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Despite the Odds: Bold Education Reform in the City of Buenos Aires

By Alexandra Solano
April 2, 2012

If reform is difficult, and education reform is even more so, education reform in Latin America means fighting against the odds.  On April 2, the Inter-American Dialogue held a discussion on a series of bold reforms recently enacted by Esteban Bullrich, minister of education of the City of Buenos Aires. Mercedes Miguel, director of educational planning, also offered comments, and Jeffrey Puryear, co-director of PREAL, moderated the event.

Bullrich and Miguel, who have been in office since January 2010, began their tenure by implementing a rigorous diagnostic process to understand the school systems’ failings. “One of the first things we did was to start an evaluation and assessment plan for students, teachers, and schools,” Miguel noted. “We knew students were doing poorly in math and reading, so we decided to focus on improving teacher performance.” But you can only improve teacher performance if you know how teachers are doing. After travelling to other countries to observe best practices in teacher evaluations, they built their own from scratch. In eleven months, they had implemented 26,000 teacher assessments.

“Planning teacher assessments and implementing the evaluation were new to the education system,” she continued. “We are shaping the debate in our city.”

But that was not the only change in the teaching profession. Teacher selection, recruitment, and training were also reformed. “When we thought of implementing reforms, we always thought of how it would affect students,” Bullrich asserted. “The teaching profession had not been changed since 1950.”

Bullrich argued that it was difficult to break traditional ways of thinking about education and highlighted the importance of political will to implement education reforms, which include complete coverage of early childhood education. “We have had success in pushing reforms, but have not seen results yet. This disconnect needs to be explained to those who want to see immediate results.”

Unlike obstacles to education reform in other countries, Bullrich mentioned that a lack of resources in this case was not an impediment, even though the law in Argentina does not allow funds from international organizations to go to regional and local public education. Surprisingly, teachers’ unions have not been a hindrance either. “Unions do not constrain my decisions, teachers do.” Bullrich elaborated that he spent a lot of time with teachers, trying to address their concerns, and even gave them his personal phone number to show his willingness to work with them. “I wanted to avoid disconnect between teachers, unions, and us, and find the teachers that cared about the system.”

Bullrich concluded that building support from other groups was also a challenge. He knew it would be unrealistic to get the federal Ministry of Education on board and was met with political opposition. His officein Buenos Aires also had difficulty getting the press involved. To address these issues, the ministry highlighted examples of the same reforms being implemented in center-left governments, and made it a point to enhance transparency and report progress, whether good or bad, to build the trust of journalists.