among others.

Normalistas’ Response

Several key points in the normlistas’ rebuttal are valid and challenge MINEDUC to provide a response accordingly:

  • The proposal does not address how the proposed changes will purportedly impact positively the quality of education on a short and long-term basis. There’s no adequate information that addresses the improvement strategies by the university-based programs, in fact, the normalista’s rebuttal asks who will be in charge of their program at the universities where resources are scarce and irrelevant to the needs of the educational programs in the pueblos and rural communities.
  • Eliminating the magisterial and requiring students to complete university programs translates to an economic burden on behalf of the students and their families. The MINEDUC proposal includes the participation of the universities, however, the only public university that doesn’t charge tuition is University of San Carlos (USAC); the other eight or nine are private universities that require students to pay tuition. The normalistas are concerned that USAC lacks sufficiently the capacity and resources and thus, students will have to attend a costly private university program. THIS POINT UNDERSCORES THEIR SECONDARY CONCERN THAT MINEDUC’S PROPOSED CHANGES ARE MEANT TO ENRICH THE PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES, OR TO PUT IT IN ANOTHER WAY, IT IS A STRATEGY TO PRIVATIZE TEACHER EDUCATION.  The normalistas are not convinced that the universities will effectively improve teacher training.
  • There is no guarantee that the proposed changes will lead to an increase in salaries for the graduates. The normalistas are dubious of any kind of salary increases for teachers in the near and distant future.
  • The scholarships proposed by MINEDU are not meant for the students in the beginning stages of their training. They are for graduates in post-graduate study and are clearly meant for private universities. Again, this is a clear instance validating the normalistas’ claim that the proposal is focused on the privatization of the professional training of teachers.
  • The proposed changes undoubtedly reduce the opportunities for students to pursue a teacher credential. Presently, less than 1% of the indigenous student population attends the university. But besides that, the proposed changes lack credibility in demonstrating how these changes will improve education, not only for the teachers-in-training, but for the school children as well, on a short and long-term basis.

How would the Proposed Changes Affect Bilingual Intercultural Education?

The loss of the magisterial will drastically change the Bilingual Intercultural Education programs. The normalistas are proud of the fact that the 18 Escuelas Normales in the country train teachers to help students become bilingual in Spanish and one of the four language groups: K’iche, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi, and Mam. Their concern is that university-based designs will not have the capacity or resources to carry out the Bilingual Intercultural program in an effective manner. The community support garnered through these programs is immeasurable, and closing the magisterial will inadvertently cause problems in schools maintaining their connections and engagement with communities. The normalistas’ claim that the right to an education that is inclusive of native language and culture will be violated. (See Convenio #169, Articles 26-31.) The Bilingual Intercultural Education Program is described in the MINEDU’s website: Educación Bilingüe Intercultural.

But an understanding of the conflict and tensions between the normalistas and MINEDUC is not complete without the information on how the United States fits into the entire picture.

The Role of the United States in Guatemala’s Neoliberal Politics

In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) distributed funds to Guatemala’s governmental agencies that totaled 32.1 million dollars. (See USAID, Guatemala.) Funds earmarked for Education and Social Services were 5.9 million, for which 5.5 million were specifically for Basic Education and $400,000 for Higher Education.  Guatemala’s Ministry of Education has a website dedicated to USAID’s educational program, Reforma Educativa en el Aula, that includes broad educational goals for the time frame 2009-2013. While USAID and the Guatemala MINEDU’s educational goals are similar, a pronounced difference exists as listed below:

Similar Goals:

  • To strengthen the capacity of institutions.
  • To improve instruction in the classroom.
  • To promote access to quality education to underserved populations, women, and Mayan groups.
  • To provide strategies for parents, communities, and leaders to participate actively in education of students.

Difference in Goals:

  • MINEDUC – To increase effectiveness or improve teacher training (“prácticas docentes”).
  • USAID does not specify a goal toward teacher training improvement but does mention in the needs statement that the lack of educational attainment by students is due to “poor teacher training.” If MINEDUC subsumes this goal as an objective in conjunction with the goal, To strengthen the capacity of institutions, there is no mention of this in their related statements. Furthermore, it’s questionable whether eliminating the “magistrial” is keen to strengthening the capacity of institutions.

However, to understand the underlying motives for the goals and objectives stated by both the United States’ USAID agency and Guatemala’s MINEDUC it’s necessary to analyze the philosophical differences and historical facts that shed light on a broader perspective of the problematic issues.

USAID History and Politics

USAID was launched during JFK’s administration in 1961. (See USAID history.) Since then, its evolution has resulted in the distribution of foreign aide to hundreds of countries and in the creation of partnerships with corporations and non-profit organizations. Currently, they have personnel in 100 countries, including Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America. According to the agency, one of their most successful strategies is partnering with more corporations that have increased their funding levels. The overall goal of USAID has not changed in the last 50 years of existence.

