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Compensatory Education

Policies And Programs In Latin America

Questions that have puzzled education scholars, policymakers, and social reformers since the 1960s are the following: Do schools reproduce social stratification? Do they enable social mobility? Can schools help poor children learn at hight levels? Do deliberate attempts to reform education policy influence school life?

Theoretical and Historical Context

Whether education policy can change the distribution of educational opportunity depends on the context of schools and of the students they serve. Comparative analysis shows that school quality is more significant in helping disadvantaged children learn. More privileged children, whose parents have higher levels of schooling, often learn much from them. Hence, the potential of education policy to influence schools is greater in marginalized schools. This entry discusses the results of policies aimed at expanding the learning chances of poor and marginalized children in Latin America during the 1990s.

It is fitting to study the potential of policies aimed at improving educational opportunity for the poor in Latin America. During the twentieth century, Latin America experienced a dramatic educational expansion, as did most developing regions. This expansion allowed for intergenerational education mobility: social differences were no longer expressed in terms of access to only the lower levels of schooling, but rather as social differences in the quality of education, as most of the expansion was possible in fragile institutions of insufficient quality to enable the newly incorporated groups to succeed academically. This in turn transferred preexisting social differences to differences in the likelihood to successfully complete the lower levels of education and therefore to access secondary and tertiary education. With the expansion of public education many of the dominant groups transferred their children to private institutions, hence contributing to further differentiation and stratification of schools.

In spite of the significant educational expansion of the twentieth century much inequality is still reproduced across generations in terms of the lower-education chances for the children of the poor. Low-income groups are the last to access education at any given level, are largely excluded from higher education, and also to a great extent from secondary education and preschool education. Most of those who are still excluded from primary education come from the poorest families. For children of a given education level, disparities exist among schools in per pupil expenditures, in the levels of education of their teachers, in the amount of instructional time they receive, and in the instructional resources to which they have access. These disparities also mirror the inequalities of origin between the children of the poor and the affluent. Low-income children are more likely to be assigned to poorly endowed schools, with less-experienced teachers who are in school fewer hours with the consequent less time on task than their higher-income counterparts.

During the 1980s the region faced a series of economic shocks resulting from a debt crisis and ensuing programs of economic adjustment that negatively affected the already fragile public education systems. These and related changes in the delivery of social services and in economic conditions increased poverty and inequality. In the early 1990s political elites focused on the need to reduce poverty as a way to reduce and prevent social conflict and violence, and to enhance the ability to govern increasingly unstable societies. One of the strategies to reduce poverty was to target resources to improve educational opportunity for the children of the poor.

Three Types of Compensatory Policies in Latin America

Compensatory policies seek to close the gaps in learning opportunities between children of the poor and the affluent. According to the way compensation is interpreted, policies and programs that seek to foster equal educational opportunity are of three kinds. A first group of compensatory policies includes those that aim to equalize the distribution of educational inputs financed publicly. The objective is to close the input gap between the school environments attended by the poor and the affluent. These include the following: (1) more equitable funding of schools such as the financing reforms implemented in the 1990s in Brazil that sought to close the gap in per pupil spending across schools; (2) those that aim to increase access to a given education level by building more schools, hiring more teachers, or developing alternative modalities to more effectively reach particular groups such as the use of TV-based secondary education in rural areas in Mexico (telesecundaria), the use of community-based modalities of education to offer education to multiage groups in remote rural communities in Mexico (postprimaria rural), or the program to expand access to preschool and primary education in rural areas in El Salvador (EDUCO); and (3) those that try to provide schools attended by low-income children with minimum instructional resources commonly available to the affluent such as textbooks, school libraries, and training for teachers. Examples include the program to overcome educational backwardness in Mexico (Pare); the Escuela Nueva program in Colombia to enhance the quality of rural schools; and the program to enhance the quality of the schools with lowest levels of student achievement, the P900 program in Chile (which took its name from targeting the 900 poorest primary schools, representing 10% of the total).

The policies to equalize the distribution of inputs followed in Chile included a new teaching statute that gave salary incentives to teachers working in marginalized areas; instituting programs to improve the quality of the most vulnerable schools at the primary and secondary level, and programs for at-risk children (e.g., the school health program and summer camp programs); and teacher incentives for after-school programs.

