Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.

University Prep Schools in Buenos Aires: The case for ILSE

I have lately come to believe that the education debate is kind of in free-fall, with different solutions, alternatives and panaceas up for grabs. I suppose this is the product of having dealt with three different systems in as many countries, rendering me muddled and confused as to what’s really best for my kids at the moment or in the long run (not necessarily the same thing.) I have gone from leaving No Child Left Behind far behind when we moved from the US, to a public school in southern Spain that appeared to be mainly about getting through all their textbooks and memorizing long lists of bones, muscles, plants and provinces; then we crossed back over the pond to a “progressive” private elementary school in BsAs. that often seemed more like a cage of monkeys than a school. This last finally led us to our current best option for high school: ILSE (Instituto Libre de Segunda Enseñanza), a traditional, uniformed – some might say old-fashioned – school that came with the initial filter of a heavy-duty entrance exam (see previous post). Who knew such a school would turn out to be the least of all evils and perhaps even the best of all worlds?

Despite my continued misgivings about the education my children are getting, when people ask if we plan to stay in Argentina, to my surprise I find myself mentioning school as one of the most compelling reasons for not moving on to cleaner, cheaper, more first-world climes at present. How did this happen, me and all my complaining and second-guessing of so many systems? To be sure, I’m definitely not convinced that their schooling is suddenly fantastic, but I’m also not convinced that the alternatives available to them in the US would necessarily be better, at least in terms of the big picture. Yes, they would have a full school day, elective classes, better facilities, more resources, sports, etc. – all things I wish they had – but I am not so sure that they would in fact be learning more. And then there are the social realities of high school life in the US that don’t need pointing out…

Honestly, I started writing about my kids’ schooling when they began first grade in Spain as a way to hash out my concerns and frequent bafflement. These have always at heart been largely due to my foreignness to the system and local codes, and compounded by the fact that my brain has been constantly fed by the education debate in the US conveniently coinciding with my kids being educated abroad. So in my surprising present state of quasi-satisfaction, I set out to clarify some of my lingering doubts about ILSE and how it differs from the other colegios universitarios de la UBA (see previous post for basic description of this unique system of university prep schools). In an interview with ILSE Vice Principal (Vicerrector), Roald Devetac, I had the opportunity to discuss several issues that may prove interesting for other expat parents looking for high school alternatives for their kids in Buenos Aires.

My first question was regarding the school’s academic focus compared to the Nacional Buenos Aires (humanities), Carlos Pelegrini (historically more business-oriented, although has undergone a shift in recent years) and the new Agronomía (agro-technical). According to Mr. Devetac, ILSE’s focus is comprehensive and humanities-based, much like the Nacional Buenos Aires. The latter being historically the most prestigious of all these schools, I told him we had chosen ILSE over the Buenos Aires because it was similar academically (actually, nearly identical; see curricula for both at ILSE and CNBA), but differed in three key aspects for us: no third shift, no teacher strikes, no student takeovers. I was curious as to why the last two issues do not seem to come up at ILSE as part of the public university system. As such, it has never been sufficiently clear to me everything implied by the assertion that these schools all “dependen de la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires).” If they all “depend” equally, then why do neither ILSE teachers nor students go on strike like they do in the others? The answer is that ILSE’s relationship of dependency (more aptly translated as ‘governance by’) is limited to the UBA-designed academic curriculum. While this relationship extends to politics, policy, administration and student council in the other schools, ILSE is an independent institution on all fronts except its curriculum. This independence is also reflected in the fact that its subsidy is only 70%, the remaining fee of 30% effectively rendering it a private school, while the others are completely public. For me this guarantees that my kids’ classes will be equally challenging academically, but they won’t be cancelled due to walkouts like the one that went on for weeks at the Pellegrini last year due to parent, student and faculty opposition to the choice of new principal there.

