Panama Table of Contents
School in Antón, Coclé Province
Courtesy Agency for International Development
University of Panama
Courtesy Organization of American States
Public education began in Panama soon after independence from Colombia in 1903. The first efforts were guided by an extremely paternalistic view of the goals of education, as evidenced in comments made in a 1913 meeting of the First Panamanian Educational Assembly, "The cultural heritage given to the child should be determined by the social position he will or should occupy. For this reason education should be different in accordance with the social class to which the student should be related." This elitist focus changed rapidly under United States influence.
By the 1920s, Panamanian education subscribed to a progressive educational system, explicitly designed to assist the able and ambitious individual in search of upward social mobility. Successive national governments gave a high priority to the development of a system of (at least) universal primary education; in the late 1930s, as much as one-fourth of the national budget went to education. Between 1920 and 1934, primary-school enrollment doubled. Adult illiteracy, more than 70 percent in 1923, dropped to roughly half the adult population in scarcely more than a decade.
By the early 1950s, adult illiteracy had dropped to 28 percent, but the rate of gain had also declined and further improvements were slow in coming. The 1950s saw essentially no improvement; adult illiteracy was 27 percent in 1960. There were notable gains in the 1960s, however, and the rate of adult illiteracy dropped 8 percentage points by 1970. According to 1980 estimates, only 13 percent of Panamanians over 10 years of age were illiterate (see table 5, Appendix A). Men and women were approximately equally represented among the literate. The most notable disparity was between urban and rural Panama; 94 percent of city-dwelling adults were literate, but fewer than two-thirds of those in the countryside were--a figure that also represented continued high illiteracy rates among the country's Indian population (see Indians , this ch.).
From the 1950s through the early 1980s, educational enrollments expanded faster than the rate of population growth as a whole and, for most of that period, faster than the school-aged population. The steepest increases came in secondary and higher educational enrollments, which increased ten and more than thirty times respectively (see table 6, Appendix A). By the mid-1980s, primaryschool enrollment rates were roughly 113 percent of the primaryschool -aged population. Male and female enrollments were relatively equal overall, although there were significant regional variations.
Enrollments at upper levels of schooling had increased strikingly both in relative and absolute terms since 1960. Between 1960 and the mid-1980s, secondary-school enrollments expanded some four-and-a-half times and higher education, nearly twelve-fold. In 1965 fewer than one-third of children of secondary school age were in school, and only 7 percent of people aged 20 to 24 years. In the mid-1980s, almost two-thirds of secondary-school-aged children were enrolled, and about 20 percent of individuals aged 20 to 24 years were in institutions of higher education.
School attendance was compulsory for children from ages six through fifteen years, or until the completion of primary school. A six-year primary cycle was followed by two types of secondaryschool programs: an academic-oriented program and a vocational-type program. The academic program, which represented nearly threequarters of all secondary-school enrollment, involved two threeyear cycles. The lower cycle was of a general or exploratory nature, with a standard curriculum that included Spanish, social studies, religion, art, and music. The upper cycle consisted of two academic courses of study: in arts and sciences, leading to entrance to the university, or a less rigorous course of study, representing the end of a student's formal education (fewer than 4 percent of students pursued this course of studies in the mid1980s ).
In addition to the academic program, there was a vocationaltype secondary-school program that offered professional or technical courses aimed specifically at giving students the technical skills needed for employment following graduation. In the mid-1980s, roughly one-quarter of all secondary students pursued this type of course. Like the more academic-oriented secondaryschool program, the vocational-type program was divided into two cycles. Students could choose their studies from a variety of specializations, including agriculture, art, commerce, and industrial trades.
Admission to the university normally required the bachillerato (graduation certificate or baccalaureate), awarded on completion of the upper cycle of the academic course of studies, although the University of Panama had some latitude in determining admissions standards. The bachillerato was generally considered an essential component of middle-class status. Public secondary schools that offered the baccalaureate degree also offered the lower cycle. They were generally located in provincial capital cities. The oldest, largest, and most highly regarded of these was the National Institute in Panama City. The University of Panama grew out of it, and the school had produced so many public figures that it was known as the Nest of Eagles (Nido de Aguilas). It tended to draw its student body from upwardly mobile rather than long-established elements of the elite. Its students were well known for their political activism.
Higher education on the isthmus dates from the founding of a Jesuit university in 1749; that institution closed with the order's expulsion from the New World in 1767. Another college, the Colegio del Istmo, was started early in the nineteenth century, but the school did not prosper, and Panamanians who wished to pursue a higher education were required to go abroad or to Colombia until 1935, when the University of Panama was founded. In the mid-1980s, most postsecondary schooling took place within the university. Other institutions, such as the School of Nursing and the Superior Center for Bilingual Secretaries, accounted for less than 3 percent of enrollment at this educational level.
Nearly three-quarters of all university students attended the University of Panama in the 1980s. The university had, as well, a number of regional centers and extensions representing a small portion of the school's enrollment and faculty. The University of Santa María la Antigua, a private Roman Catholic institution established in 1965, enrolled another 5,000 to 6,000 students in the 1980s. A third university, the Technical University, was founded in 1981. It accounted for approximately 7,000 students. A substantial portion of the well-to-do continued to study abroad.
Most education was publicly funded and organized. In addition to the University of Santa María la Antigua, there were some private primary and secondary schools. Typically located in cities and considered very prestigious, they accounted for 5 to 7 percent of primary-school enrollment and approximately 25 percent of secondary-school students in the mid-1980s.
Education continued to claim a large share of government budgets. It represented 15 to 20 percent of the national government's expenditures in the early to mid-1980s (see table 7, Appendix A). Most funding went to primary schooling, although both secondary and higher education received proportionately higher funding per student. Primary schools received roughly one-third of government education spending, secondary and higher education approximately 20 percent each (see table 8, Appendix A). Budgets from 1979 through 1983 allocated on average B220 per primary school student, B274 per secondary school student, and B922 per university student (for value of the balboa--see Glossary).
The growth in enrollment was accompanied by a concomitant (if not always adequate) expansion in school facilities and increase in teaching staff. Teacher education was a high priority in the 1970s and 1980s, a reflection of the generally poor training teachers had received in the past. Schools increased at every level during the early 1980s; secondary schools made the most notable gains, more than doubling (see table 9, Appendix A). Pupil-teacher ratios for all levels were in the range of nineteen to twenty-six pupils per teacher in the mid-1980s.
Data as of December 1987
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