Dominican school

Re-Envisioning Standards-Based Education: Lessons from the Dominican Republic

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseimage by by  Pedrito Guzman

by Meg Petersen

All of these challenges are linked to the rights of the population to lead a free and dignified life, rights which correspond to every human being.”

—Bases of Curricular Revision, Ministry of Education of the Dominican Republic

Standards-based education has been a part of our system in the United States for so long now that few teachers in service today can remember a time before externally imposed standards regulated our teaching lives. The standards-based movement is traced back to the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk but usually is considered to have been formally instituted in 1994 with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under the Clinton administration, which became No Child Left Behind (NCLB; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 2002), the signature education reform of the George W. Bush administration, in 2001. With the passage of NCLB, standards-based reform became almost synonymous with test-based reform. Some key features of educational standards as they have been implemented in the United States include being centralized and thus imposed from elsewhere—whether that be at the state level under NCLB or the national level with the Common Core—setting expectations for what students need to “know and be able to do,” and using standardized assessments to monitor student performance. The results of these assessments, especially under NCLB, have been linked to accountability provisions that reward or sanction schools (or individual teachers) according to their results.

An aspect of standards less remarked upon is that they embody a set of values or a world view, often one not explicitly stated. The presence of that world view bubbles to the surface when the values embodied in the standards conflict with the beliefs of those in power. We saw this with the controversy over the social studies standards in the early 1990s, which had to be revised because they were viewed by many, including Lynne Cheney, as presenting too critical a view of US history, and the NCTE/IRA standards, which were eventually completed without government funding after they were accused of being overly vague. Those responsible for the Common Core State Standards have tried to avoid these problems by presenting standards that focus solely on intellectual skills and by restricting the role of professional associations to commenting on draft versions, rather than enlisting them to write the standards, but this does not mean that the Common Core is value free.

An aspect of standards less remarked upon is that they embody a set of values or a world view, often one not explicitly stated.

Of course, as Megan Birch and I have argued (Birch & Petersen, 2015; Petersen & Birch, 2013), one can approach a set of standards from a critical or subversive position and exploit their liberatory potential, but absent this critical lens, the standards often communicate a powerful set of values that remain unexamined.

All of this came into sharp focus for me as I read Bases of the Curriculum Review and Update (Ministerio de Educación de la República Dominicana [MINERD], 2014), a publication of the Dominican Ministry of Education, as part of my work in Santo Domingo on a Fulbright grant. I approached the document with low expectations; government education documents do not usually make for stimulating reading. This one outlines and describes the new curriculum for the Dominican education system, including its rationale, process of development, and purpose. It also provides a detailed theoretical base for the revision, referring back to the government’s 10-year (2008–2018) educational plan. Despite my initial resistance to reading it, I found the document not only stimulating, but inspiring. I wasn’t very far into it before tears came to my eyes. The text was in many ways a courageous document, and it managed to be bold without being needlessly provocative. I was moved by it in the way one can be moved by a sudden act of compassion and kindness in a world where one has come to expect hostility. Part of my emotion arose from the straightforward way the document described the problems in the Dominican education system and the social realities they reflect.

Last week I visited a school in Villa Mella, in the northern sector of Santo Domingo, as part of a program sponsored by the Instituto Nacional de Formación y Capacitación del Magisterio (the government teacher-training agency) and administered by the Pontifica Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. I was with an acompañante, a coach hired by the university to work with teachers in classrooms. The teacher we were observing had shown great improvement. She was energetic and dynamic, moving about the room, calling on her 5th graders, engaging them in her social studies lesson. To many American eyes, however, the classroom would have looked bare. The children copied in their notebooks but had no books. There were so many armchair desks in the room that it was difficult to move about, yet two children had to give up their desks so we could have a place to sit to observe the class. The teacher pinned a piece of poster paper, where she had written out material for the children to copy, over the blackboard. The noise from outside the room was deafening. Children were running and screaming and tagging each other. Often, one would stick his head into the room. There was nothing to mitigate the effects of the over 90-degree heat.

Public education is a last resort for Dominicans. Anyone with any money at all sends their children to private school. All levels of private schools exist to cater to populations from the extremely rich to the marginally poor. Public schools are for those who can’t afford even that—and there are a lot of them. Dominican schools are so overwhelmingly overcrowded that most have to run in shifts, with morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. In order to make enough money to survive, teachers often work all three, leaving no time for reflection or planning. Yet great strides have been made since I was last there in 2009, with what the government likes to call an “education revolution.” As the result of a popular protest movement, the government is now investing the 4 percent of the gross national product mandated in the Dominican constitution towards its education system. This has more than doubled the government appropriation for education, leading to the building of more schools, increased professional development for teachers, and the creation of the tanda única, or full school day, for each Dominican child. This investment has been accompanied by thorough curricular reform.

