Back to school: System reforms look to expand coverage and quality across the board

As Panama enters a new stage of economic maturity, the quality of its education system has claimed a pivotal role for authorities and the private sector alike, aiming to provide a sound foundation for the future.

In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14”, the quality of Panama’s education system ranked 75th out of 148 countries, a notable leap up from the previous year’s ranking of 112th. Though this figure is still far behind neighbouring Costa Rica (which ranked 20th), it is in striking distance from other Central American nations such as El Salvador (109th), Guatemala (135th), Honduras (141st) and Nicaragua (107th). However, Panama will need to continue improving both the quality and coverage of its education, particularly in subjects such as maths and sciences, in which it is still ranked relatively low at 114th, according to the report. These factors will prove integral to the development of local technological strengths.


Basic education covers students aged 4-18, following a K-12 system divided into three levels. The first includes initial education, similar to kindergarten, which lasts two years and focuses on teaching children aged 4-5 social norms and hygiene, among other basic knowledge. The second level, labelled general basic education, is split into two different phases that include primary, lasting six years and aimed at children aged 6-12; and the second, referred to as pre-middle school, with a duration of three years for pupils from the ages of 12-15. These prior grades feed students into the final level of the preparatory system, or middle school, which resembles the age range for US high schools but lasts only three years, covering pupils aged 15-18. This final stage operates on a bachelor’s system where students can choose certain tracks to follow, with options ranging from sciences to humanities and education. The basic structure through the ninth grade is compulsory and free, whereas middle school is not obligatory but continues to be free of charge.

Beyond this structure exists tertiary education, comprised of university and non-university facilities, such as technical and vocational institutes, all of which are optional. According to the Ministry of Education ( Ministerio de Educación, MEDUCA), 874,679 students were enrolled in the K-12 system in 2013, up from 841,011 in 2012, an increase of 1.8%, the largest in over a decade. All public education falls under a non-profit scheme, including several Catholic schools that receive a tax exemption. However, the law does allow for-profit institutions among private schools at all levels.


Total public expenditure on education has risen over the past few years, representing 4.1% of GDP in 2011, up from 3.8% in 2010, according to data collected by the World Bank. While this proportion has fluctuated in the near past, reaching 5% of GDP in 2000, the country’s recent economic growth has meant more dollars are being spent on education.

MEDUCA has become one of the country’s best-financed ministries, receiving constant fiscal increases. For 2013, MEDUCA was allotted more than $1bn from the national budget, topping the $969.6m granted the ministry in 2012. Of that budget, some $191.4m will go towards investment projects to build and repair schools, as well as equip students with computers.

Infrastructure investment has included earmarking the construction of four new schools in Colón, West Panama, Central Panama, and the indigenous territory of Kuna Yala. The authorities also plan to add and update around 110 laboratories throughout the country.

Despite the increase in government funding, MEDUCA’s overall investment did drop compared to 2012, when funding for projects amounted to $215m. One reason behind this is that structural changes and curricular reform are absorbing many resources.


Indeed, although system reform began in 2004, slow progress in the next six years hindered serious change until 2010, under the current administration. Several of the reforms taking place since then have included the unification of curricula plans across the country, to keep all students on the same page, as well as the division of the academic year into quarters.

According to MEDUCA, 62.4% of middle schools had already completed the curricula transformation at the end of 2012. By the middle of the 2013 school year, some 150 schools that were formerly only primary had been transformed into complete general basic education facilities, integrating three more grades. These structural transformations should significantly improve quality and better utilise resources, according to the vice-minister of education, Mirna Vallejos de Crespo. The new education framework also established the National Team of Curricular Innovation and Renovation (Equipo Nacional de Innovación y Actualización Curricular, ENIAC), a committee formed by select teachers and professionals who oversee study plans and review curricula throughout the course of the year.

Significant changes continued into 2012 with Decree 920, which sought to extend hours of instruction, as well as a new package of salary incentives. However, many teacher unions said the measures privileged a certain class of teachers while leaving others behind with lower pay. These concerns sparked a month-long protest in August 2013 that shut down much of the primary education system and resulted in the authorities discarding the decree. According to Vallejos, teachers believed MEDUCA was trying to privatise education, which she considered a misinterpretation. In general, public sector workers are quite sensitive to private companies entering the system, and in general MEDUCA and most other social service ministries tend to steer clear of third-party private management.


