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close this bookSome Consequences of Adopting a New Identity for the Secondary Education Curriculum - Chapter VI (IBE; 5 pages)

Some Consequences of Adopting a New Identity for the Secondary Education Curriculum - Chapter VI

Adopting curriculum frameworks such as those described here entails the need to introduce a series of changes in other arrangements and practices which are related to the possibility of modifying the present curriculum in secondary schools, of creating establishments for young people which are truly geared to developing their capacities and identities, and of evaluating whether the curriculum agreed upon really translates into bigger and better forms of learning.

These other arrangements and practices raise at least four issues. The first is the profile of teachers; the second is the need to reorganize individual educational establishments; the third is the governance of education; and the fourth is the set of procedures used for monitoring and evaluating the impact of curriculum decisions on the learning of young people.


The tendency in Latin America has been for the training of secondary education teachers to follow the principle of isomorphism. According to this principle, teachers have to be trained with a specialization and a title related to the subject that it is assumed they will be teaching. Thus, each time a new disciplinary body is created in the academic sphere, it is reflected in a simplified form in secondary education through the introduction of a new subject of study.

Applying the principle of isomorphism to the training of secondary education teachers had three negative consequences. Firstly, it introduced rigidity into the teachers' work and performance. In effect, according to that concept, a geography teacher only understands geography and could only teach that subject. Secondly, it tended to consolidate the model of fragmented secondary education, since if the teachers could only teach the content of one discipline and it was assumed that all disciplines would be taught simultaneously for as many years as possible of secondary education, it becomes extremely difficult to establish a different model. Thirdly, it considerably impoverished the actual training of the teachers, since in order to teach a particular subject it was only necessary to know about that subject, so the training and preparation of teachers only took into consideration aspects related to one discipline.

As a principle of secondary education teacher training, isomorphism ignores three key considerations. The first is that any teacher must be first and foremost a 'teacher', and only secondarily 'of something'. This means that the teacher's capacities have to be clearly geared to educating young people rather than transmitting information 'about' something. At the same time, there is no doubt that a sound knowledge of disciplines is necessary for any teacher training. But the second matter ignored by isomorphism is the difference between 'academic discipline' and 'school discipline'. In the general education of pupils, the main function of knowledge about a discipline is for it to be put to use; this is one of the sources of educating young people through experience with building knowledge which can be organized in different ways. This disciplinary knowledge does not in itself have the same value as it does in the creation of new knowledge and the constant reorganization of the existing store of knowledge.

'School disciplines' must give priority to the educational value of the knowledge contained in 'academic disciplines' and make use of the latter's procedures and knowledge. With isomorphism, the former merely become copies of the latter or the latter copies of the former, although in fact each has its own purpose. The result is that both are impoverished.

The third consideration ignored by isomorphism is that, in order to use the knowledge of an 'academic discipline' for the purposes of teaching a 'school discipline' intended to impart basic competences to students, teachers need to possess a broader base than that pertaining to the single academic discipline assumed to be the 'parent' of the school discipline. For instance, in order to use history to train social competences, teachers have to have a knowledge of other social sciences and a very good mastery of oral language, as well as a fair knowledge of statistics.

In order to adopt rich, flexible and heterogeneous curricula, containing a variety of different curriculum areas, it will be necessary to overcome isomorphism as the principle linking teacher training to secondary education, and to offset the effects of its longstanding acceptance by means of strategies introduced in the training of practising teachers.

In fact, in Latin American countries there are discrepancies between the supply and demand for qualified teachers working in secondary schools, in addition to years of accumulated backlog in the training of practising teachers. In Uruguay, for example, a high percentage of teachers working in secondary education do not possess the proper qualifications. Moreover, 22% of them have discipline-related qualifications, but if - according to the Plan '96 currently in effect - they work in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, they should be teaching by curriculum areas. The same is true in Argentina in the Province of Buenos Aires, with a population of over 8 million inhabitants, and in some of the major Brazilian states, which also opted for an area-based curriculum for the stage equivalent to lower secondary education.

In these circumstances there tends to be strong resistance on the part of the teaching profession to the introduction of curricula organized by areas. This resistance takes two forms. The first is political. The teachers go in for declarations and demonstrations, while their unions oppose curriculum changes. In Uruguay, strikes were held and the teachers occupied school buildings alongside the students. This type of resistance was attenuated as more of the liceos joined the curriculum reform and also due to a determined policy of institutional support for schools that accepted to adopt the new curriculum, so that the tendency has been for more and more of the liceos to implement the new curriculum.

The second type of resistance to area-based curricula manifests itself in the daily school routine. In formal terms, reforms are accepted, but in practice the teachers, instead of teaching a school discipline called 'social sciences' or 'natural sciences', continued teaching the former school discipline called 'geography' or 'history', depending on their initial training.

