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History & Background

The Federative Republic of Brazil is the only nation in South America whose language and culture derive from Portugal. The country was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500. As the fifth largest country in the world, its territory covers an area of 3,300,171 square miles, which represents almost half of South America. With a population of almost 172 million people, Brazil is also the fifth most populated country.

Brazil is considered one of the world's most productive countries because of its great number of natural and mineral resources, metropolitan cities, developed industrial and hydroelectric complexes, and fertile soil. At the same time, Brazil is a country that historically has had to face many internal problems, such as the lack of political and economic stability, long periods of high inflation, and an unplanned population growth. These factors led Brazil to major educational problems.

The history of education in Brazil begins in the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Jesuits from the Companhia de Jesus (Company of Jesus) arrived in 1549. The Jesuits founded the first Brazilian elementary school in Salvador, in the state of Bahia. They followed the educational principles established in the Ratio Studiorum (a regulatory educational document written and promoted by Friar Inácio de Loyola). The Jesuits' work was driven not only by educational goals, but by a religious purpose as well: to spread the Christian faith among the indigenous population. For 210 years, the Jesuits were responsible for the entire educational system in Brazil. Their primary and secondary schools were of good quality, and some of the secondary schools even offered higher-level studies. The Jesuits also created many missions in Brazil to educate and catechize the indigenous people. These missions would help the people escape from slavery.

The first rupture in the history of the Brazilian educational system occurred in 1759 when the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal and its colonies by the Marquis of Pombal, King José I's minister. Pombal was trying to restore the Portuguese power in Europe. The Jesuit's religious educational system implemented in the colony conflicted with the Marquis's commercial interests. Pombal's idea was that education should serve the state, not the church. As an alternative to the Jesuit's system, Pombal created the subsídio literário (literary subsidy), a tax to finance elementary and secondary education, as well as the aulas régias, the teaching of Latin, Greek, and rhetoric. However, Pombal's new educational measures had no effect, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Brazil's educational system was stagnated.

Brazilian education and culture started to move forward in 1808, when the Portuguese royal family, escaping from the invasion of Napoleon's troops, transferred the Kingdom of Portugal to the colony. Although tailored to the Portuguese Court's immediate needs, King João VI's educational work started a period of undeniable achievements for education. He created a considerable number of schools and scientific institutions, the first public library, a number of technical teaching schools for professional training, and the first university courses in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. However, King João's educational policy, focusing on higher levels of education, neglected elementary schooling.

Brazil's educational policy was deeply affected by the country's independence in 1822. The Constitution of 1824 guaranteed free elementary education to all citizens, and the state created basic-level public schools in cities, towns, and villages. The state also decentralized the basic education system by promulgating the Additional Act in 1834. This act gave the provinces the power to determine legislation for elementary education, casting off the government's duty to grant free education for all.

In the first years of the newly formed Republic (1889), the decentralized educational policy was maintained, preventing the state from taking over the formulation and coordination of the elementary educational system. This lack of action by the government resulted in a greater social and educational gap between the popular classes and the elite. Since little attention was focused on public elementary education, only the favored members of the upper classes could afford to keep their children in private institutions.

The twentieth century was a period of transformation for education in Brazil. Influenced by European positivism, Brazilian educators adopted a series of reforms and laws that transferred the responsibility of administrating elementary schooling in the country back to the government. During the 1920s and 1930s, the first universities were created in Rio de Janeiro (1920), Minas Gerais (1927), Porto Alegre (1934), and São Paulo (1934). The first "real" Brazilian university was the University of São Paulo, created with the support and import of French and German scholars, following the French model for its structure.

A new constitution was promulgated in 1934, incorporating significant advances into the educational system. Both the government and the family were considered responsible for the elementary education of all citizens. In the 1940s, the educational system focused on the professional aspects of education. At this point, education in Brazil had the following structure: five years of elementary school, four years of secondary school, and three years of high school.

During the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the educational system underwent some significant changes. Some of the important achievements of this period include the creation of CAPES or Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Coordination of Improvement of Higher Learning Personnel) in 1951; the CFE or Conselho Federal de Educação (Federal Council of Education) in 1961; campaigns and movements for eradicating adult illiteracy; and the approval of National Law 4024 (Lei de Diretrizes e Bases) in 1961.

From 1964 to 1980, a military dictatorship ruled Brazil during this period of social and political upheaval. However, it was during this time that two of the most significant events of the history of Brazilian education took place: the creation of MOBRAL (Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização), or the Brazilian movement for eradication of adult illiteracy, in 1970, and the approval of Law 5,692 in 1971. This law significantly changed the structure of higher learning (students could choose between a general or professional curriculum) and of elementary and secondary education (basic mandatory education was extended from four to eight years).

Despite a number of updates and amendments, the basic text of Law 5,692/71 was still in force in the 1990s. Also during that decade, the government created the National Program of Literacy and Citizenship in an effort to reduce the number of illiterate people in Brazil by up to 70 percent. A new model of elementary school, the CIAC (Centro Integrado de Educação Popular), was also created. These CIACs were integrated centers to support children from low income families with education and food.

In 1995, the Brazilian government created an experimental program to evaluate the performance of university students called the provão (National Course Evaluation). The provão is an exam given the last semester prior to graduation. After a period of adaptation, it has become permanent. Eighteen subjects are included in this exam. In the year 2000, more than 2,700 university courses (around 203,000 students) were examined by the provão.

In 1997, the same program was extended to the high school level, creating the ENEN (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio), or National Secondary Education Examination. ENEN has become an important instrument to evaluate the performance of secondary level students. It provides students the necessary credentials for either continuing their university studies or for entering the job market. At the elementary school level, the SAEB (Sistema de Avaliação da Educação Básica), or Evaluation System for Basic Education, is recognized worldwide as one of the most sophisticated procedures used in the evaluation of primary school performance. In testing the efficiency of schools and universities, the government aims to control and improve the quality of education throughout Brazil.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceBrazil - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education