The Most Important Person In Panama
Well the most powerful may be the President of the Republic, which, starting today is Juan Carlos Varela, but the most important person in Panama may not be the President, but the Administrator of the Canal de Panama, Jorge Luis Quijano.
While readily admitting that he is an engineer, not a politician, Quijano says, “Panama has to strengthen its education,” which is rated among the world’s worst.“There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”
And it is this that is the biggest challenge for Juan Carlos Quijano!
Panama education sucks!
In my humble opinion, from the top down, Panama public education sucks.
Like many things in Panama, the education system seems to focus on externals, going through the motions, without understanding or focusing on a goal.
Take our tiny town and the school up the street. The important things seem to be pretty bulletin boards, morning flag raising (not that there is anything wrong with patriotism), children neatly dressed in white shirts and uniforms (never mind that almost nobody has washing machines or clothes driers and that putting your kid in a $150 uniform when your take home pay, after required social security deductions, is only $54 a week!), and … most importantly, playing drums or cheap glockenspiels and rag-tag marching in preparation for the national holidays and parades in November.
That’s what school is all about! Forget books! Panama schools have never had books. Usually the teacher has, illegally, made copies of printed books and materials. Usually the teacher has one or two ragged copies which are loaned to students so that they, or their parents, can pay $2 to go to Boquete to make, again illegal, copies of the materials at 10 cents a page. Martinelli was going to skip the “book phase” entirely and give students the world library of books and resources by giving kids computers. Great idea. Except some of the kids don’t have electricity at home, to say nothing of Internet access, and our little town has no wi-fi Internet, despite the past government’s hype of Internet access for all. Plus, how many parents understand how to help their kids unscramble lap top problems?
Yesterday the kids practiced drumming at school for two hours! This in preparation for parades in November! This is much more important than math, reading or writing. The teachers get to visit and chat and don’t have to worry about lesson plans. ["What's a 'lesson plan'?"]
One of our local kids came asking for help with an assignment. Seems the teacher assigned the kids to go online – OK, this is a tiny town where hardly anyone has Internet access, let alone a computer! Yes, there are a few computers at the public library in Boquete a $2 bus ride away, but how many of these kids know the first thing about using a computer, let alone finding anything? So the kids are supposed to go on-line and research the World Cup. The World Cup! OK, great possibilities for teaching geography here, so that’s not such a bad idea. Anyhow, being the helpful neighbor, I sit down at my laptop with the kid and show him how to get to the FIFA site, in Spanish. So what is the assignment?
The teacher wants them to print out information on ALL the teams and countries in the World Cup, a list of all the players on each team, AND biographies of all the players! By my quick count you’re talking about printing out 750-1000 pages! Insane! And this is typical of the crazy assignments these kids are given. It’s nuts!
Kids always want help with their English assignments. Panama, to its credit, wants all students to learn English starting in primary school. The only problem is that the teachers don’t know English and the government has no plan to teach them or give them the time and money to learn.
Setting kids up to fail
We have a Gnabe Bugle neighbor kid who finished secondary school, what we would call high school and wanted to go to university to become a lawyer. Wow! A lot of these Gnabe Bugle kids who finish high school do so without any encouragement from their parents, who in many cases are just asking, “Why?” He walked from the campo housing supplied by a neighboring coffee farm, 2 hours down the mountain to our little town, then another 45 minutes walk down the hill to catch a bus for $2 to the university in David. Thanks to the government, tuition was almost free. After a few semesters of D-F grades, the “system” managed to beat the lawyer idea out of him, and he decided to learn to become an English teacher at the local branch of the university which meets at the secondary school in Alto Boquete.
He would stop by our farm after hiking up the mountain, with 2 hours more to go after leaving our house, for help with his English. Nikki and I would both read over the assignments, written in English, by the English professor, and just shake our heads. Neither of us could understand what she had written! He stuck with it for a full semester. It’s really hard to beat these kids down! When he went back to register for the second semester, they got him. He could only register online. He had to “go home and register on the Internet.” No electricity. No Internet. And he didn’t know the first thing about using a computer although he graduated from the local high school.
So they beat it out of him. Not quite. He heard an ad on an Evangelical radio station for someone who wanted a gardener in Panama City. This kid, who’d never been further in Panama than Boquete and the Comarca, called the people on the phone, took the job, and headed to Panama City! His employers are a couple of physicians, who helped him enroll in the university in Panama City and are helping him with his education.
Another Gnabe kid … well, in his twenties, but a kid to me … finished high school despite his parents protests and wanted to be an English teacher. When that didn’t work, decided to go into tourism. A couple of semesters in they were going to do a field trip to an eco lodge near David. $120. The guy works full-time, hikes down the hill to school to save bus money, takes home $48 a week to support himself and his family. So we give him the $120 and a bag for his meager belongings and loan him some money for food. When they get to the eco lodge the Latino kids all whip out their brand-new pop up tents and camping gear or slept in facilities provided by the eco lodge. There were three Indian kids in the group who were sent to sleep by the river, away from the rest of the students without any shelter and never having been told what to expect. It rained and the Indian kids made do the best they could under garbage bags but they were “just Indians” and should be used to that kind of thing. So they managed to squelch that dream.
I was sitting at a tiny restaurant in Boca Chica, really just the porch of a woman’s home, but she makes a great hamburger. Up the road come 30 or so Panamanian kids and a few older adults and they take over the restaurant. A university field trip of students studying tourism. Hungry kids, having just come from spending several nights at a resort on Boca Brava. But nobody bothered to tell these kids to bring money for food and the professors of tourism who organized the trip never realized that basically there is no place to eat in Boca Chica, at least no place with cheap food that can serve 30 plus people without a lot of advance preparation. After they left and I was finishing a second beer the lady who owned the tiny restaurant said, “They are supposed to be teaching tourism, yet they do this all the time. They have no idea how to plan anything.” She just shook her head.
It makes no difference at what level … it sucks.
“The Singapore of Latin America”
Panama’s economic success is sometimes compared to that of Singapore. Both countries by virtue of their locations have great strategic advantages. Both are building soaring towers. Both have shown remarkable growth.
But, long-term, Singapore’s prospects are brighter. Why? Because of education. When Singapore looked at its position int he world it realized that while it had the advantage of a strategic location, it could never compete with China on the basis of cheap labor. So Singapore decided to invest in education and creating an educated and skilled labor force.
Varela has a lot of challenges … how to keep Panama’s economy growing, and keep the engine of change a progress moving full speed ahead, while at the same time bringing inflation into check. The gap between rich and poor in Panama has increased, not decreased, over the past years. Panama’s Indigenous population deserves respect and more than just lip service to equality. But most importantly, the educational system in Panama needs reorganized and revitalized from the top down. If you fail to invest in the young people of a country, what good are all the improvements to infrastructure? Varela should listen to Quijano’s advice, “Panama has to strengthen its education … There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”