In view of this situation, the authorities are left with two alternatives. The first would be to give up the policy of change because it is not accepted by the teachers. This has not been the policy followed so far. The second alternative would be to consider training teachers by trying to extend their educational horizons instead of relying on their existing disciplinary profile. So far little headway has been made along this path either.

It would appear in principle that the issue of the training needed by teachers to give effect to the new curriculum policies is one of the most serious bottlenecks. This is true from the point of view not only of its conception and contents, but also of the institutional arrangements that would need to be made to produce the range of professional profiles which the scope of the expansion of secondary education enrolment and the proposed changes appear to require.

Another problem is the challenge of designing a new type of initial training for teachers. In this respect, various alternatives are being put forward in Latin America. The first alternative, followed for instance by Bolivia, consists in transferring responsibility for all teacher training, including that for secondary education teachers, to the universities. In the context of the curriculum changes that are being tried out, it would be worth analysing whether this strategy will or will not facilitate efforts to incorporate non-academic areas or to progress with the diversification of the type of curriculum areas that are being introduced in educational establishments. The second alternative, followed by Uruguay, consists in setting up regional teacher-training centres (known locally as CERPs), with a new educational approach including stronger links with the local community, the contracting of teachers on a full-time basis and the addition of a research function and other activities considered unusual in the traditional training of secondary schoolteachers (Mancebo, 1999). The third alternative, considered by Argentina, consists in establishing a Federal Network for Continuing Teacher Training and Retraining, comprising a number of different schemes run by higher (non-university) teacher-training colleges, as well as by universities and other training institutions. In this case, the establishment of the network is supplemented with a series of provisions introducing changes in every teacher-training college along similar lines to those adopted for the CERPs in Uruguay, with mutual recognition between training colleges and universities. In Argentina, a set of Common Basic Contents has been introduced for teacher training (Argentina, Ministerio de Cultura y EducaciĆ³n, 1996), which will tend to break down the policy of isomorphism in teacher-training curricula, while maintaining qualifications by disciplines. These new provisions also open the way to intensive co-operation between two previously separate circuits, namely higher teacher training and university, though perhaps not yet for the establishment of links between educational and academic institutions with others that are non-academic (Braslavsky, 1999).

In any event, it would appear that the changes made in the initial training of teachers may yet prove insufficient, both quantitatively and from the point of view of the methodological innovations they introduce. The use of new technologies and training methods is only just beginning.

There is little experience in terms of strategies for horizontal learning among teachers, and even less for a broadening of the training profiles of teachers already trained in disciplines to help them assume greater teaching responsibilities in some schools, especially in the case of small schools. In Argentina, for example, some data indicate that a considerable percentage of secondary schoolteachers work less than eight hours a week in secondary education, which is a direct result of the prevalence of the principle of isomorphism and the resulting contracting of teachers on the basis of teaching hours rather than assuming more concentrated workloads. This situation works against any likelihood of achieving a rich, flexible and heterogeneous curriculum, offering a variety of options and types of activities, by institutional means.


There is a another problem which arises from maintaining a poor, rigid curriculum and providing teacher training in accordance with the principle of isomorphism. This is the equally rigid, impoverished institutional organization, combined with rules allowing little independence for existing schools to reorganize themselves and few possibilities for new schools to be created along different lines.

In effect, since in primary schools throughout Latin America the work of most teachers is generally treated as a half-time occupation (twenty to twenty-five hours a week), it has already been established that teachers' duties would be expressed in terms of teaching hours. In most cases, the prevailing rules do not even allow public establishments to reach internal agreements for reorganizing their activities according to decisions taken by their teams of teachers.

In these conditions, it is very difficult to adopt the new curriculum standards. A flexible curriculum presumes that the teacher can take on different subjects and different functions related to the general 'teaching task' and not merely teach a single discipline. It assumes curriculum flexibility as an indispensable corollary; for example, the function of guidance and tutoring would be a task inherent in any institutional practice.

Some working documents aimed at the preparation of new curriculum materials, in Bolivia for example, suggest setting up guidance departments as a way of helping to set up and introduce a curriculum with options.

In Latin America, the history of such departments is associated with a study structure that promotes relatively early specialization and with the need to help students with their decisions prior to specialization. While there is very little empirical research on how the departments operate, there are some indications that they do not always facilitate the guidance of students. On the other hand, there are schools which have found ways of guiding students without the need to set up such departments. In the light of these considerations, some of the new curriculum materials are tending to explore ways of drawing attention to the need for institutional arrangements that perform a guidance function without the need for guidance departments as such.