Another feature that sets ILSE apart from the other universitarios is its reputation for strict discipline. Notably, students are required to wear uniforms and stand up when a teacher enters the classroom. There is also a very clearly defined system of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules. As I mentioned in my original post on Argentine schools, for some parents who grew up here, this kind of requirement may be reminiscent of the years of harsh repression in schools during the dictatorship of the 1970s. (For a good film depicting that atmosphere in the Nacional Buenos Aires, see La Mirada Invisible.) In fact, a number of our friends overtly criticized ILSE and discouraged our choice for this reason when we decided on the school. However, not having lived through those dark times in Argentina myself, but rather having lived through the backlash of its aftermath, my initial impression of ILSE was one of clear rules aimed at students’ best interests, genuine prioritization of academic excellence, and quiet, focused classrooms with thoughtful and accomplished adults in charge. What really stayed with me from that first visit, though, was the impression Mr. Devetac made on me with his obvious dedication to students’ wellbeing and commitment to providing the best learning environment. So when I asked him what he thought about the school’s reputation as heavy-handed, or even military in the eyes of some adults, he chuckled and said in no uncertain terms: There must be rules for there to be learning. Honestly, the kinds of sanctions my kids have had to suffer during their first year at ILSE have amounted to being written up – if you accumulate too many write-ups, they affect your academic standing – for forgetting permission slips, talking in class, etc. They have served the purpose of breaking bad habits, so I fail to see how this is repressive.

As for the academic side of ILSE, this has been a year of transition for us. Perhaps not as demanding as I had expected outside of school hours, although the work has definitely ramped up the second half of the year; they spent a lot of time working on group projects the first part. I asked Mr. Devetac about this, given the comments from many expat parents here on the issue of group vs. individual work. He assured me that ILSE takes a balanced approach to the two, and that as of second year, students begin to produce term papers and other demanding individual projects. He also mentioned the worldwide shift in education toward prioritizing teamwork, alongside the importance of individual work and the self-discipline it requires. In the context of global education trends, we also discussed new technologies. Mr. Devetac acknowledged the need to incorporate them, with the caveat that not all of them have yet been proven to add value to education; in other words, the real benefits of new technology should always be kept in perspective.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the learning factor at school, I think it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between excellence and superior learning, especially for Americans since we come from such a competitive society where excellence always refers to top performance in school. I personally have really struggled with this issue this year. My kids, their ILSE classmates, and friends attending Pellegrini and Buenos Aires all seem to be focused on passing grades. Not top – just passing with a 7 or above. (It is a daily exercise for me to subdue the nagging alarm bells that anything below 88 is a C, mediocre, not up to par.) The fact is, they struggle to achieve these grades, spending hours studying for tests, producing charts, summaries, lists of definitions, etc. to prepare for long essay answers on everything from music history to Greek and Roman mythology. Not a multiple choice in sight, no standardized testing, no grading curve here. Then in my other ear, I get to hear from my friends and family in the States about their kids in wow high schools, all of whom are taking AP classes, in IB programs aiming for the best universities and jumping through the necessary hoops to get there: the coveted 4.0, stellar SAT scores, extracurriculars and all of the above. Bs are frowned upon. A friend recently sent me her daughter’s schedule, which ran from 6am-9pm and included scheduled activities on Sat. and Sun. in addition to the loads of homework. We don’t have that kind of “excellence” here. However, we do have lively conversations in which the kids spontaneously discuss things over dinner like the differences between the societies of  Sparta and Ancient Greece. They have strong opinions about learning Latin and syntax; they’re definitely much more verbal about school subjects than I ever was at that age. In fact, they seem to be learning a lot without being focused on the competitive aspect of top grades as a means to get somewhere else in the long-run. And I wonder if this way  of learning is really such a mediocre thing after all, what with so many paths available to them.

En fin, it turns out that ILSE was probably the best of all choices for us. I wouldn’t trade this for the kind of schedules kids have in the US, no matter how great their sports facilities, theater programs and state-of-art classroom technologies. My kids are engaged, challenged, well cared for, developing good habits, at times stressed about academics, but still have time to learn outside of school as well, which is equally – if not sometimes more – valuable. Perhaps I will write about that another time…

