Education Equals Empowerment

Comparative ed: US system offers more freedom of choice than Guatemalan schools

By Caitlan and Luke Smith

Completing high school is a lofty goal for any child in Guatemala, where only 33 percent of the population reaches high school. Considering that the average grade completed by the Ladino population (those of Spanish descent) is the sixth grade and that the Mayan population on average reaches the third grade, those few who make it to high school have already beaten the odds.

High school in the US

However, unlike the United States where high school functions as a springboard to send students to college, a high school diploma in Guatemala is a terminal degree giving its bearer a designated occupation.

High school in the United States is four years of extracurricular activities, taking a wide variety of classes and, for approximately 68 percent of high school seniors, preparing to attend college (US Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Junior high in the US

Junior high seems to be an awkward two years of puberty, carrying around giant books for the first time and having your own locker. However, for most pre-teens and teenagers in Guatemala, this period of their life is very different.

Junior high in Guatemala

Junior high in Guatemala has a basic curriculum of core subjects such as science, math, history and writing, much like what we in the States experience.

However, unlike schools in the United States that engage the classroom through discussion and problem solving, junior high uses rote learning as the primary tool for education. Rote learning is a process in which students merely copy what the teacher writes on the board. Most high schools throughout Guatemala offer a career-oriented curriculum.

Choosing a career

According to Renato Westby, Program Development Director of Common Hope, a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on education, most high schools have four options for degrees: secretary or bilingual secretary, teacher, draftsman and accountant.

Westby said these careers are often divided by gender, with women usually participating in the secretary or teaching programs, and men obtaining draftsman or accountant degrees.

Students in public high school have until the end of 10th grade to choose a career path. Until then, they simply take general education courses.

In the 11th and 12th grades, however, students take courses specialized for their career.

Private schools

While public high school offers only a limited amount of options for programs, most private schools provide a greater variety of degree programs such as architecture and specialized sciences.

Limited options

The idea of choosing a career at age 16 sounds daunting, considering most students in college change their majors at least three times. Westby said that most students in Guatemala are unhappy with this system because they are stuck in a certain field for the rest of their lives since they cannot afford to attend university.