Author: Claudia Rose, born in Mexico City D.F., Mexico, studied Veterinary Medicine at the University of Chile in Santiago. After working for 10 years as a veterinarian in a government laboratory animal facility, she made a career change towards teaching in 1997, and earned a M.A. in Integrative Education at TIES (The Institute for Educational Studies), associated with Vermont College. She has been teaching at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile for the past 8 years. She is currently coordinator of the International Baccalaureate Program. 

The educational system in Chile has recently undergone significant and ambitious reform, leading towards administrative decentralization and the implementation of a national standards-based curriculum developed during the 1990s through the cooperative effort of many educators throughout Chile.  Historically, the Ministry of Education played a central role in Chilean education, defining everything from the specific curricula for each level to the number of hours assigned to each topic in every subject.  Although the Ministry of Education has kept a regulatory role, as of 1990, schools by law have the freedom to prepare their own plans and study programs, as long as they demonstrate that these comply with the fundamental objectives and minimum contents established for each grade level by the Ministry.

The Chilean Constitution of 1980 guarantees education, and municipal public schools must provide free education to all students. Ninety-two percent of all students enrolled attend either municipal schools or strongly subsidized private schools, while the remainder attends private schools fully financed by parents. Enrollment is considered to be good, as 98 percent of all children 6-13 years of age, and 85.9% of adolescents 14-17 attend school regularly.  Students first attend an obligatory, common 8-year Elementary program (Educación Básica), and then attend a 4-year high school (Educación Media). These students are tracked either into high schools oriented towards the humanities and science, which are attended by most college-bound students, or into technical high schools where students also learn a trade and tend to enter the work force directly, although they retain the possibility of applying to college.

The science curriculum stresses the understanding of the natural world as well as the understanding of the nature of science and its relationship to society, and emphasizes the use of inquiry and hands-on activities to develop knowledge. Many topics are covered from a systems approach, and stress the need for understanding environmental issues. The curriculum is of a spiral nature, as topics are covered repeatedly in increasing depth and complexity.

During the first four years of elementary school, science education forms part of a wider curricular unit, “Understanding the Natural, Social and Cultural Environment”, which leads children to explore the natural world through diverse activities.  Between grades 5 and 8, science education is considered a separate curricular unit during which students study and gain further understanding of the workings of nature while touching topics from the various disciplines of science.

Between grades 9 –12 (“Primero medio” to “cuarto medio”), students cover topics in biology, chemistry and physics each year. The new standards are academically demanding, but content is presented within the context of Chile’s culture and economy. Societal and environmental issues have a major role in the standards, and the nature of scientific enterprise is also emphasized throughout all topics, as attaining a high level of scientific literacy is one of the main objectives of the reform to science curricula.

          The implementation of the new curricula for science and all other subjects has led to a number of other changes in Chile’s educational system. The lengthening of the school day from a half-day to a full-day schedule is still underway throughout the country, as funds are made available for the construction of more schools to accommodate the doubled load of students. Teachers will require support in terms of training and materials to carry out inquiry and hands-on activities, and work hours and pay scales will also need to be worked out. The college-entry testing system is also being modified to reflect the changes in curriculum, creating considerable controversy among all sectors involved. In this sense, the main concern is equity, and the fear is that the new curricula and college-entry testing will tip the scales in favor of those few who can pay for private schools, where the cost of implementation is not a problem. At present, the majority of those who enter college belong to the 8% of the students who attend private schools. The challenge, then, is implementation in that majority of schools where resources are scarce, teachers are poorly paid and students unmotivated by the bleakness of their academic future.

Note: Please visit the companion website for tables showing the Chile Science Standards, grades 5-8 and 9-12.