When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they inherited an educational system that was one of the poorest in Latin America. Under the Somozas, limited spending on education and generalized poverty, which forced many adolescents into the labor market, constricted educational opportunities for Nicaraguans. In the late 1970s, only 65 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in school, and of those who entered first grade only 22 percent completed the full six years of the primary school curriculum. Most rural schools offered only one or two years of schooling, and three-quarters of the rural population was illiterate. Few students enrolled in secondary school, in part because most secondary institutions were private and too expensive for the average family. By these standards, the 8 percent of the college-age population enrolled in Nicaraguan universities seemed relatively high. Less surprising was that upper-class families typically sent their children abroad for higher education.

By 1984 the Sandinista government had approximately doubled the proportion of GNP spent on preuniversity education, the number of primary and secondary school teachers, the number of schools, and the total number of students enrolled at all levels of the education system. A 1980 literacy campaign, using secondary school students as volunteer teachers, reduced the illiteracy rate from 50 percent to 23 percent of the total population. (The latter figure exceeds the rate of 13 percent claimed by the literacy campaign, which did not count adults whom the government classified as learning impaired or otherwise unteachable.) In part to consolidate the gains of the literacy campaign, the Ministry of Education set up a system of informal self-education groups known as Popular Education Cooperatives. Using materials and pedagogical advice provided by the ministry, residents of poor communities met in the evenings to develop basic reading and mathematical skills. Although designed for adults, these self-education groups also served children who worked by day or could not find a place in overcrowded schools.

At the college level, enrollment jumped from 11,142 students in 1978 to 38,570 in 1985. The Sandinistas also reshaped the system of higher education: reordering curricular priorities, closing down redundant institutions and programs and establishing new ones, and increasing lower-class access to higher education. Influenced by Cuban models, the new curricula were oriented toward development needs. Agriculture, medicine, education, and technology grew at the expense of law, the humanities, and the social sciences.

One of the hallmarks of Sandinista education (and favored target of anti-Sandinista criticism) was the ideological orientation of the curriculum. The stated goal of instruction was the development of a "new man" whose virtues were to include patriotism, "internationalism," an orientation toward productive work, and a willingness to sacrifice individual interests to social and national interests. School textbooks were nationalist and prorevolutionary in tone, giving ample coverage to Sandinista heroes. After the 1990 election, the Chamorro government placed education in the hands of critics of Sandinista policy, who imposed more conservative values on the curriculum. A new set of textbooks was produced with support from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which had provided similar help during the Somoza era.

Despite the Sandinistas' determined efforts to expand the education system in the early 1980s, Nicaragua remained an undereducated society in 1993. Even before the Contra war and the economic crisis that forced spending on education back to the 1970 level, the educational system was straining to keep up with the rapidly growing school-age population. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of children between five and fourteen years of age had expanded by 35 percent. At the end of the Sandinista era, the literacy rate had declined from the level attained at the conclusion of the 1980 literacy campaign. Overall school enrollments were larger than they had been in the 1970s, however, and, especially in the countryside, access to education had broadened dramatically. But a substantial minority of primary school-age children and three-quarters of secondary school-age students were still not in school, and the proportion of students who completed their primary education had not advanced beyond the 1979 level. Even by Central American standards, the Nicaraguan education system was performing poorly.

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