Peruvian Teachers' Strike Highlights Struggle for Reform
A Monthly Look at Education in Latin America by the Inter-American Dialogue's Jeffrey Puryear
WASHINGTON, DC—Peru's teachers union (SUTEP) launched a national strike in early July when Congress passed a bill that would require public school teachers to take regular competency exams. A teacher failing the exam three times would be dismissed. Teachers unions, accustomed to iron-clad job security, understandably don't want to lose that benefit. The result is a national strike that has produced significant violence and may spread to other groups. Sadly, it does not look terribly different from the long history of bitter teachers' strikes common to nearly every country in the region.
However, the Peruvian context is illuminating. Late last year, the Garcia government demanded, for the first time, that all public teachers take a formal competency exam. When the teachers union refused, Garcia persevered, suspending the government's automatic deduction of union membership fees from teachers salaries and pushing forward with the exam.
The results of the exam (which only 60 percent of the teachers took) were startling. Nearly half the teachers tested had difficulty completing simple arithmetic calculations. Only a quarter achieved an adequate level of reading comprehension. Fewer than two percent were able to solve complex mathematical problems.
These results caused a national uproar and turned public opinion against the teachers' union. They also led the government to propose radical changes in how public school teachers are managed. Among the new law's features:
- New teacher candidates must pass a national certification exam before being selected for work instead of just presenting their diploma;
- Principals, existing teachers, and parents will have a say in deciding which new teachers will be hired in their schools;
- Salary structures will allow for significant merit-based increases (based on competency exam scores and possibly on gains in student achievement);
- Teachers in rural areas will be paid up to 40 percent more than those in urban areas;
- Teachers must take competency exams every three years. Those who fail will be re-trained and re-tested a year later; a third failure will cause permanent dismissal from the public teaching corps.
These measures constitute a frontal assault on the traditional approach to public teacher management, which has emphasized credentials, seniority, job security, and union privileges to the detriment of performance, merit, and accountability. The resistance they have generated should surprise no one.
It isn't clear whether Garcia will win this war. His approval ratings are already low, and his radical measures and blunt language threaten to spread resistance beyond teachers to other labor groups. Moreover, it isn't clear whether the poor, who overwhelmingly send their children to public schools and thus might be expected to support Garcia's efforts to secure competent teachers, understand what's wrong and what's at stake.
One thing is clear, however: this is one of the few cases in Latin America where the government and the teachers' unions are fighting over something other than wages. The issues here are at the cutting edge of reform in the management of teachers, and more broadly, in efforts to improve education for the poor. That raises the stakes. But because it constitutes an uncommonly serious effort, it should raise our hopes as well.
Jeffrey Puryear is Vice President for Social Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue.