Javier Arévalo hopes to revolutionize the Peruvian education system—improving reading comprehension among children by making the experience pleasurable for kids and parents, by sparking an interest in literature. Javier’s three-part strategy works with schools, the national publishing industry, and the public policy agenda to overhaul the entire structure of reading education.
La nuova idea
As a noted Peruvian author, Javier is addressing the poor quality of public education in Peru by encouraging a new culture of reading comprehension. The low levels of reading comprehension, made evident in a myriad standardized tests of Peruvian students, have stunted the ability of an entire society to attain higher level critical thinking and technical skills. Through Recreo, Javier is making books more accessible and reading a more enjoyable experience. His strategy first stimulates the demand for reading on the community level by organizing teachers as change agents to introduce better quality books in schools. Along with selected parents, these adult representatives become promoters of reading, setting and achieving community-wide goals for better material and intellectual resources to be made available to children and young people. Recreo also helps schools install, improve, and maintain their libraries, which are typically poorly funded and minimally used institutions that could serve as magnets for the new reading culture Javier seeks to develop.
To meet this new demand for reading, Javier directs much of his project’s efforts toward improving the Peruvian publishing industry, the “supply” of reading materials. Rather than rely on the frequently prosaic government texts, Javier incentivizes national authors to write new books with more exciting and engaging age-appropriate themes. He also works with editorial houses and newspaper printing presses to publish the books at much lower prices and sell them to the government for broader use throughout the public school system, especially targeting marginalized and underserved students whose access to quality reading is particularly low. As bookstores too are isolated in communities and most people purchase their reading materials in news stands, Javier also helps install special kiosks that sell the new books whose publication Recreo has supported at a price well within reach of the general population.
The third arm of his strategy, influencing public policy, serves to construct new “rules of the game” to nurture and support reading programs. As a well-known author, Javier was the leading champion for the 2006 National Reading Plan, a federal law to promote literature in educational institutions. It requires schools to adopt a new reading plan. Implementation of the National Reading Plan was a significant preliminary step in Javier’s scheme to build a policy framework that would enable Recreo to launch its community-wide activities with federal legitimacy. Recreo’s public policy projects seek to influence educational regulations, public school curricula, and federal budget appropriations for schools and libraries. In this way, Javier is setting the stage for a nationwide impact and replication of his successes in communities throughout Peru.
Javier is convinced that his efforts, happening at a time when there is a heightened concern in Peru about its reading scores, will result in major improvements to Peru’s reading scores within ten years.
Once lauded around the region for the high caliber of its literature and education system, in the last decades, Peru has seen dramatic declines in the performance of its students. On the 2010 internationally respected PISA exams, Peru ranked 63 out of 65 participating countries, with eight out of ten Peruvian children unable to read at their grade level. Poor reading is a system-wide challenge: In a specially designed exam administered to teachers and modeled after the PISA, a shocking seven out of ten teachers failed in reading comprehension. Peruvian schools hardly emphasize reading as an essential skill or even as a regular habit; nowadays the culture revolves around television programming. In general, the populace does not view books as valuable resources to teach new subjects, broaden the mind or motivate curiosity or critical thinking, and good reading materials are rarely found in the home. Reading comprehension is an essential component of further and more advanced education. Without a culture of reading coming from their family upbringing or from their teachers, Peruvian students fail to succeed in their coursework, fall behind, and drop out of school at an early age. This problem yields a host of associated negative consequences for society, ranging from large pools of unskilled and unemployed labor to an unrelenting cycle of poverty.
The publishing industry and government contribute to the problem by offering obsolete and boring books with texts that bear little correlation to the tastes and interests of children. Rather, the staid and out-of-date content can be challenging for students to process, and they become more difficult for teachers to incorporate in their lesson plans. It is more cost effective for the government to reprint older works rather than encourage authors to write new texts with more contemporary themes designed with today’s youth in mind. Therefore high prices in publishing without incentives to produce quality and interesting material creates a failed system in which the government continues to purchase and distribute mainly outdated and trite books within its schools. Meanwhile, outside of the schools people do not have access to books for purchase: Bookstores are rare, and poorer members of society cannot afford the high prices of literature that they might find. The kiosks and news stands that do sell print material only supply magazines and pop literature or comic books for the general public, inhibiting even the most curious Peruvian reader from finding books.