Curricular reform has significantly improved coverage across the board. While coverage for initial education rose 12.1% year-on-year (y-o-y) to reach 70.3% in 2012, primary education rose 2.1% to 94.6%, and pre-middle school rose 0.8% to 69.2%. By far the largest increase in coverage came at the middle school level, which rose 19.7% to reach 62.3% in 2012. That same year, some 19,985 students graduated from 12th grade, of which 12,382 belonged to the first generation of curricula transformation. A total of 89,670 students were enrolled at the middle school level (grades 10-12) in 2012, of which nearly 60,000 formed part of the new system. In terms of improving student performance, results display positive trends as well. While in 2011, 10% of pupils in the preparatory system had to repeat a grade, that figure was reduced to 7.3% in 2012. Likewise, the rate of student dropouts decreased from 3.5% in 2011 to 3.1% in 2012. Though MEDUCA has yet to release official performance results for 2013, the minister of education, Lucy Molinar, told local press in December 2013 that dropout rates had further lowered over the year.

MEDUCA has also focused special attention on improving conditions in preschools, where some four years ago, coverage reached around 40%. Initiatives have primarily consisted of programmes in rural areas, where MEDUCA has assisted communities in selecting teachers, who then undergo training from the ministry. Vallejos attributed lowered drop out and repetition rates at the primary level to these initiatives.

Another programme that has contributed significantly to increasing coverage is the Beca Universal, or “Universal Scholarship,” which provides all public school students with a monthly subsidy of $20. This subsidy runs throughout the school year only and to receive it, students must attend classes on a regular basis and pass all courses. Other requirements include some participation of parents at school activities and conferences with teachers. The scholarship also provides students with supplementary meals during school hours.

While children are the main focus for MEDUCA, a crucial part of the reform programme aims to cover adults who never finished basic education. MEDUCA has established special programmes in collaboration with companies that have large numbers of workers without secondary school diplomas. The primary obstacle for this initiative has been financing for teachers. Some firms have expressed interest in financing initiatives, but bureaucracy and fears of perceived privatisation of education have hindered MEDUCA from such moves.

All Corners

Despite this progress, authorities still have a long way to go to reach optimum levels of coverage and quality. One pressing issue on MEDUCA’s agenda is increasing the number of qualified teachers, especially middle school teachers in more isolated regions. According to Vallejos, the subject areas that most require teachers for rural schools include chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and accounting.

Integrating indigenous communities has been at the forefront of these education policies. Referred to locally as comarcas, several indigenous territories have been displaying very high birth rates in the past couple of years, increasing the need for social infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and housing. According to the 2010 census, the largest comarca is Ngöble Buglé, with a population of nearly 157,000 people. In the first quarter of 2013, there were 1309 births in the territory, only slightly less than major regions such as Veraguas and Coclé, with around 1500 births each, and even Colón, which saw about 2100 births.

Providing social infrastructure to these fast-growing territories has proven a challenge for government authorities since much of the population is located in mountainous areas with poor access roads. Additionally, many communities do not have access to electricity and potable water. At education facilities, MEDUCA has installed solar panels but such methods have limited capacity, according to Vallejos.

Government incentives for teachers to work in rural areas include an additional $100 to their monthly salaries. However, with few school supervisors for these areas, MEDUCA has difficulties ensuring teachers’ attendance and compliance with schedules. According to Vallejos, many communities have filed complaints of absent teachers. Further incentives to keep teachers in the classroom include improving their living conditions by constructing bedrooms attached to the schools, a step up from the cabins and shacks indigenous communities usually provide. Prior to relocating to rural areas, teachers also receive swimming lessons and are given a life vest in the case of floods.

Getting Connected

From 2011 to 2012 each public school student in grades 11 and 12 received a free laptop, a programme that in 2012 began extending its reach to students in grades nine and 10. According to MEDUCA, in 2013, around 41,000 laptops were distributed for free among 10th graders and 46,800 among 9th graders. This initiative looks to significantly increase computer competence among the later grades of students preparing to enter the workforce or continue their studies. Data on information and communication technology (ICT) in Panama’s education system displays a favourable advantage. The total learners-to-computer ratio (LCR) for pedagogical purposes in 2010 was recorded at 19:1 for primary schools and 23:1 for secondary schools (grades 10-12), according to a 2012 UNESCO study on ICT in education throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. These figures are among the lowest in Central America, where El Salvador registered the highest ratios (26:1 for primary school and 9:1 for secondary). According to the report, 71% of primary educational institutions had electricity and an average of 3% of teachers at the primary and secondary levels used basic computing skills in the classroom.

However, since 2012 MEDUCA’s programme, “Entre Pares,” or “Among Peers”, has required teachers to undergo a 15-day intensive course on computer-oriented teaching, covering 100% of the permanent workforce, or some 35,300 instructors. Each teacher was also provided with a free computer and expected to cover the $100 fee for installing programmes. The second phase of “Entre Pares” continued in 2013, working directly with professionals from Microsoft. According to MEDUCA, some 50,000 educators from all facilities and institutes across the country attended additional training programmes during the summer of 2013.