Part of my emotion at reading the Dominican document grew out of the contrast between how standards-based school reform has been approached in my country and what was happening in the Dominican Republic. While there are some superficial similarities—both are national plans, both involve standards, and both are competency based—I was struck by the profound differences between how standards-based reform was formulated and conceptualized in the Common Core as compared to the Dominican educational reforms.

The Dominican paper contained an explicit theoretical base, which is absent in the Common Core, although one can deduce a theoretical base from the standards themselves. The rationale for the Common Core is expressed most clearly in Benchmarking for Success (National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, & Achieve, Inc., 2008). This text, published by the same organizations responsible for writing the standards, lays out the case for a clear set of national standards based mainly on international test score comparisons and the fact that “other countries are pulling ahead” in these assessments. The view of the purpose of public education implied in this document is tied to international competitiveness and economic factors. The publication describes what will be needed in terms of a workforce in a “skills-driven global economy.” Educational achievement is described in terms of test scores—in this case, those with international comparators, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment. It is remarkable for its silences about educational goals not related to economic productivity and competitiveness.

The Dominican document starts in a very different place, by setting the context within which the country’s education system operates and reviewing the social indicators that frame it. The text begins by describing the student population in terms of its youth, largely urban nature, gender balance, and socioeconomic level. The authors review detailed statistics not on achievement but on factors that affect and shape that system, such as child labor, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, sexism, and family violence. While the section is well documented and fact based, it is not value neutral. In the discussion of child labor, for example, the authors note that it affects 15 percent of the population of minors between ages 5 and 17 years and that “[i]ts persistence is due in part to the fact that such child labor is often looked at with indifference, as something ‘normal’ in the context of poverty” (MINERD, 2014, p. 24). The authors go on to note that the poor, in their efforts to survive, rely on relations with the government and with the ruling classes, which involve subordination and trickery, and that “actions which are illegal (such as the occupation of public spaces for itinerant vendors, failure to pay certain fees, public transportation in inappropriate vehicles, and much more) … are tolerated in a context of huge social inequities to the point where they are seen as normal” (MINERD, 2014, p. 25). The authors note other factors, such as the “neo-liberal reforms of that past century” as well as the initiation of the Dominican Republic-Central America FTA, or CAFTA-DR, at the beginning of this century, that have not helped the economy, with the exceptions of the tourism and, more recently, mining sectors—“both at the cost of damage to the social and physical environment and ecological deterioration” (MINERD, 2014, p. 25). They go on to discuss the education system itself in terms of coverage, the formation of teachers, the level of illiteracy, and problems such as the overpopulation of classrooms, and what reforms have been implemented. They conclude their review by affirming the goal of educational reform: “In this context, the development of the educational system should be designed to promote citizenship, respect for diversity and inclusion as keys to a culture of peace, and the possibility of a decent life for all of the population” (MINERD, 2014, p. 29).

The fact that these documents frame their goals in such radically different waysglobal economic competitiveness vs. a culture of peace and a decent life for all citizensis in part a product of the ways these curricula were developed. The Common Core standards were drafted by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and a group called Achieve, which describes itself as “a bipartisan group of governors and business leaders,” including heavy representation from the testing industry. When the standards are criticized for a lack of educator involvement in their creation, their defenders point out that teachers and such professional associations as the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics were involved in their formation. These groups, however, were only brought in after the initial draft of the standards was released for comment and review. Significant revisions were made based on the feedback from these groups, but the initial framing of the standards was completed without teacher input.

By contrast, the process of developing the Dominican standards began with working sessions set up in each of the country’s 18 regional educational centers (the territory of the country is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined). These working days were arranged and organized by local educational officials and teachers and involved a wide base of community participation, including parents, business leaders, representatives of professional and social organizations, and churches, as well as local government officials. Ten months of work followed in each district, seven of which were devoted to the different levels and subsystems of the education system. Three additional themes were chosen by the regional directors according to the interests of the participants in the process and other pertinent considerations. The second main phase of the process was the technical consulting. A group of specialists, academics, teachers, representatives of diverse institutions, organizations, and sectors of society carried out the process of revising and writing the new standards “beginning with the demands and aspirations of citizens gathered during the consulting process.” In the Dominican process, the reforms began with the concerns of the community and were then filtered through a group of experts representing a wide vision of the society in order to come up with the final version of the new curriculum.

The two processes would seem to be a case of top-down vs. bottom-up, but it is also notable that the Dominican process placed educators and educational scholars at the center of the process, taking advantage of their expertise, while the role of teachers and professional associations was circumscribed in the formation of the Common Core.

The purposes set forth in the documents are also quite different. The goal of the Common Core is to prepare students to be “college and career ready,” an instrumental and vocational focus. In Out of Many, One: Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up (Achieve, Inc., 2008), the authors describe the purpose of the standards by noting the standards should reflect “the knowledge and skills all students should gain in high school to ensure that they are prepared to enter and succeed in credit-bearing college courses or to gain entry-level positions in high-paying careers that offer opportunities to advance” (Achieve, Inc., 2008, p. 1).