One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism

            I remember the first time my kids had a big group of school friends over to our house in Buenos Aires – they were in 4th grade. There were about 10 kids sitting in a circle on our rooftop terrace mulling over what to play. I stood and spied at the door, amazed at how civil they were about their negotiations, how seriously they took it! And from what I knew so far about their new school, I thought ‘How wonderful that they should foster such a spirit of cooperation.’ I sensed I was seeing the effects of their new school culture playing out directly in their social lives.  I left them alone to play and came back to check on them about 20 minutes later. To my surprise, they were still seated in the same circle, but there was some arguing going on by then about what they were going to play: jump rope, la mancha, twister, etc. So I stepped in to mediate and pointed out that there were enough of them to break into smaller groups so everyone could play what they liked. They all looked up at me with perplexed faces until one spoke up: “What’s the point of getting together if we’re not going to all play the same thing?” Hard to know what to say to that.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised if I think about how groups of Argentine adults socialize. Have you ever been at a party where Argentines predominate and somehow you find yourself in a circle in which all present participate in the same conversation, whether there are 5 or 25 of them? You really have to be assertive – not always easy to maneuver linguistically, regardless of how well you might speak Spanish. In terms of discourse, English-speakers tend to have two-way or very small groups conversations, which ensures that all present can make their individual points – stand out and make themselves heard, so to speak. But in the multi-player Argentine version, the numbers have a dimming effect on most of the speakers who don’t happen to be “big” personality types, so it’s kind of hard for all 25 to shine. I often find myself really wishing people would mingle more at social gatherings here instead of “the big circle”…

And just one more example of what I’m getting at, for any of you on school parent e-mail lists here, you know how annoying all those endless email responses like ‘sí; ok; de acuerdo; listo; también; etc.’ in your inbox can be? Recently, when one parent suggested we make a Yahoo group so as to only have to receive the one daily summary, with very few exceptions, the rest overwhelmingly e-voted the motion down, saying that they preferred to ‘see the ongoing exchange because it gave them a better sense of the group dynamic.’ Down with efficiency in the name of togetherness.

Anyway, back to the kids, unlike my school years, where class groups were shuffled with every passing year so we had to annually adapt to a new group, here in Argentina classes are kept together sometimes from as early on as preschool throughout elementary school, and even on through high school. In fact, at the first parent meeting at our kids’ new high school, several parents lamented how their children were struggling with having to leave their childhood class behind. The sentiment in our house is very different – we’re all celebrating the expanding social horizons high school has opened up to the kids. Mainly, we hope the new environment will allow them to more deeply explore their unique abilities and interests and excel as individuals, because elementary school seemed to be a lot more about fostering group interests, both socially and academically.

Like other foreign parents I have talked to, I found the lack of individual assessment from my children’s teachers disconcerting throughout elementary school; grade reports were mostly in the context of the child’s performance as part of the group. The two annual individual reports were formulaic and showed little knowledge of my kids’ academic strengths or weaknesses. Even though it is just as important to me as the next parent that my kids feel socially accepted and respect the group dynamic, it was strange to see how this played out  academically, as if individual achievement and group role were somehow at cross purposes. Just like the kids refusing to play until everyone agreed on the game up on the rooftop, I sensed a real premium placed on the group advancing “as one” with their coursework – let no child be left behind. The fact is faster learners were indeed left behind:  to boredom, or its constant companion – mischief, as they continued working on the same concepts until everyone caught up; not until then could everyone move on.

This idea of the whole class as part of a common project in unity is particularly at odds with the notion of differentiated work for individual students, whether they happen to be gifted in math or speak English as their native language. When it comes to proposals to allow native-English speakers to opt out of mandatory EFL classes, the central argument from school authorities is the disruption of group unity; they see this as potentially damaging to the child’s social acceptance and the overall group dynamic. This also applies to suggestions of differentiated, level-appropriate work for English natives, the argument again being that setting them apart may somehow break down the fabric of the class. It just seems to me that this pretty much disregards the academic needs of individual students in favor of the group.

Argentines are actually very self-critical about their own individualistic tendencies. You will often hear people lament how individualism has taken hold of the country, everyone only out for themselves, no concern for the common good, this of course being at the root of all the crime and corruption. Perhaps. But at least in terms of social education, what I see my kids absorbing is much more about going along with the group and putting their individual differences on a lower plain, both socially and academically. This surely promotes tolerance, solidarity and cooperation, but I have also witnessed how it teaches them to be careful not to shine too brightly.

All this has made me reflect on what I really believe in. If asked whether I favor a school environment that fosters group harmony and tolerance, of course the answer is yes; but it never would have occurred to me that such an environment might also downplay the importance of individual achievement in the same classroom because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. So this has led me to wonder about the notion of individualism in Argentina, which I sense is equated with selfishness, whereas I see it as  more related to each individual attaining his or her unique potential. In fact, the different angles the two languages take are illustrated in standard dictionary definitions of individualism. The English is from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Spanish from the Real Academia:

English

1. n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Spanish

1. m. Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás, o sin sujetarse a normas generales. (Tendency to think or operate independently of others or without abiding by general rules.)

