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Latin America’s education challenges call for concrete action

Tamara Ortega Goodspeed


Photo: Michael Lisman, PREAL, Inter-American Dialogue.
Youth in the classroom of a rural multi-grade primary school in Zambrano, Honduras, November 2007.

Latin America’s education systems suffer from low levels of learning, limited opportunities for the poor, bureaucratic paralysis and chronic conflicts with teachers’ unions. The solutions are neither magical nor beyond human capability: taking action to establish standards of performance and quality, improving the teaching profession and increasing spending for the neediest are key to ameliorating education in the region.

Schools in Latin America clearly need a serious overhaul. Although enrolments at every level are increasing, most children receive poor quality education. On recent international tests of mathematics and science, roughly half of Latin American students scored at or below the lowest proficiency levels, indicating that they had difficulty applying basic concepts to real life situations. By contrast, only 10 per cent of students in Finland and an average 20 per cent of children in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries scored at this level (see Figure 1).


Education is also highly unequal. Despite growing access to primary school, poor children in Latin America are roughly half as likely to enrol in pre-school and two to 10 times less likely to graduate from upper secondary as their richer peers. Students from poorer families also score lower on tests, between one to two proficiency levels lower on the OECD’s 2006 Programme in International Student Achievement (PISA) science exam than those from higher income families. Indigenous and Afro-Latino children also remain at a disadvantage.

Poor management makes the problem worse. The structure of the teaching profession —from recruitment to training to management— does not foster excellence. Students entering teacher training are seldom among the best of their classes, courses are often deficient and the best teachers are too rarely assigned to poor students who need them most. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. Frequent clashes between teachers’ unions and governments that result in strikes, such as those in Honduras and Nicaragua, continue to cost students precious days of instruction.

By focusing on three priority areas, Latin American governments and their citizens could go a long way toward providing quality education for all children. First, countries need to mind their P’s and Q’s: performance and quality. That means they need to decide what students should learn, how well they should be able to use what they learn and what resources are needed to ensure quality outcomes. In other words, countries need a widely accepted system of content, performance and resource standards. They also need to monitor progress toward meeting those standards regularly and respond appropriately when they fail to meet goals.

Countries should pay particular attention to services at the pre-school and secondary level. Although it is common knowledge that early childhood developmental experiences are critical in setting the stage for future learning, roughly one in three children of pre-school age in Latin America is out of school. Poor children who have less early learning opportunities at home have even greater need for quality pre-school. As for secondary education, in many Latin American countries less than 50 per cent of students graduate from high school. Moreover, most students leave school without the skills they will need in the workplace, especially in science, mathematics, technology, English and critical thinking.

Second, countries need to target teaching in order to bring together a league of extraordinary educators: men and women who are passionate about their profession and have a strong understanding of their subjects as well as the skills and tools needed to teach it. But building that corps requires more than training. As a recent report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company notes, it requires an administration that selects the best and brightest to teach and lead schools, that develops and recognizes good teaching, evaluates performance, supports continuous professional growth and improvement, and removes ineffective teachers from the classroom. In short, teaching needs to become a high-status occupation that demands and rewards good performance.

Lastly, Latin American countries need to spend more on education for the poor. The region is notorious for its high levels of income inequality. This situation both contributes to and is exacerbated by inequalities in education. Governments will need to invest more in education for the poor if they want to contribute to individual well-being and national economic growth, equity and social stability. This means spending more on services that address the needs of disadvantaged children (e.g. school feeding and health programs, conditional cash transfers or accelerated degree programs that recognize poor children’s early entry in the labour market, and extra support for struggling pupils). It also means ensuring that a larger share of existing resources reaches the poor. Because most middle- and upper-class families send their children to private primary and secondary schools, government spending at these levels goes primarily to the poor. But high levels of public spending on university education essentially benefit the rich, since the majority of lower-class students never reach the tertiary level. Indeed, recent estimates suggest that more than half of public spending on higher education in Latin America goes to the richest 20 per cent of the population, while less than two per cent goes to the poorest 20 per cent (see Figure 2).


Advances in these three priority areas will undoubtedly require leadership and sustained effort by governments, educators and civil society alike. However, while they will not remedy all social ills, concrete actions such as those proposed will certainly go a long way toward improving Latin American schools.

Tamara Ortega Goodspeed is a Senior Associate in the education program at the Inter-American Dialogue where she manages the report card program for the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas (PREAL).

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