In recent years, Latin American and Caribbean nations have accomplished across-the-board reductions in poverty and, in many cases, impressive growth rates. These positive trends have allowed for increased spending on education, but cannot obscure the huge challenges still faced by the region in this area.
According to UNESCO data, the region’s outlay for education has risen modestly, from 4.5 per cent of its GDP to 5.0 per cent in this century. Simultaneously, retention rates for primary schools have improved from 85 to 88 per cent.
To continue improving their nations’ economic position in the global market, Latin American leaders must make sure that all citizens can acquire the skills necessary to be competitive. The process must start right at the bottom of the educational pyramid.
Education lags behind
Numerous studies show that the cognitive and reasoning skills that are central to success in primary school and beyond are developed during the first years of a child’s life. While major strides have been made in Latin America in reducing child mortality and malnutrition, access to educational opportunities for children aged three to six still is far from satisfactory.
The region’s net enrolment rate (the percentage of children of official school age who are enrolled in education) for early childhood education rose from 52 per cent to 66 per cent between 2000 and 2011. There is a long way to go before all Latin American students have access to pre-primary programs.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the overall quality of education in the region is lacking. In the PISA test (Programme for International Student Assessment), conducted by the OECD, the Latin American participants fared poorly. Chile, ranked 51st of 65 countries, was the best-performing nation in the region; the economic powerhouse Brazil ranked 58, and Peru came in last.
As is the case with many standardised educational tests, PISA’s methodology can be questioned. Critics point out that few Latin American countries participate in the test because of its limited scope – only 15 and 16 year-olds take part. Furthermore, it makes no allowance for the diversity of educational contexts within different school systems.
In another international exam, TERCE (Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study) conducted by UNESCO, Latin America has shown modest improvement from 2006 to 2013. TERCE, which covers 15 countries in the region, evaluates children at different stages of development and looks at the context of each school, offering a more holistic approach than PISA.
While TERCE results have been encouraging, Latin America needs to conduct more local assessments within cities and states in order to identify both the successful schools and those that perform less well. Colombia and Chile already evaluate their schools and teachers, but most countries in the region still don’t do that.
Once the problem areas and most promising programs have been pinpointed, it is possible to provide educators with targeted training. Emiliana Vegas, Chief of the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank, explains that improved teacher training is key to improving education quality: ‘The interaction between students and teachers is fundamental, much more so as the students get older’.
As in most other parts of the world, primary education is considered a basic service in Latin America and offered free of charge in public schools. Increasingly, though, parents are enrolling their children in alternative institutions. As Vegas explains, the expectations of educational services are changing. In the primary education sector, the focus is on quality, regardless of who provides the service. This attitude is particularly evident in Chile, where at present only 37 per cent of all students attend public schools, down from about 80 per cent in 1980. In Brazil, enrolment in K-12 private schools climbed by 24 per cent during the last decade, while that in the public institutions dropped by 9.5 per cent.
Parents in Latin America are embracing alternatives to their public school systems because they feel disenfranchised there, unable to push for reform. The process appears to confirm a classic theory of human responses to situations in which individuals feel shortchanged, formulated by Albert O. Hirschman in his 1970 treatise ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’.
Wealth of alternatives
Just as in the United States, alternatives to traditional public and private schools, including charter schools and homeschooling, are popping up throughout Latin America. In Chile, nearly a third of primary schools are escuelas subvencionadas, the local version of charter schools. Similarly, in Bogota, Colombia, innovative charter schools called escuelas concesionadas cater to more than 26,000 students. An estimated 5,000 families in Mexico teach their children at home today.
Increased use of private schools has sparked many national discussions about the root causes and implications of this region-wide rebellion of parents. In some Latin American countries, it is primarily security concerns that drive parents away from public school systems. In others, the main issues are quality-related: poor teaching, teacher absenteeism, self-serving unions and notorious strikes that cut the number of instruction days for public school students.
In the United States, school networks, or franchises, have become an increasingly robust part of the primary education system. Florida-based KLA Schools, a franchise of 12 schools in four states, exemplify this trend. Likewise, Endeavor Schools, a private network with 13 schools in 6 states, provides pre-school and primary school students with a Montessori curriculum. Another network, KIPP, operates under the public charter school model and works to prepare for college nearly 60,000 students in hard-pressed communities.
As Roberto Ortega, the co-founder of KLA Schools points out, private ‘elementary schools are hard to build in the United States because of the competition with the public and charter models. Real estate is also extremely expensive, particularly in urban locations’. Ortega goes on to explain that these difficult areas are often the ones where additional schooling options are most needed. Creating franchise networks that pool the resources of multiple schools is effective, he claims.
‘Even though the economic fundamentals seem the same for creating these networks in Latin America, there are relatively few of them in the region,’ says Massimo Mazzone, the founder of CADMUS Academies, a new group of private schools in Honduras. Religious denominations create networks, but they don’t work as single organisations, but rather decentralised branches. Examples of such religious networks include Opus Dei with more than 100 schools, the Jesuits with more than 90 schools, the Salesians with some 50 and the Legionnaires of Christ, who run some 30 schools.
Other important networks in Latin America include Innova Schools and Futura Schools in Peru, and Cognita Schools in Chile and Brazil.
‘The only way to leapfrog and provide better quality education is to personalise it and current technologies are the best way to do it,’ according to Miguel Brechner, President of Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal, the most successful one-to-one teaching initiative in Latin America, replicated in almost every country in the region. In recent decades, though, most governments have been supplying computers, laptops and tablets to classrooms, with mixed results in terms of improving education. But new technologies that have helped shape every sector of the economy will eventually affect elementary schools as well, experts believe.
Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy and author of the ‘The One World School House’ explains it this way: ‘The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs. It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning. The old model is based on pushing students together in age group batches with one-pace-fits-all curricula and hoping they pick up something along the way. It isn’t clear that this was the best model one hundred years ago: it certainly isn’t anymore.’
The disparity in material condition and quality of teaching between public and private schools in high- and low-income communities is often the first manifestation of social inequality that children experience. Therefore, any attempt to address the general problem of inequality in contemporary society must start with eliminating the disparities in access to quality education at the primary level. Just as important as preparation for future employment, primary education helps to prepare children for life in a democracy. Children involved in such education learn fast how to interact with individuals with different cultural backgrounds and beliefs, and grasp the importance of living in a free society.
Social pressure and loud demands for school reform, as heard in Brazil, Chile, Colombia or Mexico, might help bring about some necessary change. The developments in Chile suggest, however, that this change is less likely to lead to greater diversity in the educational system, in both the public and private sectors, than to greater diversity and the educational system. Instead, it is more likely to encourage renewed involvement of the government in providing and regulating education.
Private education will continue to grow in the region, in many cases simply because of the pressing need to offer secure classrooms for students. Within the private schools realm, school networks will continue to emerge as an alternative to traditional private institutions. ‘These new private schools, if they offer good quality, are having a positive impact in the whole system. They provide alternative solutions and introduce new methodologies in teaching’, says Rudolfo Beeck, Futura Schools' executive director. ‘With the right digital content and teacher training, technology could be a driver for change, too”, he argues.
It is high time that Latin America addressed the primary education challenge it faces. Any measure of success in this area would help secure a brighter future for the entire region.