In Mexico compensatory programs expanded from a small program that targeted 100 schools in the early 1990s, to coverage of 46 percent of all public schools in 1999. The objective of the programs was to improve the quality of primary education and expand access to preprimary and primary education through the provision of infrastructure, training, materials, and incentives to teachers and supervisors. Starting in 1998, coverage of the programs included lower secondary education.

A second group of compensatory policies includes those that aim to reorient the utilization of public resources to equalize the distribution of educational opportunities understood as outputs. Some call these policies positive discrimination. These policies recognize that the outcomes of schools reflect the contributions of school and family resources; therefore, the purpose of compensation is to offset the greater opportunities some children receive from home resources. For example, success in the first grade of primary school is a function both of what goes on during that year, but also of the conditions of health and nutrition of children prior to entering first grade, and of the cognitive, emotional, and social stimulation received in early childhood. Consequently equality of treatment in school during the first grade would most likely not lead to equality of learning outcomes for children from different social backgrounds. Equality of outcomes would require extra resources and attention to low-income children both during early childhood and in first grade. Similarly, the "opportunity cost" of staying in school varies for children of different social backgrounds; therefore, achieving equal opportunity to attain the same levels of schooling requires interventions that appropriately cover those opportunity costs (e.g., scholarships for low-income students that cover the direct and indirect costs of participation in school). An example of this policy is the scholarship program to support school attendance of low-income children in Mexico (Progresa) or a scholarship program for similar purposes in Brazil (Bolsa Escola). Programs of full-day school sessions for low-income children in Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela (when the affluent attend half-day sessions) are examples of positive discrimination focused on enhancing the quality or intensity of inputs. Given the stark discrepancies between the conditions of the targeted schools and the nontargeted schools, and the relatively low level of funding of these policies, much of the so-called policies of positive discrimination in Latin America are in fact attempts to equalize the distribution of inputs. At best they are designed to close the resource gap–the levels of initial input inequality among schools–and not to endow schools of low-income children with greater resources to achieve equality of output. For example, the program of the 900 schools in Chile, and the Programa para Abatir el Rezago Educativo in Mexico, target resources and attention to schools attended by disadvantaged children to try to redress previous neglect and gaps in resources between these schools and the schools of the affluent. The same is true of the Escuela Nueva program in Colombia, which attempts to improve the quality of rural multigrade schools through teacher training and provision of instructional materials.

A third group of compensatory policies are those that support differentiated forms of treatment for low-income children in recognition of their unique needs and characteristics. The main objective of these policies is to support opportunities for relevant and meaningful learning for low-income children. The goal is not to achieve equality of learning outputs, but equality of life chances. The assumption is that the school curriculum contributes only a fraction of the cultural and social capital that the affluent acquire in life; the rest attained as a result of experiences facilitated by family, neighbors, and community. In order for the poor to have comparable opportunities to live a life that is consistent with their choices, schools need to provide more cultural and social capital and be capable of associating and accessing vertical and horizontal social networks such as personal effectiveness, and political and negotiation skills. Although equality of inputs and equality of outputs assume the equivalency of the relevance of curricular objectives for all children, this particular group of efforts does not make that assumption, and attempts instead to support curricular goals and pedagogical approaches that specifically allow low-income children to move out of poverty through individual or collective action. The purpose of these policies is to help children learn skills whose significance is contextually situated, "preparing all students to live in and contribute to a diverse society but also preparing them to recognize and work to alter the economic and social inequities of that society" (Cochran-Smith, p. 931). Examples of this approach include various forms of popular education as described by Paulo Freire and his colleagues and followers, the various modalities of education designed and supported by Fe y Alegria, the network of publicly funded schools managed by the Society of Jesus in thirteen Latin American countries, and the early-twenty-first century modality of community-based post-primary education developed in Mexico.