Just in these definitions alone, you can see the contrasting values associated with the term. I suppose this would explain why, by the end of elementary school, I was feeling like my personal value system was slightly under assault. If nothing else, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of why these things bother me, and how much the cultural ethos we grow up in shapes our beliefs.

Then again, the slate has been wiped clean now that my kids have moved up to high school. And I am hopeful that we may see a different atmosphere of encouragement when it comes to their unique qualities, given that they certainly had to stand out in the crowd to get in in the first place. Ideally, this will provide some sense of balance in which they feel more confident to express themselves as individuals but remain sensitive to the larger group around them.

The Transition

In my personal struggle to make sense of school options—the ones we’ve foregone and the ones we’ve chosen—I’d like to reflect on the hand we’ve been dealt over this past school year (7th grade). For anyone new to Argentina, the system here approaches the configuration of grade levels in the following way: There are basically only two stages, i.e., primary (1st-7th) and secondary (8th-12th years), thus doing away with the dreaded middle-school stage. This makes seventh grade the gateway into high school, and a time of major transition for many kids.

Like all big cities, Buenos Aires has good (few) and bad (many) public high schools, in addition to an entire gamma of private options. Given our experience in the private school of our choice in elementary school, we decided to go with one of the most limited and rigorous public options for high school. Buenos Aires fortunately has a top tier of selective high schools that belong to the university (UBA) system: Carlos Pellegrini, El Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, I.L.S.E (half public/half private) and Agronomía. What that means is they operate with public university funds, the teachers have university degrees (as opposed to teacher’s school diploma), are UBA faculty members, classes are known to be academically rigorous, and these school are autonomous in defining their curricula (i.e., they are not subject to city or provincial oversight).

Aside from standing apart academically, these schools are also notoriously difficult to get into. They all require prospective students to attend a prep course several hours per week throughout seventh grade (outside regular school hours) in preparation for the entrance exams. However, so concerned are parents about their kids’ preparedness for the exams, most opt to enroll them in private study centers in addition to the official course.

Because I tend to question the way things are done (a lot), I initially was not in favor of supplementing the mandatory classes with additional private ones. Mainly because I thought 6 hours a week should certainly be more than enough extra class time, and furthermore I am loath to follow the herd—in this case, the herd of parents signing their kids up for extra classes. I then learned that, essentially, in not giving them all those extra hours of help, I would be placing mine at a disadvantage in comparison to the herd (kind of like not driving an SUV in any US suburb…). So in the end, and mainly at my own children’s insistence, I gave in and enrolled them two afternoons a week at one of the private study centers (El Velasco, Silvina y Gustavo, Cursiva, just to name a few). So their seventh-grade schedule looked like this:

Regular school            8-1:30

Study Center                 2:45-5:15            M/Th.

Entrance course          6:30-9:30pm             Tues.

9am-12noon            Sat.

I rationalized this decision based on my determination for them to get in, but also on my hunch that their current school would waste away the morning hours even more so than in previous years with no individual effort expected outside of school. (This I had on the authority of numerous other parents and turned out to be resoundingly true.) Therefore, all those extra—and expensive—class hours were, for me, insurance against the academic freefall awaiting them in their last year of—also expensive—elementary school. In this sense, it was a good decision and I’m glad they were spending their afternoons finally sinking their teeth into some real content and how to go about processing and storing it all; however, in hindsight, I would say that in terms of really giving them an extra advantage on the actual tests, that part really came down to us in the end.

After the first couple of months of practice tests turned out some pretty mediocre scores, we decided to get more involved ourselves to flesh out the problems. Without going into the intricacies of each of my children’s learning tendencies and study habits, I can confidently say that their inadequacies or weak areas were easily identifiable and it was surprising that the private study center, considering what we were paying, did not seem to have done so themselves by that point. We ended up taking care of all the bad habits through intense work and study strategies at home. At the end of the day, I think that this effort along with the official course would have been sufficient, although I am thankful that the private classes at least provided some consistency in what otherwise would have been a sort of year-long academic joyride school-wise.

And just a brief promotion of our new school, we chose ILSE for several reasons. Although it is not completely public (there is a fee of $600/month—miniscule compared to private schools), it does otherwise function as a public institution under the same conditions mentioned previously. The extra cost presumably goes towards ensuring that the teachers don’t adhere to the frequent public school strikes so common in Argentina; ILSE stands apart as the one UBA school that holds classes on strike days. Also, it only has two turnos (shifts) per day—morning and afternoon—unlike the Pellegrini and Nacional that have three, meaning that students at those schools may get the night shift. This last factor was a non-possibility for me so the choice was pretty easy.

