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La Educación
Número: (132-133) I,II
Año: 1999

Rural Development and Education

Within the international community, rural development has re-emerged as a pressing concern, but strategies for intervening in the cycle of rural inequality, deepening poverty and environmental decline are not yet clearly drawn. One approach, however, that holds out considerable promise involves education: the provision of relevant, high-quality educational services to rural areas through improvement of the primary and secondary systems and the upgrading and expansion of agricultural extension services and research initiatives. This type of intervention can reduce poverty and inequality in two ways. First, studies show that education affects small landholders and subsistence farmers immediately and positively. A body of research demonstrates that farmers with little land are highly risk averse in general, because they have so little flexibility. For them, the difference between a good harvest and a bad one can be the difference between subsistence and hunger. Those small-scale farmers with higher levels of education, however, (and here we are speaking of only a few years difference in schooling), are better able to adapt innovations to local conditions and therefore more likely to assume risks in changing production techniques.  The provision of better educational services in rural areas, then, could be one way to make small-scale farming more productive and remunerative: better able to compete with larger, more capital-intensive operations, or at least to provide adequate subsistence for the farmer.

Second, higher quality education in rural areas would feed better-informed students into universities and research institutions, where they might study and design agricultural innovations and rural development strategies closely aligned with actual circumstances in the countryside. Such students, researchers and agricultural practitioners will strengthen the link between rural communities and more productive, less destructive farming through technological intervention. In its analysis of rural development, The World Bank concludes that its integrated projects in rural areas were failures because  “most decisions regarding their design and implementation were made by central government officials, and communities were rarely involved in project design, implementation or monitoring.”3 To address the problem, however, would not only require more democratic project design procedures, but also the inclusion of community representatives able to articulate the specific socioeconomic needs of the local people and propose solutions to them. This requires a vast social change, which may begin with education, but cannot end there. The curriculum must change, teachers must change, the structure of the classroom must change and the way in which the school relates to society in general must change. Technology cannot achieve these advances; it can assist or facilitate, but these are really political transformations — they involve humans, and values and conflict: the great and ongoing debate about what should be taught, how and to whom.

Unfortunately, we are still very far away from even addressing such questions. Most available data show the poor conditions of rural schools in Latin America. In a recent study done by the Inter-American Development Bank, six countries reported difficulties providing adequate educational services in indigenous languages, five countries cited serious problems of quality and materials in rural schools, and four countries listed inadequate access to schools in rural areas among their most serious problems. By definition, rural schools are far from central ministries, and therefore tend to receive fewer resources. Moreover, by all accounts, the decentralization policies associated with educational reforms have not changed this. With fewer resources, communities cannot maintain the physical infrastructure of schools or pay teachers adequately. Data show that rural teachers are less qualified in general than urban teachers, although their tasks are often more complex. Because she frequently teaches more than one grade level at a time —-usually in the same room—the rural teacher  should actually be better prepared than one who teaches a single grade in an urban school.  Finally, research shows that rural schools often lack adequate teaching supplies and educational materials. Books are scarce and outdated. In countries with large indigenous populations, materials in the child’s first language are frequently lacking, so that a student must learn to read and write in a language not his own. As a consequence of poor quality education, then, rural children tend to leave school in the earlier grades.4

In the 1990s, however, perhaps as a consequence of the high-level focus on the importance of education, some countries have made progress toward improving the salaries of teachers, specifically. Mexico instituted its Carrera Magistral in 1992, which established a process of systematic steps teachers could take to improve their skills, and earn raises and promotions. Brazil has raised its teachers’ salaries significantly since 1995, and even with the subsequent currency devaluation, incomes for teachers are multiples of what they were ten years ago, when for example, a rural teacher might earn as little as $11 per month.

Unfortunately, in an era of increasing fiscal crisis in Latin America, the proposal to increase educational budgets in order to improve rural schools and agricultural extension services is not especially realistic. The Bank has made clear that although “training and visit” extension services have been highly successful, financing for them may not be available:  “Labor intensive extension services have high recurrent costs for both personnel and field operations. Although resources allocated to extension are likely to generate high benefits, extension services must compete with other public services…For this reason concern is growing about the fiscal sustainability of many of the Bank-supported extension services.”5 The potential curtailment of these services is even more explicit. Face-to-face services may not always be feasible, and governments may no longer be able to provide for staffing of these services at previous levels.

Existing educational reform policies of public school systems also suggest the possibility of closing rural schools, particularly secondary schools in areas where there are relatively few students. In other words, governments are caught in a dilemma concerning rural development. Although formal educational services and agricultural extension services show definite and consistent returns, the fiscal realities in most countries preclude the steep increases in funding necessary to improve rural schooling.

These circumstances make improvement of rural education difficult to promote. Quite simply, it is an expensive service: populations are dispersed, there are no economies of scale, often language and cultural distinctions require special adaptations to curricula, qualified teachers are hard to locate, transportation and communications costs are high.

As a result, education policy-makers are exploring broader uses of technology for the purpose of improving distance education programs in effectively demonstrated, targeted applications designed to strengthen rural education. Ministries realize, however, that education and communications technology should be strategically deployed in order to maximize its potential benefits. Because the up-front costs of communications technology are formidable, governments considering them as investments must be able to identify applications that literally pay off rapidly in order to justify expenditures. Moreover, for some developing countries, where basic teaching and learning resources are lacking, the costs, infrastructure and expertise necessary for the purchase, installation and maintenance of the technology may be well beyond reach.

Nevertheless, there already exist promising prototypes for improving rural education through technology. The Programa Telesecundaria in Mexico, which provides secondary schooling to rural areas through video and video conferencing, has successfully operated for more than thirty years. The program has a strong training component  for teachers, facilitators and promoters, and it has long been an important part of Mexico’s rural education program.