Why Are Spanish Schools So Behind? Spanish schoolchildren have consistently ranked near the bottom in comparisons of reading, math and science skills with those of other industrialized countries. Lately that's proving extremely problematic.
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Why Are Spanish Schools So Behind?

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Why Are Spanish Schools So Behind?

Why Are Spanish Schools So Behind?

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The U.S. isn't the only nation with serious economic woes. Spain, now in its own recession, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union. Economists say one main obstacle to recovery is the country's largely unskilled workforce, and that's drawn attention to a deeper problem, education. Jerome Socolovsky reports from a suburb near Madrid.

(Soundbite of people talking)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Thalia Balel Carl(ph) has been doing her homework for almost two hours, and she's still got a lot to do. Her British-born mother, Carolina Carl(ph), says that every night, the third grader has to memorize the glossaries in the textbook.

Ms. CAROLINA CARL: Well, everything that's in green...

Ms. THALIA BALEL CARL: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. CAROLINA CARL: Are little definitions that they have to learn by heart.

(Soundbite of Carolina and Thalia speaking in Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: In the nutritional function, various organ systems intervene, the definition begins. Thalia's a bright girl, but not many other kids in her class can grasp such formulations. Thalia's mother is president of the parents association at the public elementary school here in the Madrid suburb of Miraflores de la Sierra. To say that she's frustrated with her children's schooling is to put it mildly.

Ms. CAROLINA CARL: I find it quite amazing that in the 21st century, in a European country, you can find an education system that is based almost purely on rote learning and that spends no time on any form of creativity, originality, or the development of analytical thought, or even - which is probably the most serious - on self-esteem.

SOCOLOVSKY: That may be Carolina Carl's opinion, but the stinging criticism is backed by some evidence. In a comparison of 15-year-olds in industrialized nations, Spanish students have the worst score in reading comprehension among all Western European countries, and they rank well below average in math and science as well.

Spain's education system has gone through a number of sweeping reforms since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, but the low test results persist. Luth Adriana Perez(ph) has a girl in second grade at the primary school in Miraflores. Like many Spanish parents, she thinks kids just have to work harder.

Ms. LUTH ADRIANA PEREZ: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I think children should start learning from a young age because they are sponges, she says. They absorb everything you teach them, even at the age of two. Many teachers and administrators share her view and are unwilling to accept criticism of their teaching methods. At a Catholic school in the neighboring town of Soto Del Real, Jose Carlos Fernandez is one of the educational directors.

Mr. JOSE CARLOS FERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken).

SOCOLOVSKY: Some years ago, we had 10 hours a week of language and literature, he says. Now, we give them four or five hours a week at most. If kids are going to read and comprehend well, it's vital that they read the classics. Fernandez says his school does not require pupils to memorize material. But in the playground, he asks a group of 5th-grade girls if they know any Spanish poems.

(Soundbite of Spanish girls reciting poem)

SOCOLOVKY: The poem is from 1887, and it's very, very long.

(Soundbite of Spanish girls reciting poem)

SAKALOSKY: During the Franco dictatorship, much of the education system was controlled by the Catholic Church. Even now, there are still heated debates about discipline, ideology, and crucifixes in public schools. Eva Almonia is Spain's Deputy Education Minister.

Ms. EVA ALMONIA (Deputy Education Minister, Spain): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: You have to keep in mind that we've been a democracy for only 30 years, she says. And in that time, we've managed to ensure that everyone is obliged to stay in school until the age of 16. She says the priority now is to improve reading comprehension and independent thought, something previous reforms failed to achieve.

In its latest report on the Spanish economy, the Organization of Industrialized Countries, the OECD, highlights Spain's high school dropout rate, the highest in the European Union, and poor teaching as major obstacles to economic recovery. Back in Miraflores, high school music teacher Paloma Castano says parents expect teachers to drill their children with facts as their teachers drilled them.

Ms. PALOMA CASTANIO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Really, this is all they know, she says. And they stay with what's familiar. She says, what Spanish education needs is a complete change of attitude. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Miraflores de la Sierra, Spain.

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