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‘Pictures that look like us’



By Roger Hamilton 



How an education reform program increases coverage while promoting cultural diversity

Not long ago, when a Bolivian child opened a textbook, she often found herself staring at illustrations that seemed to come from a foreign country.

"The old reading textbooks had images from the city, with houses that had electricity and staircases,” recalls Cornelio Ochoque Gómez, principal of the primary school in Opoqueri, a tiny community in the rural Bolivian highlands. "Children from the provinces didn’t know what that was about. Their villages don’t have electricity or buildings with staircases."

Worse yet, the textbooks were only in Spanish, a language that is not necessarily understood by the 60 percent of Bolivians who are native speakers of Quechua, Aymara or another native tongue.

But today, thanks to an ambitious education reform program, students in rural areas of Bolivia use bilingual textbooks illustrated with people dressed in traditional indigenous attire and carrying out typical rural activities.   “These new textbooks are different,” says Ochoque. “The children identify with what they see in them. They say ‘That woman looks like my mother, like my sister.’”

In addition to enabling indigenous children to learn how to read both in their native tongue and in Spanish, a new set of curricula introduced by the reform program is helping to eliminate stereotypes about the role of women in society. The new textbooks (and not just those published in indigenous languages) include illustrations of boys and girls jointly taking part in activities that are traditionally gender segregated. Many illustrations make the point that women can perform most tasks as ably as men.

The new curricula are but one aspect of an educational reform process that began in the early 1990s and has been partly financed by the IDB. The central objective of the reforms, which are entering a second phase, is to ensure that primary and secondary education is available to all of Bolivia’s school-age children. It also seeks to encourage a more equitable access to educational opportunities, particularly for girls or indigenous children, and to improve the administrative efficiency of educational services.

According to a recent IDB evaluation, the program’s first phase succeeded in updating the curricula for the first two stages of Bolivia’s primary school system in 70 percent of all public schools. Primary school coverage now extends to 95 percent of the population, and dropout rates have diminished. During the last four years, the gap between urban and rural school retention through the sixth grade level has been reduced by more than half: today 77 percent of all urban students and 63 percent of rural students complete sixth grade. Moreover, the historical disadvantage of girls in Bolivia’s schools has also been remedied. Today the gender differences in enrollment and retention rates are close to being eliminated.

Local consultations and community participation are thought to be one of the principal reasons for the success of the reform process so far. Jesús de Machaqa, a predominatly Aymara-speaking community southwest of La Paz, is typical of the villages that have played a vital role in government efforts to improve basic education and reduce dropout rates. In the past, educational policies affecting rural communities were made by officials in the capital without necessarily getting any input from local people. But starting in 1994, during the early stages of the reform process, local residents in this locality decided to take advantage of traditional village council meetings to express their concerns about education to visiting officials from the education ministry.

“We are losing our young people,” a resident of Jesús de Machaqa who belongs to the village council’s education committee told a visiting journalist in 1999. “They are going to the cities to study. We need training centers here, but good quality ones, with international standards.” Lacking decent schools or jobs, young people emigrate from the villages in search of better opportunities, he explained. The average Bolivian child gets seven years of schooling, but in rural areas the average is closer to four years (compared to nine years in the cities).

It was because of the input of villagers like those in Jesús de Machaqa that the policymakers who designed the first stage of the reform program decided to prioritize diversity and native language issues. This focus ultimately led to the creation of programs to train teachers in bilingual education and the development of the new curricula.

The IDB contributed $81.4 million in loans to support the first stage of the primary education reform program, and it is now preparing a $40 million loan to help deepen and extend these efforts. The principal objective of the second stage will be to improve the quality of learning and gather more extensive information about school management and administration. The new phase will also extend the curriculum reforms to the third stage of the primary education system and strengthen the leadership and capacity of school principals and managers at the municipal and district level, all with a view to raising the quality of basic education in every Bolivian school.

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