Government policy is ultimately to blame for this crisis of reading. The federally set public school curriculum emphasizes rote memorization of material rather than reading for pleasure or learning critical thinking skills. Teachers do not receive the proper and necessary training in pedagogy, and their coursework tends to be archaic and not locally or context specific, due to the centralization of the curriculum. Finally, the education budget poorly allocates its investments in resources and innovation, tightly restraining the funds for public libraries and school textbooks. Although the government has made some efforts to address these failures, such as offering higher teacher salaries to those educators who complete additional training, these solutions only window-dress the symptoms rather than attack the profound systemic deficiencies. As none of the actors on the community, industry, and government levels perceive benefits to improved reading comprehension, an entire ecosystem of reading is broken.
Javier has constructed a three-part strategy to address the reading challenges on all levels. As the architect of the 2006 National Reading Plan, he spearheaded the foundation of a public policy framework that has enabled him to legitimately enter the public school system and publishing industry to create a systems-wide innovation.
Javier uses the National Reading Plan as the entry with local school leaders to launch dialogue between Recreo and public schools. At each school, Javier organizes initial meetings with parents and teachers and explains the purpose of the National Reading Plan and Recreo’s efforts to help the school comply with the law by adapting its own reading plan. Within these groups Javier and his team of project chiefs identify individuals who seem the most interested and excited in the project, whom he converts into ambassadors and change agents for Recreo. His interventions set targets for a reading plan in the individual schools, and the organization hosts several trainings and conferences with the parent and teacher groups to advise them on how to help their children have access to more interesting books, reach the targets, as well as train them to better supply their libraries with books and fund them. These promoters of Recreo then open spaces in the schools to facilitate reading, with the hope of giving the children enjoyable experiences where “reading is playing” and will excite them about literature. A school normally receives at least fourteen interventions a year from the initial development of the institution’s reading plan to the final evaluation. Recreo does not discriminate on the type of socioeconomic circumstances of the schools: Javier knows that scarce resources and capacity to develop reading programs is a challenge that both public and private schools face. To date, over sixty schools have participated in the Recreo interventions, and he has identified 30 percent of the teachers as enthusiastic supporters of this approach who are now change agents helping parents and children gain more confidence and pleasure from reading more enjoyable and affordable books.
To address the challenges of content and access to affordable books, Javier stimulates the publication of new and interesting books by Peruvian authors to distribute among the schools collaborating with Recreo. He picks authors and publishers who are willing to accept a lower priced but higher volume production of their texts. When most of the traditional publishers rejected his new low-price, high-volume approach, he convinced a newspaper publisher to use its printing presses to print the children’s books and then to sell through an entirely new distribution channel—at news stands and kiosks found throughout the country, offering a new variety of literature to the general public.
Recreo asks the authors contracted to write books on themes that are relevant and comprehensible to a contemporary youth audience. For instance, after one child expressed an interest in Mr. Spock, a character from Star Trek, a Recreo author wrote a science book about astronomy using Mr. Spock as the protagonist, thus hooking a generation of children raised on science fiction television into reading and learning about space. Surveys of the participant schools have shown that teachers overwhelmingly purchase the new books authored by Recreo partners, which suggests that the educators observe students are reading and enjoying the texts.
By encouraging a new business model for book publishing and distribution, Javier is revitalizing Peruvian publishing houses by broadening their consumer base and enabling them to offer low-priced books to children and their parents. Recreo advises publishers directly on how to cultivate and take advantage of this burgeoning market. As a result of Javier’s efforts, children’s book sales in Peru have grown 400 percent, consisting of the publication of about 2.3 million books, since the approval of the National Reading Plan. He has recently forged a partnership with two prestigious editorial houses that have printed 260,000 books.