The Dominican curricular revision, by contrast, begins with the premise that “Curriculum design … establishes a strategy for the formation of democratic subjects, capable of transforming social, material and cultural reality” (MINERD, 2014, p. 11). Education is conceived of as fundamentally about “the development of human capacities” (MINERD, 2014, p. 11). The authors assert that the main purpose of the curriculum is “to promote the full development of our men and women in their forms of thinking, feeling and acting so that all can contribute to that which we as citizens demand and which the society calls for” (MINERD, 2014, p. 12). By contrast, college and career readiness seems a limited and limiting goal.

This is followed in the Dominican document by a detailed theoretical base for the curriculum, centered on constructivist learning principles and three main foci: historical-cultural, socio-critical, and competency based. The historical-cultural focus acknowledges that learning always takes place through interactions with others in a specific context. Thus, education is “not only concerned with the construction of knowledge and the development of certain skills, but with an integrated human development” (MINERD, 2014, p. 34). This principle places education at the center of human and cultural development. The socio-critical focus refers explicitly to problematizing and questioning reality through the use of symbol systems, including written language. The document asserts school is not only about learning content, but developing through learning “particular forms of thinking, feeling and acting” (MINERD, 2014, p. 33). The authors are quick to caution, however, against “approaching children in schools with assumptions of uniformity or homogeneity, which are false” (MINERD, 2014, p. 34). Although the Common Core also promotes the development of critical ways of thinking, this last caution would deter us from assuming these foci are equivalent.

Finally, there is the focus on competencies. This last would seem to be a point of connection with the Common Core, as the US standards are also competency based. However, almost in opposition to the American document, the Dominican document defines competency as “the capacity to act in an efficient and autonomous manner in diverse contexts integrating concepts, procedures, attitudes and values” (MINERD, 2014, p. 34), terms that are all defined in the document. The authors are careful to distinguish competency as more than the ability to perform in a certain way: “Competencies do not refer exclusively to cognitive abilities or the degree of efficiency in their execution; they imply a much more complex whole which includes motivations, emotions and affect which are culturally mediated and situated” (MINERD, 2014, p. 34).

The seven fundamental competencies of the Dominican curricular reform are designed to link the entire curriculum “through significant learning and to describe the capacities necessary to ensure basic human rights and full participation in a democratic society” (MINERD, 2014, p. 43). They include not only communicative competencies, problem solving, and logical, creative, and critical thought, which would seem analogous to the Common Core, but also encompass ethics and citizenship, science and technology, and the environment and health, as well as personal and spiritual development. The lens through which the Dominican competencies was developed is wider and more integrated than the narrower cognitive focus of the Common Core. The document asserts that the competencies are designed to ensure coherence in the curriculum and have been adapted to address the current context, which includes two significant social challenges: (1) globalization, which has brought about increased migration, environmental damage, and a low level of human development; and (2) inequality, poverty, and exclusion, which have impacted the family, gender roles, violence, and the environment in the streets, which preclude the development of a culture of peace.

The Dominican educational system has a long ways to go, and the Ministry of Education knows this.  Yet in terms of their vision of curricular reform, they have much to teach us.

In reading the Dominican document, I felt relief at having entered an environment where one could speak the truth and address significant issues. One of the most damaging effects on teachers and students of the school reform movement in my own country is the silence about the things that matter and about the fundamental values that shape every curricular reform. As a teacher remarked to me the other day, “We get tired and sometimes just comply with what we are told.” Often, even we who know better find ourselves reacting to documents like Benchmarking for Success, ignoring the fundamental problem of how the philosophical premises on which these documents are constructed influence the entire enterprise. It reminds me of the teacher who told me she couldn’t participate in staff meetings that began with such questions as, “How many minutes of homework should 3rd graders have each night?” Premises and assumptions matter, and matter deeply and entirely.

The Dominican document brims with hope and possibility. The Dominican Republic has one of the most problematic education systems in the world. Yet the document is full of the kind of visionary pragmatism that allows us to confront deeply intractable problems. It is optimistic, asserting that while much about the lives of Dominican children is not right—and we as a society have grown to see some things as normal that should never be accepted—Dominican children in the public school system deserve and need a world-class education, and the country needs them to have it. While it describes all of the social and economic problems that frame work in schools and stresses the importance of well-prepared and competent teachers, it never blames teachers or parents for the state of the education system. What blame it casts is upon those of us with more privilege, including the government itself, who have accepted less than what every Dominican child needs in order to grow up and realize his or her full human potential and live a dignified and decent life.

The Dominican education system has a long ways to go and the Ministry of Education knows this. Yet in terms of their vision of curricular reform, they have much to teach us.

Meg Petersen is a professor in the Department of English and graduate program coordinator for English education at Plymouth State University.


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Birch, M. L., & Petersen, M. J. (2015). Teaching the Common Core as a subversive activity. (Unpublished manuscript). Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH.

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