An “Education Revolution” in Buenos Aires: A Discussion with Esteban Bullrich

April 06, 2015Kimberly Josephson
 

The Autonomous City of Buenos Aires often dominates Argentina´s political, cultural, and economic presence. One-third of the population lives in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area and tourists around the world flock to the vibrant city. It´s no surprise that, when it comes to education, Buenos Aires also commands the conversation.

 

(A group of secondary school girls and a teacher participate in a weekly art class at Villa 21. Photo Credit: Kimberly Josephson)

Last week, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings hosted a discussion with Esteban Bullrich, Minister of Education for the city of Buenos Aires, about city-wide education reforms enacted since he took office in late 2009. Bullrich has been an active and controversial figure, particularly with the powerful teacher´s union. Teachers frequently went on strike until the passing of a 2011 law negotiated between the two parties (which increased teachers´ salaries, partially by diverting subsidies for private schools; this in turn made Bullrich unpopular with the private sector). In an attempt to promote open communication, he famously gave his business card – with his personal mobile number – to all 1,200 principals in the city.

Bullrich spoke of the need for an “education revolution,” a movement from the bottom up, that can live beyond his administration. He began the discussion by reviewing key reforms he has overseen:

  • Student assessments, independent of those conducted by the national government
  • Expansion of early childhood education for children ages 3 and up
  • International partnerships and exchanges with schools worldwide
  • Increased family participation by providing laptops for all students, city-wide WiFi, and parental education programs
  • Infrastructure improvements for schools

The city government paid for the majority (about 70%) of these reforms and contributes 5.5% of GDP to education. Given Argentina´s current economic disaster, it´s interesting to note that there was little to no mention of any problems funding these reforms.
Some of these reforms were badly needed. When discussing low parental involvement, Bullrich reported that 70% of children in welfare programs have parents who never completed high school. The city´s online program that helps adults finish their primary or secondary education is now available nationwide.

However, based on personal experience, some reforms don´t quite live up to expectations. The city´s WiFi network is grudgingly slow and rarely available outside the city´s center.  Students with laptops are often distracted and playing games in class.

For the most part, Bullrich spoke pragmatically about the reforms, acknowledging weaknesses and areas for improvement. He compared student assessments to x-rays, saying that they´re helpful, but cannot solve education problems alone. Huge gaps in quality remain between the city´s wealthier neighborhoods in the north and poorer pockets in the south. The city continues building high schools when there´s a greater need for more kindergartens.

Depending on the outcome of Argentina’s presidential election this October, Bullrich may soon become the national Minister of Education. When asked about his national education plans if he was to take up the office, Bullrich was quick to name teachers a priority, citing the need for “motivated motivators” in the classroom. He also aims to enroll all children 3 years and older in school.

Regardless of controversies surrounding the city´s reforms, Bullrich displayed a passionate vision for his city´s, and country´s, education future. In such a politically and economically divisive time for Argentina, an education revolution has the potential to be a unifying cause.

Kimberly Josephson is a Program Associate at Results for Development Institute (R4D). In 2014, she served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in the city of Buenos Aires and volunteered as an academic tutor with children living in Villa 21, one of the city´s largest slums.

 

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