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Original image of Escola Duarte Coelho in Northeast Brazil by Passarinho/Pref.Olinda.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Special Reports

Latin America's Education Challenge

Why Latin America lags in education and what it should do to improve.

BY JOACHIM BAMRUD

Latin America is lagging in education scores despite the fact that schools across the region have expanded student access and significantly increased expenditures.

“This suggests that our efforts haven’t focused enough on education quality or on student achievement - more students are in school, but they aren’t actually getting educated,” says Gabriel Zinny, managing director of Blue Star Strategies and co-author of And Now... Quality: Insights Into the Education Policy Debate in Latin America.

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Latin America needs to emulate the success in countries like South Korea and Singapore, argues Luanne Zurlo, founder and president of Worldfund, a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise the quality and relevance of education in Latin America in order to transform lives and break the cycle of poverty.

“South Korea and Singapore… were poorer than countries like Latin America, including Brazil and Mexico, in the 1960s, early 70s,” she says. “They [didn’t] enjoy rich natural resources, and their leadership took concerted decision that the only way we can grow our countries is A) put in place good economic policies and B) improve human capital.”

They improved both in quality and quantity, Zurlo points out. They started with primary level and built out primary system and did it through quality, with high standards on who would be admitted, while compensating the teachers well and training them effectively. Then they moved to secondary, after secondary, in recent years 5-10 years, now focused on tertiary level. “They have built their education system from bottom up,” she says. “Latin America has not approached this so systemically.”

In general a lot of resources in Brazil are dedicated to tertiary level, while primary and secondary continue to get short shift, she says.

Case in point: The new initiative to grant one-year scholarships for 100,000 Brazilians to study in the United States and Europe. “Well, in order to study in Europe you have to have great primary and secondary [education] and know English,” Zurlo says.

“Effectively all resources are benefiting the elite classes.”

TEACHERS UNIONS

Governments need to be better and more proactive in measuring results for both students and teachers, including expanded teacher evaluations and participation in international assessments, argues Zinny.

Zurlo agrees that teachers are key. “Really what needs to be done is [change] the way teachers are selected and recruited and trained and compensated,” she says. “That has to dramatically change.”

However, that depends on cooperation from the teachers union, which is not happening. “You need to depoliticize education and it has been effectively politicized because it’s under the control of the teachers union,” she says. “There are a lot of really powerful [union leaders], vested in their interests so no one wants to give up their own livelihood. No one knows, but it estimated that half of all teachers on payroll do not teach in classrooms. That’s a good salary for not doing a whole lot.”

Although teacher union leaders in countries like Mexico are changing their rhetoric, the action is still not there, she complains.

Zinny also favors expanding options by promoting new alternatives to education provision - such as pushing for expanded charter schools and homeschooling - as well as working to introduce technology advancements, like Internet access for all students, which can open up more educational opportunity to more students. “In order to successfully implement these new priorities, policymakers need to engage new players in the private sector, civil society, and parents and build coalitions that will sustain change,” he says.

Apart from the wrong focus, Zurlo also blames a lack of commitment among governments in Latin America. “It’s almost a (…) curse of rich natural resources,” she says. “Latin America is extraordinary rich in natural resources which historically has not required a large educated population to take advantage of that. In so far as they are still depending on primary materials, it has not behooved nations to develop [education] among population.”

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