Prospects in Chile for Meaningful Education Policy Changes

After the failure of classroom coexistence during decades of neoliberal Chile

Public Education For Sale

By Andres Kogan Valderrama

HAVANA TIMES – The recent violence that occurred in different schools all across Chile followed an obligatory two years without in-person classes. The reports of fights, harassment and other abuses have spawned broad discussion about the need to put mental and socio-emotional health at the center, in order to facilitate actions that bring together the different members of the educational communities.

Given this situation of widespread school violence, the Ministry of Education has empowered schools to make any needed adjustments to the school schedule. This measure allows the educational communities – in coordination with their school councils – to decide how long the school day should last. In that way, they’re freed from the pressure of making up for the delays in the curriculum.

In addition, the Ministry has proposed that educational centers hold events that reunite the community in caring for the educational spaces, via different workshops where dialogue, listening, teamwork and reflection form the core of the programmed activities.

The measures the Ministry recommends are completely reasonable, and a far cry from the strains the former government imposed on the educational establishments by pressuring them to reinitiate in-person classes. However, this juncture also represents an opportunity to rethink the type of school that’s been constructed over the last thirty years. During this period, the National Policy for School Coexistence (2015-2018) has largely not been able to develop, since the educational system lay within an authoritarian, neoliberal framework, totally contrary to its aims.

The attempt to transition from a punitive, individualistic and behavior-based idea of school harmony, towards one that is formative, relational and democratic, sustained by participation and inclusion, represents a total pivot away from [the former] deeply unequal and segregated educational system where competition – emphasizing test results and individualism – has been systematically fomented at all times, through the use of standardized tests.

As a result, developing a program for school coexistence within the highly privatized, rationalized and instrument-based Chilean educational system was impossible in practice. Rather, this system negates the Other and denies any recognition of conflict itself by standardizing everything. The system has taken as its mission the construction of content consumers, as opposed to critical and collaborative citizens.

It’s true that the law of inclusion was an advance; it put an end to companies reaping profits from the public schools in Chile, and gave more rights to all the students. However, the current norm that ended municipal control of the schools, through the formation of Local Educational Services, has done nothing to strengthen public education. On the contrary, it has weakened the public schools by maintaining a perverse system of financing based on enrollment and attendance.  

We should also mention the Secure Classroom Law, approved during the neoliberal government of Sebastian Piñera. The intent of this law was completely contrary to the inclusive and participative vision of school coexistence; instead, it strengthened and facilitated the administrative teams’ punitive powers to expel students, thus deepening the system’s exclusionary practices.   

Today, the need to establish school coexistence as an integral end in itself, not just another tool for generating better academic results, must be accompanied by a paradigm change in the schools, which continue viewing students as a menace and the teachers as a burden.

The loss of authority in schools should be seen as an opportunity, and not a threat, as the conservative world sees it. It opens an opportunity to reexamine the notion of authority itself – not from the standpoint of obedience, as it’s been traditionally viewed in the schools, but from that of democratic legitimacy, which is earned through horizontal dialogue, and not imposed by force.

The same is true for the idea of quality and excellence in education. The current practices, in which the schools are supervised, evaluated and classified according to student achievement, have been handed down to us from the world of business and management. Schools are ranked with no consideration of the school context, locality or local reality, but only on the fulfillment of certain centralized goals and indicators, frequently impossible to meet. This system has generated enormous pressure and stress on the establishments.

The positive side of all this is that we find ourselves in a unique moment in the country, marked by a Constitutional process which is currently in the process of proposing new norms for better school cohesion. For example, the Constitutional assembly has affirmed the right to identity, to a holistic sex education, ancestral education, environmental and scientific education, neurodiversity, civic education, education based on empathy and on respect for animals.   

However, we need to go far beyond the current focus on the National Policy for Coexistence in order to open the way for updating the Constitution to confront racism, machismo, classism, adultism, and rampant consumerism, from a perspective based on multinationalism, sustainability, sexual and gender diversity, interculturalism, neurodiversity and the idea of balanced living.

We mustn’t forget the importance of the student movement of the last 20 years, especially in the secondary schools. This has been fundamental at the moment of thinking about new horizons and new forms of relating to one another. For that same reason, the schools must open to the world around them and emerge from the academic and mercantile model that uses school coexistence as one more tool for comparing schools and students.

If we want to reduce violence in the society, and in the school in particular, we must create decent, protective and pluralistic educational spaces in order to face up to the different conflicts. However, we must do this from a broad perspective, leaving behind the authoritarian, functionalist and market paradigms that have only sought the control of some over others and the economic profits of the few.

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