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Moving Latin American Education Forward

Additional spending alone is insufficient. Learning to spend wisely is of paramount importance.



In the last few decades, Latin America has fared poorly in various international education testing assessments. The most well-known, the Program for International Student Assessment, administered by the OECD most recently in 2009, only included nine countries in the region, but the results were not encouraging, as these nine participants finished somewhere between 44th and 63rd place, out of 65 countries tested. Chile placed at the top of the region, with Uruguay close behind, but both countries still ranked well below average.


However, there are encouraging signs of education reform in Latin America, and they provide a foundation for improving education throughout the region—a daunting but feasible and necessary task.


For years, inclusion had been the primary focus of governments, but now that attendance rates are no longer the main challenge, it is evident that quality of education takes precedence. Latin America as a region spends about $200 billion per year on education on a national level and receives more than $5 billion in education assistance from multilateral organizations, but additional spending alone is insufficient. Learning to spend wisely is of paramount importance.


Programs that deserve more funding and will generate better results include teacher training, early childhood development, and technology. Teachers are one of the most important school-based factors in student achievement, demonstrated by numerous studies, including an exhaustive one in 2010 by McKinsey & Company that highlights how Singapore, Finland, and South Korea—three of the top-performing school systems in the world—recruit, develop, and retain teachers who graduated in the top third of their university class. Although few countries in the world can boast of such a system, this model is worth investing in and tailoring throughout Latin America


Another component that warrants more attention is early childhood development (ECD), which has been proven ad nauseam to be instrumental in student progress. A poor child who receives high-quality ECD, which includes preschool education, is less likely to repeat grades in school, has 40 percent less probability of requiring special education, is 30 percent more likely to complete secondary school, and is twice as likely to attend college. However, the Inter-American Development Bank says that ECD across the region remains underfinanced, as the financing gap for universalizing coverage for children ages 0-6 stands at $14 billion a year. 


While the need for spending money on programs like these represents the obstacles ahead, there are also exciting ongoing trends in the region. A bevy of new actors are heavily invested in improving education. They are not a panacea for all educational woes, but they provide opportunities where the public sector sometimes cannot.


For example, in 2007 a group of Brazilian business leaders met and outlined five goals for their country to meet by 2022: provide school access to every child ages 4-17, ensure every child is literate by age 8, eliminate the age-grade gap, guarantee every student’s graduation by age 19, and increase public spending on education to 5 percent of Brazil’s GDP. This meeting led to the creation of Todos Pela Educação (Everyone for Education), a private sector-led initiative admired throughout Brazil and the region for its creativity, reach and effectiveness.


Similarly, organizations are advocating for education reform across the region. These include Argentina’s EducAr 2050 (Educate 2050), Colombia’s Empresarios por la Educación (Businesspeople for Education) and Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First). Like Todos Pela Educação, these organizations focus on establishing stronger curricula, promoting the value of effective teachers, improving management skills, developing evaluation mechanisms, and introducing technology into the classroom.


Although regional Internet access in schools is just 37 percent, the benefits of companies that provide specific technology services useful for the classroom will help improve this statistic. Some examples are Ecuador’s Fundación E.dúcate, a nonprofit organization geared toward technological e-learning; Mexico’s Educare, a software provider that teaches students how to use the Internet for academic purposes; and Argentina’s Wormhole, which provides a platform for interactive video chats and conference calls for both business professionals and students.


Governments have recognized the importance of Internet penetration and are actively working to improve access for all. Examples include the City of Buenos Aires’ $2 billion program to extend broadband cable by 22,000 miles and connect 8,000 schools with new servers and netbooks; Brazil’s National Broadband Plan that will spend $8.5 billion by 2014 to bring Internet to 75 percent of the overall population and distribute netbooks to 500,000 children by the end of 2011; Colombia’s plan to invest $3 billion by 2014 to increase broadband connection by 8.8 million people; and Mexico’s $350 million project to provide laptops to every student and teacher in 40,000 schools.


What is most hopeful in the region is the creativity that is sorely needed to not only advance education despite the roadblocks but also to spark an entrepreneurial attitude in all the relevant stakeholders—governments, students, teachers, parents, private companies, and nonprofit organizations. Entities that display innovative thinking and action include Procentro, a network of charter-type schools in northeastern Brazil created by a businessman looking to improve the quality of education for the area’s low-income students; Grupo Positivo, a Brazilian company that not only produces education software but also provides teacher training and technical support to schools; and Escuela Nueva, a Colombian initiative that reaches 20,000 students in poor and remote areas, focusing on an innovative curriculum, teacher training, more open school management and closer collaboration with community groups. Ecuela Nueva has provided a model for other successful programs in Brazil, Mexico and other countries around the world. 


These are all regional programs and initiatives, which bode well for sustaining these activities without external support. Furthermore, there are countless U.S. companies and organizations in this sector that may see the region as a potential market, thereby reaching even more students.


Since PISA is administered every three years, it will again take place this year. With reforms moving ahead, and an emphasis on encouraging and promoting change, there is hope that the 2012 results for participating countries in the region portend better things to come for the 150 million K-12 students of Latin America and the future of education quality in the region.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing director of Blue Star Strategies, LLC y co-author of Ahora… CALIDAD, Apuntes para el Debate sobre Política Educativa en la Argentina. 

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