This transitional year has been a priceless year of learning for both my kids and their parents. We’re all much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and they especially now know how it is within their power to overcome the latter. And once again, I have seen how having to compensate for the failings we encounter is an essential part of their education.

Expat Parents, Bilingual Kids and Argentine Schools

Expats face an array of daily challenges ranging from societal values to language, food and eating habits, gender dynamics, bureaucracy, driving, shopping, etc. And for those of us who are parents, raising and educating our kids would likely top this list as the biggest challenges of all, because they touch the core of what makes us who we are: Like it or not, we raise our children in terms of our own childhood experiences, which ultimately laid the groundwork for the people we are as adults. Whether to undo, improve on or maintain the lessons learned while growing up, how we approach bringing up our own kids is a reflection of that experience and therefore heavily loaded culturally and personally. Doing so in a foreign context is therefore fraught with difficulties, because the cultural parameters may be vastly different; and when it comes to school itself, everything from the supply list, to parent attitudes, to education policy in general can serve to complicate our decisions, baffle, frighten or, just maybe, if we’re lucky, free us from old, ingrained ideas and assumptions. After all, the fact that we are expats in the first place likely means that we are people who do not necessarily settle for the standard operating procedure in the places we came from. So what happens when we immerse ourselves in another, albeit foreign, version of “mainstream” when it comes to educating our children?

Having muddled through the Argentine system with my own kids over the past five years, I decided to do a survey of other foreign parents to gain some perspective on the experience. I chose to focus only on expats from English-speaking countries (the UK, US and Australia), given the significant role English plays in most school curricula here and the subsequent effect this has on kids for whom English is a first language. The questions parents answered covered topics related to the process of choosing a school; degree of satisfaction with that choice; school choice as a reflection of their own schooling; Argentine cultural values; and English classes, among others.  Parents addressed several concerns about their children’s education, both universal and specific to Argentina. Their answers also reveal some surprising discoveries that may be useful to others facing the difficult task of finding a school for their children here.

The crisis in education is a phenomenon that knows no borders; however, what that crisis entails and the reasons associated with it from one country to the next are undeniably shaped by the history, society and education policies implemented in each place. In the case of Argentina in particular, the last dictatorship left an imprint on Argentine society that plays out in myriad ways, just one of which is the effect on education – both public and private – and the attitudes and expectations of modern Argentine parents, many of whom were students during the repressive dictatorship of the 1970s. This is no small matter when it comes to understanding schools in Argentina. The dictatorship that came to power in Argentina in 1976 considered schools to be fertile ground for subversion, and therefore in need of a return to traditional values achievable only through order and repression. During that time, high school and university students were blacklisted and reported by teachers to military authorities, detained and often never seen again.  It is therefore not surprising that the generation of parents who grew up during those years of repression would expect the very ethos of school to be radically different for their children.

As a result, many schools here now fortunately take a very child-centered approach to learning, often highlighting group dynamics, democracy in the classroom and a sense of belonging. Particularly for parents of younger children, these features may be all the more appealing in the absence of other education jargon such as testing, standards, accountability, etc. However, the premium placed on learning through play and group projects may have parents wondering about things like academic excellence and individual achievement once their children are older; what seemed ideal in first grade often turns into noisy classrooms, general lack of discipline, no apparent study habits and disregard for authority in sixth. Could it be that what began in the 1980s as a genuine move in favor of kinder, more democratic schools with a critical eye toward authoritarianism may have swung too far in the direction of ‘no room for order at all’ in many Argentine classrooms?

Private, non-religious bilingual schools were the target of parents’ most critical views. Such schools have a broad appeal among professional, middle-class, well-educated and often progressive-minded Argentines. And since many expats living here fit this same description, many of them also initially find these schools appealing. They are more affordable as far as private schools go, tend to have constructivist-based curricula, focus on creativity, foster a sense of community and learning through experience. Despite the draw of such features, however, the educational experience often turns sour for many parents once their children are enrolled. The disparity between the ever-rising cost of these schools (tuitions have roughly tripled over the past 4 years) and the overall quality of education that they provide is no doubt a factor in parent dissatisfaction. Everything from noisy, chaotic classrooms to overt Argentine nationalism (lots of flag-waving and exaggerated reverence for Argentine heroes, yet scarce attention to the rest of the world) are mentioned in association with these schools. Several parents also pointed to the prioritization of group interests over individual achievement. This factor is also echoed in children’s report cards, which parents say do not convey any individual feedback for the most part, focusing mainly on the child’s role in group work. Another overriding concern for many parents from English-speaking countries with a common tradition of reading and love of books is the apparent absence of any similar sentiment in many schools here.

