Can 1.2 million computers reverse 9 years of declining enrollment in Salvadoran schools?

El Salvador's public school year began on February 6 with 1.2 million students enrolled.  The country has approximately 5100 public schools, and this was the first year since 2020 in which classes returned to being fully in person.  Today we look at the state of education in El Salvador at the start of the 2023 school year.


The overall number of students enrolled in schools has declined by 23% since 2014.  In 2014, there were 1,647,383 students enrolled compared to 1,269,756 in 2022.   

Enrollment has declined both because of declining numbers of school age children in the country, but also because of increases in the number of children simply not enrolled in a school. 

The percentage of children who are actually enrolled in school has declined in some age ranges, but improved in others.  The following chart shows the percentage of children who are not enrolled in school for any given age.   (Higher numbers are worse)

(click for larger image)

The chart shows that for all ages, at least 1 out of 10 Salvadoran children was not going to school. The 2022 numbers are worse after age 14, and for 5,6 and 7 year olds, where enrollment has been declining over the past eight years.

The educational system in El Salvador has had a range of challenges to confront to keeping kids in school and learning. Schools in gang-controlled areas might have had pandilleros strolling the halls, or students were forced to stop attending school because of threats from gangs, or could not go to a preferred school because it was on the opposite side of a gang boundary. The COVID-19 pandemic plunged the country into two years of online learning, followed by a hybrid year in 2022, and only now returning to in person learning. Families in precarious financial circumstances may need to send older children to work, or require girls to stay home and tend to younger siblings.           

The average level of schooling attained by Salvadorans of all ages is seventh grade. That number incudes Salvadorans in older generations who were more likely to have just a primary education or none at all.  Among Salvadoran young adults aged 18-29, 37% have no more than a 9th grade education, and only 19% have any schooling after finishing high school according to the 2021 EHPM.  Only 7.6% of Salvadorans aged 25 or older have obtained a university bachelor's degree or its equivalent.  

Investment in education

El Salvador spent 4.6% of its GDP on education in 2021, up from 3.9% in 2014, and in line with the Latin American average in 2020 of 4.2 % according to World Bank figures.  El Salvador trails Costa Rica, the country which leads Central America by investing an amount equal to 6.7% of its GDP on education in 2020.

The Salvadoran government's education budget for 2023 is set at $1.5 billion.  This represents only a 2.13% increase over the 2022 budget, and is not an amount which keeps up with inflation.  The education budget will increase spending to between 4.9% and 5% of projected 2023 GDP.       

At the beginning of 2023, public school teachers are discontented with the government for failing to adjust the salary scale which is required every three years. Teachers unions say they have a proposal outstanding since October 2022, but the government has not responded. During the course of 2022, the budget for elementary education was cut from $582 million to $500 million, a reduction of 14%.  The 2023 budget simply returns the budget to $585 million.

Initiatives from the Bukele government

statement from president Nayib Bukele's office in March 2022 describes the transformation of the education system as a key to the development of the country and pointed to the delivery of computers and tablets to students and school infrastructure as the fundamentals of that transformation.

One flagship project of the president was the now completed delivery of computers or tablets to all 1.2 million public school students in the country. 

On September 7, 2022, Bukele announced the "My New School" program to renovate all 5100 schools in the country at a pace of 1000 per year.  That optimistic goal is not going to be reached, however. In an interview on January 24, the Minister of Education stated that there had been difficulties obtaining contractors to do the work and that perhaps 480 schools would be renovated this year.  

Still, the start of this school year has seen the Ministry of Education Twitter feed filled with videos of renovated schools with photogenic children in clean uniforms.  The school renovation program is financed with funds from a loan by the Bank for Central American Integration.

Described as an initiative of Salvadoran First Lady Gabriela Bukele, early childhood education is also getting a boost.  El Salvador’s Growing Together Program (Crecer Juntos) defines early childhood care from a multidisciplinary and inter-institutional perspective. In addition to creating early learning opportunities, it addresses areas such as health, nutrition, care, protection and safety.  As part of this impetus, the government recently started delivering computer tablets to preschool aged children.  

Publicity photo of First Lady Gabriela Bukele
delivering tablets

Challenges in improving educational outcomes

To date, the visible initiatives of the Bukele government have been physical objects -- computers, desks, fixing up schools, painting classrooms. The more difficult project is transforming how students are taught in order to increase the level of educational attainment. Reforming public education in the country has proven to be remarkably difficult over the years. Teacher training, curriculum changes, new methods of instruction are necessary and have been tried, but the system has reformed itself slowly, if at all, in recent years.

One challenge the government has not dealt with is the limited time actually spent in classroom education.  The school calendar shows 200 school days at the beginning of the year.    But with holidays and work days and civic days and Mother's Day, Father's Day and Day of the Teacher and many other reasons not to hold class, a study showed that Salvadoran boys and girls only are in class about 100 days per year.       

Bukele's team speaks of narrowing the digital divide and all the benefits of computers and tablets now in the hands of every student, but now they need teachers who have the skills and desire to take advantage of that technology in a classroom setting. (Internet access is also a challenge for many families, especially in rural areas).

Óscar Picardo, a professor and investigator on education and related topics at the University Francisco Gavidia, recently wrote in El Diario de Hoy:

The [most recent] pedagogical invention [in El Salvador] is "Learning through Experiences", a new attempt at a curricular approach, which seeks to respond to the student's experiences based on standards, with certain integrating axes: Communication, logical reasoning, perception, body development, skills, etc. Does all this have scientific support? Who knows? But it has a good sounding name and is fashionable.

Every five years -or every time the Ministry of Education changes- a new educational plan appears, and with it, new programs, projects, policies are developed, which in the end have no impact at all, and which keep the four cancers of the education system intact: Low quality, high dropout rates in the third cycle, teachers disrespected, and schools without equipment and with bad facilities.

In 2017, I shared some of the statistics about the sorry state of the Salvadoran education system.  Some of the infrastructure challenges and technology gaps I described then are certainly being addressed by the current government.  Injecting 1.2 million computers into the education system by itself, however, will not be sufficient. Whether the current government can do the hard work of changing attitudes, techniques and practices -- work that does not lend itself to publicity photos and videos -- and whether the government can reverse the family and societal challenges which keep kids out of school, is yet to be seen.