Effects of Compensatory Policies

Extant evaluations of compensatory policies tend to be descriptive, mostly emphasizing intended policy and short-term effects. When these reports are analytical, they focus on outcomes such as access or achievement on curriculum-based tests and adopt a "black box" approach to policy implementation, often assuming that policy output is implemented as intended. The designs employed rely on prepostcomparisons–often inappropriately disaggregating the effects of the policies being evaluated with those of other policies or changes–or on comparisons between target populations and some quasicontrol groups–often assuming learning from differences between groups, inappropriately accounting for the nonrandom selection of students to treatment schools.

Limited studies indicate that some desired outcomes (more typically access, but also achievement levels) improve with the implementation of a compensatory policy, but say nothing about whether the distance separating the beneficiaries of the policy from the rest of the children shortens or widens as a result of the policy. It is unknown whether these policies, embedded in process of general education improvement, represent marginal improvements in the educational opportunities of the poor or real reductions in the equity gaps existing in each country. Most studies concentrate on the effects of the policies, rather than on their costs. Little is known about the practical consequence of some of the effects (many of which are discussed as a percentage increase in student achievement in a test or a percentage change in access). In particular almost nothing is known about the long term effects of compensatory policies, whether they are sustained or interact with further interventions and what kinds of other long-term outcomes they have, such as access to higher levels of schooling, acquisition of skills or life chances.

Education reforms in Brazil, which through a constitutional amendment reduced the gaps in per pupil spending across schools and regions and provided scholarships to children in low-income families to attend school at least 85 percent of the school year, contributed to making access to primary school universal. By 2002, 97 percent of the children in the relevant age group were enrolled in primary school; the gains in access were significantly greater for the children from the lower income families. For the poorest income quintile primary school attendance increased from 75 percent in 1992 to 93 percent in 1999. Promotion and completion rates increased, as repetition rates declined. There is less conclusive evidence regarding the impact of these reforms on the learning outcomes of students.

Compensatory policies in Mexico expanded coverage significantly in disadvantaged areas, mostly as a result of concentrating the hiring of teachers in indigenous schools and in new modalities of primary and secondary schooling adaptable to small rural communities. Compensatory policies in Mexico have succeeded in distributing inputs (textbooks, pedagogical materials, improving infrastructure) and in providing opportunities for teacher professional development, hence improving the minimum resource base in marginalized schools.

With this improvement in basic conditions, completion rates have improved considerably more in areas targeted by compensatory policies than in other regions of the country. Teachers provide good reports of the training courses, but there is no evidence of impact of the training in teacher practice or on student achievement. Several studies consistently point out that implementation significantly transformed the programs, with negative consequences for learning opportunity.

To sum up, Mexico's experience with compensatory programs during the 1990s shows that it is possible to provide basic inputs to the most disadvantaged schools, therefore reducing inequality in inputs. Because initial inequalities are so significant, this alone is an important accomplishment of policy. Important gains can be achieved in expanding access and primary school completion by supporting the basic functioning of schools in this way. Achieving changes in learning, and therefore contributing to reduce inequality in learning outcomes, is more complicated. In part this reflects the challenges of changing teacher capacity from very low initial levels. Helping teachers become effective is much harder than providing them or their students with textbooks and notebooks. The simple program theory underlying compensatory policies is more appropriate to achieve the latter than the former. Program theory aside, the implementation challenges to developing new teaching practices are greater than to providing financial incentives for teachers to show up to school or for parents to fix up schools.

Research on the impact of compensatory policies in Chile confirms the results of the few studies available for Mexico. Most of the research follows a black box approach and fails to identify significant changes in learning outcomes, and there is limited information about program implementation. Only short-term effects are affected in a narrow set of cognitive domains, as measured by multiple option tests. Ernesto Schiefelbein and Paulina Schiefelbein question the predictive validity of these tests of the skills that matter to obtain high-paying jobs in the labor market. As in the case of Mexico the greatest challenge appears to be in documenting changes in teacher capabilities. Also as in Mexico, the existing studies document relatively short-term effects of these policies, spanning six to seven years.