Long hours in English classes that cannot address the needs of native English-speakers is also a major issue for parents with children in these Spanish/English bilingual schools. Initially welcomed as assets to the class, parents claim there is no follow-up effort made to find suitable materials, books, or give these kids any type of role in English class that would make for meaningful learning for both them and their classmates; again, they are expected to “go along” with the group. 

Argentine parents want their children to be proficient in English in order to be globally competitive in the future; and schools likewise take the importance of English seriously. This has resulted in numerous private bilingual schools here that cater to local parent demands for more English. What is interesting to note is the number of hours devoted to English in comparison to other subjects in these schools. As pointed out, Argentine society understandably gives high priority to English, but is it more important than Spanish, math or science? According to the number of class hours, yes it is. Bilingual schools in Buenos Aires (both primary and secondary) devote an average of 6 class hours (horas cátedras) per week to English – some considerably more – in comparison to Spanish, math, science or social studies, which often get only 3 or 4 hours of class time per week. Curiously, this has as much to do with the traditional Argentine school day, which the Ministry of Education sets at 4 hours minimum, as it does with the high premium placed on English. So in the case of most schools that now offer doble turno, all those extra hours are being poured into English instead of an increase in core academics. Not to diminish the importance of English in the world today, but it is perplexing, even if one could make an argument for this many hours per day devoted to a foreign language, why some of those hours couldn’t be used to teach other subjects (science, history, creative writing) in English (or Spanish, for that matter)? Only a very few of the higher-priced private schools take this approach. Perhaps the better question to ask would be: Why are the core subjects of math, language/literature, social studies and science kept at so few hours? 

Given the value placed on English, there is then a certain irony in the fact that children who are already bilingual are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to Argentine bilingual schools. The reality is that all those English hours in the dozens of “bilingual” schools have very little to offer a child whose first language is English; they are about intensive English-learning for Spanish-speakers, and are not designed to address the needs of English natives. It would stand to reason then, as a parent of a bilingual child, to choose a monolingual school and not waste hours on English for learners; however, as already mentioned, the standard academic day is only 4 hours long here. Therefore, if you want your child to have a full day of school in Buenos Aires, you must either pay a very high price or resign yourself to the fact that roughly half of their day will be wasted hours in English class in most cases. Other than the array of mid-priced private bilingual schools, one is left with basically three alternatives: half-day public school; the very expensive American or British schools (price-prohibitive for many); or bypassing English altogether at the German, Italian or French schools. It is this last option that generated some of the broadest support from parents. This is what one US parent had to say about the Lycée Jean Mermoz:

“There were two factors that led us to discard the English/Spanish bilingual option. One is that we did not think that many of them are as good overall academically as the French school and even their English programs are not great; non-native English teachers, for example. So we thought it would be easier to supplement English language skills at home than to have to compensate for a lower quality overall education. And in terms of the very good English/Spanish schools (San Andres, Northlands, etc.), they have a socio-economic profile that seemed elitist for our taste. The French school has a more heterogeneous public, which we love, and the idea of having a bilingual/bicultural family exists there. They have excellent academics and also incorporate a great deal of culture, art and literature into the general education. It is an institution where the cultural values of France, such as equality, respect for rules and authority, are very much present. This is extremely important for me as they are values that I feel are part of my culture as a US citizen, but that are not valued in Argentine culture.”

The diversity mentioned with regard to the French school is also highlighted by parents of kids who attend Lincoln, the American school. As part of an international system that offers consistency as well as a diverse student population, it is an appealing option for diplomatic families and those who work for large corporations and move often; its price-tag, however, offsets these advantages for many families.