The industry strategy also provides a key source of his financing. With the sale of every book, a modest commission is given to Recreo and a second commission helps finance local school activities, such as trainings and meetings with students and parents. Furthermore, the Recreo administration invests its profits into new participating schools, so that the school receives a financial return relative to its investment in books.
As Javier has worked with both the school system and the publishing industry to furnish the reading market, he also seeks to influence federal education policy. Although in large part a law without capacity for enforcement, the National Reading Plan served as the first symbolic step to launching Recreo and as a mechanism for Javier to enter into the public policy sphere. He has positioned his organization as a significant advocate for libraries and reading education in the country. A large media campaign, realized somewhat through Recreo’s allies in the newspaper industry, has additionally raised the profile of the issue. The campaign includes well-known authors involved in the project on the radio and television. Javier is currently lobbying for larger and better allocated federal budgets for libraries and programs that distribute books on a wider scale. Through his alliances with government ministries, Javier recently achieved an increase of about US$186,000 in the library system. Eventually the public policy strategy intends to completely overhaul the education system, using improved reading comprehension as the catalyst for higher performance in mathematics and sciences and a paradigm shift in pedagogical methods away from rote memorization. With a newly inaugurated left-wing administration beginning to design its policy priorities and bearing evident impact of Recreo’s efforts, Javier perceives this as the ideal inflection point for his organization to seize a leadership role in influencing the education agenda.
Recreo now supports a staff of two directors reporting to Javier and a varying number of project chiefs, who direct the interventions in each school. Together they work with a budget of about US$150,000 a year, although Javier estimates that this amount will increase rapidly as Recreo enters its new expansion phase. As part of this phase, he hopes to better institutionalize the organization with a new administrative staff that will permit Javier and his partners to dedicate themselves full-time to strategic direction.
Because of its comprehensive emphasis, the Recreo strategy is eminently replicable. He has recently added a major, free media campaign spearheaded by eight leading Peruvian authors to publicize the impact of the reading program in schools in order to find more communities interested in participating. As more teachers become involved as promoters, and more books are purchased through Recreo, they will have the financing needed to expand Recreo to more than one thousand schools and raise the necessary investment capital to intervene in new schools. Such a multiplier effect is the crucial means through which Javier can achieve national impact beyond influence in federal policy. Javier also hopes that greater publicity will incite new alliances with other publishers and other COs to model their reading programs after Recreo’s.
Javier is a renowned author in his own right in Peru, having published eleven works of fiction, two children’s books, and editing a number of anthologies. From an early age he enjoyed reading, especially in the library that his parents built for the family. Although from a relatively poor background with little education, his parents emphasized that books were essential in one’s upbringing, and they always had newspapers, magazines, and literature around the house. While a voracious reader at home, Javier disliked his actual schooling; he now attributes his daily boredom in class to the simple material taught and low expectations placed on him by his teachers. He had already made up his mind at age 14 to become a writer, but disdained any thought of higher education and never went to college.
Javier decided to go into journalism after a friend recommended that he consider a career that “pays people to write.” At 23 he wrote his first book of short stories and received a large commission from the Federal Science and Technology agency to publish 500 copies originally, but Javier managed to persuade the publisher to print 2,000. Shocked and pleased to secure what seemed a large sum of money for his writing, Javier continued to author new novels and stories, which he published in books, collections, and magazines. To date, his works have been edited and distributed throughout South America and Europe.
In 2002 Javier was invited to give lectures and book readings at various elementary schools and was appalled at the terrible reading abilities of the students and teachers alike. He began to look into how and why Peru’s reading levels and schools had declined so dramatically in the last twenty to thirty years. Recalling his love of reading for pleasure, but the monotony of his formal education, Javier decided to embark on a social project to improve the quality of reading comprehension in his country. His high profile enabled him to hold meetings with government officials and foster alliances with the editorial industry and the media. The National Reading Plan was crafted using his methodology, which he has since incorporated into Recreo’s work. Javier is dedicated to this initiative, revolutionizing education by making reading an enjoyable experience for all Peruvian children, and is confident that within ten years, his efforts will contribute to significant improvements in Peru’s international PISA scores in reading.