A study of the impact of compensatory programs in Chile documented sustained improvement in levels of student achievement in mathematics and Spanish since 1990. The achievement gap between the highest-performing and lowest-performing schools has narrowed in fourth grade (but not in eighth grade), in line with the emphasis of the programs in the lower cycle of education. An external evaluation conducted by a Chilean center of educational research (CIDE) in 1991 confirmed the greater levels of learning for students in the program than in comparable schools (though the actual learning gains are small, only 3%). The evaluation also documented that for schools involved in the P900 program teachers became more active and provided more opportunities for student participation.

Chile's recent policies to improve equity in education, like Mexico's, suggest that it is possible to provide inputs to the most disadvantaged schools, hence reducing inequality. In spite of the emphasis of Chilean policy on positive discrimination, and its emphasis on assessing inequality in learning outcomes as a starting point for policy, there are conflicting accounts on whether the achievement gaps between the poor and the affluent had narrowed. The conflict stems in part from the kind of adjustment made to student achievement scores to make them comparable over time. It should be pointed out that these reforms were implemented in a context where total expenditures in education increased significantly, and other social policies and the results of significant economic growth resulted in reduction of the incidence of poverty, the existing studies do not discuss this context nor do they attempt to parcel out the contributions of compensatory policies from the effects of these other policy-induced changes. Judging from differences in raw student achievement scores, the gains over time for all schools are greater than the reduction in the gap between the targeted schools and the non-targeted schools: Some potentially promising avenues to enhance student learning are left unexplored in this study.

The studies of this case, as the studies of the Mexican case, highlight the importance of basic school supplies and infrastructural conditions to enable school learning. Children do better when they have textbooks, when their schools are not in disrepair, when there are school libraries, and their teachers have instructional resources. These effects should not be surprising given that these policies are targeting schools and children in great need, where a simple pencil and notebook is a great addition to facilitate learning. What these studies do not answer is how far can the expansion of such basic provision of school inputs go? It is reasonable to expect that the effects of these strategies will level off after a point. None of the existing studies in Mexico, Chile, or elsewhere focus on the question of which skills are more relevant to facilitate intergenerational social mobility and the reduction of inequality.

Although there are other studies of the effects of compensatory and equity policies in Latin America, their results are consistent with those reviewed. Studies of the impact of these policies suggest that it is easier to distribute inputs than to educate teachers, and that changes in student achievement levels are modest. In Colombia the equity policies emphasized reorienting education expenditures towards rural areas and supporting Escuela Nueva, a program to strengthen the quality of rural schools. The reorientation of expenditures has effects in expanding access to different levels. Escuela Nueva has been assessed by various studies that document children's improved performance in rural multigrade schools where teachers are appropriately trained and where learning materials are available than those students in less-endowed rural schools. The basic story of these studies is similar: it is possible to improve the learning conditions of poor children through policies that enhance learning inputs. There are great challenges in implementation, particularly when the policies involve altering instructional practices. Although effects in terms of student achievement and completion rates can be documented, the social significance of those and the long-term correlates of those effects has not been assessed. Studies are biased toward short-term effects, probably because sponsors of research are more interested in recent policies than in assessing effects over fairly long periods.

On the whole more is known about policies that attempt to reduce disparities in inputs than about policies that aim true positive discrimination or enhancement of the social and cultural capital of poor students. Regarding whether education fosters social reproduction or mobility in a context of rapid expansion and deliberate affirmative policy, the studies of compensatory policies in Mexico and Chile pose more questions than they answer. What is the practical significance of student achievement in the tests used to measure curriculum coverage? How does performance on these tests relate to life chances? How well does performance on those tests predict performance in higher levels of education? What is the influence of the compensatory programs on other social and attitudinal outcomes? What is the impact of these programs in building social capital in the communities? What are the perspectives of the intended beneficiaries of these programs? What do they think they get out of them? What do they think about how these programs should be run? Existing evaluations document relatively the short-term impact of these programs, which does not describe how effects change as the inputs they support in schools consolidate.

The high levels of social exclusion characteristic of Latin America are indicative of politics and history that have produced and maintained such inequities. Compensatory policies are formulated and implemented in a context and through mechanisms that reflect the very inequalities of origin at the root of the problem they try to correct. In what they changed and in what they failed to alter they express the tensions between the role of schools as levers of social change and as mechanisms to reproduce social stratification.


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