As regards the overall state of public education in Argentina, the lack of available resources and teacher strikes are a big deterrent for a majority of parents in the case of public schools. Even if one comes from a public school background with committed ideals to public education, it is difficult to stick to one’s convictions in the face of public school reality in Argentina. Fewer resources means kids are exposed to fewer valuable experiences, such as gaining computer skills, access to quality art and music classes or a proper school library, not to mention the limited class hours. And the likelihood that your child may be deprived of many days of school due to teacher strikes makes this a tough choice indeed.  Nevertheless, some of the most satisfied parents interviewed were those whose children attend public primary school No. 13 in the Colegiales neighborhood. They pointed to the integrity of the school climate forged by its long-time director, and the importance of the school’s cooperadora in pushing new initiatives. Good teachers who know their students well on an individual basis, a strong emphasis on reading, the director’s open-door policy and responsiveness to parent requests, and the enthusiasm for learning observed by parents of expat kids in this school make it stand out not only among public schools, but among all primary schools included in the survey. Unfortunately, this was the only public school mentioned by parents in the survey; as a general rule, foreign parents do not often choose public school for the same reasons many Argentines do not.

As a parent of 8-yr-old twins when I came here, I was quite happy to forgo such things as regular standardized testing, heavy loads of homework and long school hours common in the US, in favor of an Argentine version that seemed kinder and more respectful of childhood. Later in elementary school, however, that conviction began to wane in the face of concern for academics and readiness for serious study. To my surprise, however, on the verge of entering high school, my kids have stepped up to the plate and proven that, even though they may not have been academically challenged in elementary school, they are nevertheless more capable of putting in long study hours and doing well on difficult high school entrance exams than I probably was at their age. I cannot help but wonder if this is not the result of an academic maturity that was allowed to take its due course, along with the advantages of growing up “between” places, which by default makes changing gears easier for them. And one more surprise that I discovered as a result of the “disadvantage” of already being bilingual in school: Using that to our kids’ advantage by taking them out of English altogether at school and hiring a native tutor to use those hours wisely and keep them reading, writing and covering other subjects in English has put them ahead of grade level.

Despite all the issues mentioned here, which have caused me many sleepless nights, I also share the sentiment expressed by everyone in their answers to the last survey question, “What is the most important aspect of your child’s education for you?” Without fail, everyone mentioned the importance of the examples set at home in terms of love of learning, critical thinking, awareness of the broader world and curiosity. As expats, we are privileged in being able to provide our children with this type of education in addition to (or in spite of) any school. And perhaps being in a place like Argentina that provides the circumstances to “make one’s own adaptations” to the school environment might just be a blessing in disguise.

The Other Side of the Fence

Theothersideofthefence is devoted to other ways of viewing education, life, what’s important and what’s not, depending on where you are. Although I have chosen education as a theme, I believe this encompasses a world of possibilities and therefore I don’t intend to limit entries to the “education debate.”  The choice of blog name has as much to do with my own affliction with the greener grass syndrome as it does with the notion that there are always two sides to fences. They only fence us in to the extent that we choose to follow the herd. Otherwise, fences are easy to jump with a little practice, a strong will and solid running start.

My personal experience educating my own kids might be described as experimental for lack of a better standard alternative. Of, if you have never left your country and enrolled your children in other, foreign “systems,” with a patchwork of supplemental solutions weaved in along the way, you might be tempted to call it reckless or even dangerous for their future. I, obviously, would beg to differ. Here are some basic facts behind our story:

  • My kids have been raised bilingually, English-speaking mother,  Spanish-speaking father.
  • They lived in the US until age 5, but have done all formal schooling in Spanish–first in Spain, then in Argentina.
  • They attended public school through 3rd grade in Spain, private school 4th-7th in Argentina.
  • They are fully proficient in both languages in terms of reading, writing and cultural literacy despite having never attended school in English.
  • Our decision to move to both countries was a matter of choice and not job-related.

Aside from regular school, we have entrusted a revolving door of various and sundry 20-somethings with the kids’ English, music and art education. Hailing from the US, the UK and South Africa, these carefully selected young people have proven to be an invaluable source of language, inspiration and pop culture to our kids as they’ve grown up, each one contributing his or her unique skills and strengths along the way. These have ranged from astronomy to beat-box to non-profit projects to the basics of Xhosa (the clicking language of South Africa). They have read Steinbeck and learned about the basic economics behind the Great Depression, and suffered the Jim Crowe laws of the 1930s US south through Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. They have practiced how to be persuasive in the persona of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. They have also discovered that wine comes in various shades good for painting and learned the rules of baseball, a game they have never played. I do not recall having been lucky enough to get even one teacher like these in all my years of school.