For Vallejos, this programme has been a huge success that the government will continue to pursue. “Improved computer competence is providing students with a tool for research, either at home or in public spaces through the internet,” she told OBG. Though the idea of introducing tablets into classrooms as an additional educational tool has received much interest, Vallejos said that the government is not currently pursing the alternative due to time constraints and other priorities. For higher education, online classes are slowly becoming available as a means to increase coverage and reach non-traditional students.

At the Universidad del Istmo (UDI), one of the country’s leading private universities, some 3500 students are currently enrolled in online courses, representing approximately half the institution’s total student body. Though such initiatives are just beginning to take off and often present difficulties for those students who do not have a strong educational background, UDI’s rector, José Leonardo Valencia, said he believes that virtual coursework holds much potential in Panama. “We are developing more alternatives and flexibility for students through online classes,” Valencia told OBG. “Currently, the most popular programmes have been for undergraduates in administration and financing.”

Higher Education

While the K-12 system provides basics skills, higher education is becoming increasingly important in Panama. Both job competition and the ever evolving demand for specialty knowledge are key factors encouraging students to pursue further degrees, either at universities or institutes (see analysis).

The WEF’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14” ranked Panama’s higher education and training 68th among 148 countries, scoring 4.26 on a scale of one to seven. Though these figures leave much room for improvement, they represent an upward shift over the past several years. In the 2012-13 report, higher education and training in Panama ranked 69th among 144 economies, with a score of 4.22, up from the 2011-12 evaluation, when it placed 78th out of 142 economies in that segment, with a score of 3.99. Continued development of the higher education segment will prove crucial to providing the economy a qualified workforce.

Universities in Panama are autonomous and have traditionally been led by public institutions. However, private universities are playing a crucial role to help cover demand, which has risen significantly over the past decade. While in 2001, a total of 117,864 students were enrolled in universities throughout the country, that figure rose to 139,116 in 2010.

Private university coverage more than doubled over that period, reporting 50,582 enrolled students by 2010, up from 20,611 students in 2001. In 2011, total university enrolment took a slight dip to 133,497, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute ( Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censo, INEC), a result of more students seeking practical means to obtaining jobs through professional institute degrees. However, specific study areas are displaying positive trends within the university system, such as the sciences, technology and business. Evidence of this can be observed in coverage at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP), where enrolment rose from 4419 in 2012 to 4934 in 2013, representing 11.65% y-o-y growth.

“This is the first significant increase we have observed in years, indicating that the new curricular plans are more in line with what students require to enter universities,” Vallejos told OBG. “There is still a lot to do, but we are on the right track.”

However, despite improved coverage, Panama’s universities are generally not highly regarded in the region. Only five Panamanian universities were included in the QS Latin American University Rankings 2013, which rates the top 300 institutions across the continent. Making the list at 147 was the Universidad de Panamá (UP), followed by UTP, which tied with nine other institutions for the ranking of 151st. Both public universities, UP and UTP are regarded as the country’s most prestigious institutions. The remaining three universities, Universidad Santa María la Antigua, Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí and Universidad Latina de Panamá, all placed above the 200 mark.


Panama’s low ranking in global studies can be attributed to poor institutional quality, which authorities have sought to remedy through a new accreditation procedure. In 2010, Law 30 created the National Council for University Evaluation and Accreditation of Panama (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación y Acreditación Universitaria de Panamá, CONEAUPA), which set out to develop a two-phase procedure whereby schools could self-evaluate and later undergo examination by an external committee. Universities that adhere to the standards receive accreditation for a six-year period, after which they can opt for renewal.

For Vallejos, accreditation was needed, since authorities previously enforced lax criteria for universities, some of which were beginning to exchange educational aims for profit motives. “Accreditation should mark a change for the standards of quality in Panamanian higher education,” she told OBG.

The other entity that regulates higher education is the Technical Supervision Commission (Comisión Té cnica de Fiscalización, CTF) run by UP. All new academic programmes and majors undergo CTF evaluation.

Currently, there are 21 accredited universities in Panama, five of which are public. During 2014, CONEAUPA will evaluate seven more universities which are expected to gain accreditation as well. Before the evaluation procedure, some 40 universities operated throughout the country and those that have failed to meet the accreditation standards have been shut down. Vallejos insisted the closure of certain universities was not to punish them but rather to improve quality.


Though Panama’s education system remains far from perfect, significant developments over the past several years, such as curricular reform and university accreditation, lay out plans to improve standards of quality across all levels. Heightened public spending for the sector indicates a political commitment that should not dissipate even with a change of government in 2014. As quality improves and the population grows, demand will rise for the construction of new schools and methods of learning. This will especially increase the number of opportunities for the use of technology in the classroom, particularly through new devices and online instruction. Higher education will continue to develop in size and options, largely responding to increased demand brought on by the country’s economic growth. While logistics, commerce and skills related to tourism are already displaying popularity among students, increasing job competition may generate larger markets for further study in specialty fields. Much of the success in these areas will depend on government policy and partnerships with all players.

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