USAID’s Goal: Furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while also extending a helping hand to people.

USAID’s Goal in conjunction with Guatemala: Guatemala has the potential to become Central America’s largest economy and United States leading partner.

USAID’s Results and Accomplishments list offers insight into the agency’s perceptions and expectations of Guatemala, and can be interpreted as incentives or rewards for future funding.  According to their statements, Guatemala’s MINEDUC has achieved success in the following areas: (See USAID education.)

  • The MINEDUC has the support of the educational communities for the K-9 national education content standards.
  • MINEDUC has implemented an innovative standardized test in Spanish and in nine Mayan languages to hire and place teachers.
  • MINEDUC has made strides in addressing transparency and efficiency in the Ministry of Education that resulted in an international certification system for management in 2007.
  • MINEDUC has developed a Municipal Education Progress Index, i.e., the use of data spreadsheets to analyze and compare school operations against student achievement levels, or what we know as an educational accountability system.
  • MINEDUC has assessed and produced a list of basic competencies of secondary students (grades 9th to 12th) that are needed to be competitive in the labor market.

Additionally, USAID and its corporate partnerships claim success with MINEDUC that has resulted in over 51,825 scholarships, outreach programs for at least 300 at-risk youths.  This information has not been verified with MINEDUC.

USAID’s funding level for Guatemala in education, health, and nutrition activities has totaled 10 million dollars according to their website’s information. This information has also not been verified.


Whether MINEDUC is using the leverage from USAID’s funding to substantiate or validate their political strategies under the banner of Reform is open for interpretation.  However, by accepting USAID’s funds, MINEDUC has the responsibility to comply with the funding requirements. Clearly, USAID’s motive behind the funding distribution is to garner the support of the Guatemalan government to accelerate the country’s efforts toward economic recovery that would be beneficial and profitable to the United States. The educational practices noted in USAID’s Results and Accomplishments are squarely aligned with the United States educational model that privileges a capitalistic approach of education for economic gains over any other design. It’s well noted in Latin American history that the tension between capitalism and socialism is heightened during economically stressful periods. If the United States and Guatemala work together in reforming the country’s educational system, then this collaboration can be viewed as an influential strategy by both countries to steer Guatemala away from socialistic reforms, even though capitalism is not a viable solution for a country with enormous, complex economic issues. A free market economy would best serve the interest of the wealthy in a country like Guatemala. Thus, what appears to be an educational reform model that purportedly will lift the country out of economic turmoil and succeed in improving the educational system is more like a roadmap toward disaster.


The normalistas are within their right to protest the proposed changes, not only because they have been excluded from participation in the planning process, but also on grounds that the proposal does not adequately address how these changes will lead to improvements in their educational system. They have the support of their constitution, and other official proclamations for their rights. Their community lends support to their demands. But, without the cooperation of MINEDUC, a meaningful, sustainable plan toward improving education that is in the best interest of the Guatemalan people will not be realized.

Finally, I conclude with an excerpt from the Diseño Reforma Educativa Runuk’ik jun K’aka’a Tijonik, published in 1998 in MINEDUC’s website. In these introductory paragraphs, the Reform is designed specifically for Guatemalans. The question remains: At a crucial time in the history of post-armed conflict, which is the best road to take that will lead Guatemala to a better future? As students take the lead, who will follow?

La Comisión Paritaria de Reforma Educativa -COPARE fue constituida por Acuerdo Gubernativo No. 262-97 de fecha 20 de marzo de 1997, el cual establece como objetivo de la Comisión:

“diseñar una reforma del sistema educativo, en la cual deberá considerarse lo que al respecto contemplan los Acuerdos de Paz, particularmente el Acuerdo sobre Identidad y Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas, numeral III, Derechos Culturales; literal G, Reforma Educativa, numeral 2”.

La Comisión quedó formalmente instalada el 2 de abril de 1997 y se integró con diez personas: cinco representantes del Gobierno de la República y cinco representantes de Organizaciones Indígenas. Al aceptar el mandato que
le fue confiado, la Comisión estableció como principios internos de trabajo: la apertura, flexibilidad y tolerancia, por parte de todos sus integrantes, con el fin de alcanzar un objetivo común: establecer las bases para construir un proyecto educativo nacional propio. Con ese objetivo, se buscaron transformaciones actitudinales que implicarán conocer y comprender mejor al otro y al mundo; respetar y valorar la riqueza y diversidad cultural del país; y favorecer el entendimiento mutuo, el diálogo y la armonía; lo cual significó organizarse bajo
principios de igualdad y equidad.  (See Diseño Reforma Educativa.)