PANAMA CITY, Panama — Education in Panama has been called one of “the worst in the world” for years, yet little reform has been implemented. While many Latin American countries struggle to achieve high education standards, Panama uniquely pairs a booming economy with its inadequate education system. Although Panama houses the busiest ports in Latin America and approximately four percent of global trade passes through the Panama Canal, a shortage of skilled workers caused by an insufficient education system could well undermine Panama’s economic future.
About 87 percent of students are enrolled in public education in Panama. Six years of primary school and three years of middle school are required. Optional secondary school for students aged 15 to 18 follows and is later divided into academic and vocational tracks. In 2013, a little more than 40,000 students chose the vocational track, and 34,000 opted for the academic track.
Dropout rates, for many reasons, are extremely high. In rural areas, students must walk long, even treacherous, distances in order to attend school. Often during a rainy season, they stop attending school altogether because of dangerous rivers flooding their paths to school.
Parents in rural areas commonly pull their children out of school and send them to work as coffee pickers. Panama has very lax child labor laws. The minimum age to work is currently 15, however, most abide by a prior law which set the minimum age at 14. Exceptions are made for agricultural and domestic labors which allow children to work beginning at age 12.
Attendance rates in urban areas are not significantly better. Newsroom Panama described “schools in the bustling skyscraper capital of Panama” as “children crammed into creaky wooden seats in sweltering run-down classrooms that are often mere staging posts for the many teenagers who drift into drug running and other crimes”. Indeed, completion of one’s education in Panama cannot guarantee skilled labor positions therefore there are few motivations for students to remain in school.
In rural and urban areas alike, high teen pregnancy rates exacerbate school dropout rates, which existing reintegration laws hardly combat. Likewise, child marriages, which are legal for boys at 16 and for girls at 14 are another reason for students dropping out of schools.
In addition to the challenges of keeping students in school, there are many problems with the education system itself. Teachers strike regularly and the education reform been in bad shape for years. Namely, every five years a new presidential administration attempts to address the shortcomings in the education system from square one again, and every time union opposition effectively halts reform.
Just this summer, 17 teachers’ unions under the umbrella of Unión Nacional de Educadores Panameños (UNEP) organized a six-day nationwide strike. The strike ended peacefully when the government agreed to raise teachers’ monthly salaries by $300 and to spend 6 percent of Panama’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education.
There is still much to do to mend Panama’s education system. Fortunately, organizations like Mona Foundation and UNICEF are working hard to address some key pitfalls.
Mona Foundation supports grassroots education initiatives which particularly increase opportunities for women and girls, with an aim to eradicate global poverty. In Panama, it opened the Badi School in San Miguelito to provide scholarships and education for indigenous Panamanians.
The indigenous people of Panama disproportionately suffer from extreme poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy. The Badi School offers opportunities for these disadvantaged to break the cycle. Serving 412 students, the Badi School is notable for academic excellence as well as arts, music, computer technology, and community service programming. Badi students have achieved the highest scores on national exams and gone on to attend universities in Panama and the United States on scholarships.
UNICEF, likewise, strives to provide education for Panama’s indigenous population. With the slogan “All Boys and Girls to School,” UNICEF established small community schools in rural areas in which students are prone to drop out and start working. A single teacher teaches ten to thirty students of varying age groups. Older students assist in tutoring younger pupils, making education in Panama a truly communal effort.
– Robin Lee