The lack of any real teaching career, which would allow more experienced and better qualified teachers to take on institutional roles and functions without giving up their classroom tasks, such as leading teams of teachers within schools or in networks of several schools, goes against the chances of improving the quality of collective work by implementing some of the new curriculum policies. Some countries in the region have tried to put forward new schemes providing for different types of teachers. So far, however, these new schemes have not acquired legal force.

One last negative factor has been the maintenance of a hierarchical, pyramid-shaped operating culture, which has tended to aggravate the isolation of many establishments. In some cases, their isolation is due to the demographic structure of some regions. But in others, it is due more to the lack of any tradition linking schools with each other. In both types of situation, it is possible to design strategies for overcoming isolation by generating new forms of training and exchange between teachers, and between teams of professionals in different establishments and by promoting linkages, taking advantage of the much greater technological resources now available in educational establishments and in the community in general.


The views held in earlier periods of modern history regarding the continuity of knowledge over time, combined with the deterioration of the State system experienced in Latin America, hampered attempts to preserve and modernize the curriculum and programming and planning units, which used to exist prior to 1970 in the Ministries of Education of a number of Latin American countries. As a result, an awareness grew regarding the need to take up again the challenge of curriculum change. New curriculum development strategies were devised to tackle change on a here-and-now basis. In most cases, these strategies consisted in acquiring equipment by using resources that were available at that time, often derived from international loans, and de-bureaucratized, that is, kept outside the Ministries of Education.

There is the impression that the measures taken were somehow responding to a 'curriculum emergency', which also required emergency policies. Once the new curriculum documents had been produced, however, the countries where the curriculum changes were most advanced began to perceive two new problems.

The first is that if curriculum products are to have a real impact in schools and become a compass for the development of secondary education, then programming and planning strategies will also need to be updated. Reducing the number of subjects or curriculum areas, for instance, implies changing the functional layout of educational establishments. This, in turn, may involve teachers working in more than one establishment, which have to be interlinked. Moreover, such changes are occurring against a background of a very strong expansion of enrolment in secondary education. One example worth mentioning is the case of the Province of Mendoza, in Argentina, where in the last fifteen years educational enrolment grew by 170,000 students to a little over 450,000, mainly due to the greater availability of secondary education. Aspects such as the creation of infrastructure and its maintenance in these circumstances tend to be dealt with increasingly by new institutional actors, such as city councils.

As a result, there is no possibility of really producing the type of teaching needed for the new curricula if the necessary changes are not strategically planned with the participation of all those involved, who are increasingly more numerous and more diverse. Several provinces and countries have started experiments in this sense, but the discussions and methodologies have still been far from sufficient to promote any real improvement in the quality of secondary education on a par with its expansion in a greater number and a greater variety of situations.

The second problem is the institutionalization of the function of curriculum innovation. There is a fear in several countries that once the new curriculum materials have been produced, the temporary teams in charge will be disbanded, the products will freeze and within ten years they will be back to a situation of lagging behind the need for innovation. There is also the fear that the rights and wrongs will not have been properly identified by processes of evaluation, research and continuous monitoring. Many professionals involved in the changes recognize, moreover, that in the decade of the 1990s action was taken on the basis of little systematic research and that the effort to access national, regional and international information has been colossal to achieve in the end only modest results.

This second group of problems is being met with a recognition of the need to institutionalize research and curriculum innovation mechanisms on a permanent footing. Latin American experience in this respect is extremely poor and out of date. Priority must be given in the circumstances to learning from other countries in other regions of the world.


Even before the process of change began in the curricula of secondary education in Latin America, many countries in the region set up national systems for the evaluation of education, in most cases centred on the evaluation of students' learning performance in certain key disciplines, including languages, mathematics and - to a lesser extent - the social and natural sciences. In some countries, such as Chile and the Dominican Republic, all secondary school students had to sit terminal examinations as far back as the early 1990s.

The effect of these mechanisms and the introduction of regular examinations for students were to awaken a growing concern for the outcomes of learning and to highlight the problems of the quality of secondary education in the region (Carnoy & de Moura Castro, 1997). However, little by little the recognition grew that the type of tests that were being given to students were not in tune with the new curriculum guidelines.

Despite the fact that a great effort is being made in many countries to change the criteria on which examinations are based with a view to bringing them closer to competence evaluations, rather than tests of the mastery of information, some doubts have remained regarding the amount that has been achieved in this direction. In any case, the actual topics selected for examinations tend to limit any efforts to evaluate aspects such as whether students in the course of secondary education have learned to learn, to do and to live together. Tests are almost invariably written, individual and restricted to the fields of knowledge referred to earlier.

Within this general context, there are some different experiments which are being conducted, for instance in Brazil, where evaluation strategies and procedures are being developed to assess the acquisition of competences of a higher degree of complexity than those evaluated so far.

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