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Latin America and the Caribbean

Development Expectations and Quality Education, Universal Education, Quality of Education

Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) that are undergoing (or expecting to undergo) rapid economic growth are in need of better-trained workers, but the education system in these countries is still far behind the developed world. Latin American nations have tried hard to advance toward universal education and to increase enrollments in secondary and higher education, but they have not been able to improve the quality levels. While universal coverage in primary education is close to being a reality, quality levels in primary and secondary education are rather low and unequally distributed. Higher education has also increased at a fast pace–25 percent of college-age individuals were enrolled in postsecondary institutions in 2001. However, the quality of the higher education faculty is poor, and there is a need for an effective agenda for action.

The 12 billion dollars invested in LAC nations in the 1990s, with the support of the World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), has been instrumental in providing universal access to primary education (showing that the region really wants to improve its education). The famous Jomtein meeting of 1990 generated the International Education for All program to be implemented in the 1990–2000 decade. A world meeting in Dakkar in 2000 discussed a World Report, in which the Education for All evaluation for Latin America shows that 95 percent of each age group eventually enrolls in primary school, but only 33 percent gets some type of infant or preschool education. In addition, socioeconomic factors drastically reduce enrollment in secondary and higher education.

Comparative information on learning in the region–made available through the UNESCO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC) regional study on learning in third and fourth grades–shows that the average student in eleven Latin American countries answered about 50 percent of the questions of the UNESCO test correctly, compared to about 85 percent for Cuban students. The study also shows that student scores in rural areas are lower that in urban areas; capital-city scores are better than in smaller urban areas; and private-school scores are better than in public schools. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 99) confirmed the OREALC findings by that eighth grade Chilean students had lower achievement levels than students in OECD-member countries.

Development Expectations and Quality Education

Demands for better quality education in the LAC region are supported by a growing awareness of the role education played in successful economic changes in East Asia, as well as by recent research on the multiple impacts of education and international comparisons of educational achievement. The experience of East Asian nations has been widely commented on in the LAC region. Mass media and academic groups have noted that better education and reduced inequality contributed to economic growth in East Asia and how, in turn, economic growth contributed to investment in education. Mass media also paid attention to the World Economic Forum's World Competitiveness Report, which showed that the weakest aspect of LAC countries was related to their human resources. This was confirmed by a 2000 report on functional literacy published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The International Adult Literacy Survey (ILAS) carried out by OECD in 2000 showed that 80 percent of Chilean workers were not able to perform at the minimum levels required to participate in the labor market of a developed country. Given that Chilean students perform above the regional average, the ILAS report confirmed the need to raise the quality of all levels of education. In spite of the low quality of education, the rates of return obtained on the amount of money invested in one additional school year generated by salaries (before the economic crisis of the late 1990s) were near 20 percent for primary and secondary education and more than 10 percent for higher education. In spite of these important incentives for general training, market salaries have not provided enough incentives for further technical training.

Universal Education

Since the 1960s remarkable progress has been made in LAC countries in expanding access to education and increasing the number of days students attend per year. However little has changed in most classroom processes (e.g., group work, reading and discussion, interviews, visits, formative evaluation, types of questions), and "scores on national and international exams are alarmingly low," according to Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas. More children than ever are involved in the educational system, and access to basic education is almost universal. Primary school access jumped from 60 percent in the early 1960s to more than 90 percent in the 1990s, with enrollment for nine-year-olds close to 95 percent.

In the early twenty-first century, more than two-thirds of eligible children attend secondary school. In addition, between 1960 and 1990, higher education enrollment ratios increased from 6 percent to 25 percent in LAC nations. However, while several countries have established a comprehensive structure for advanced training, the actual research produced by universities has had very little impact on the economies of these countries.

Scholastic productivity is low in LAC nations. Students attend, on average, more than six years of schooling, but students generally pass only four grades. Income inequality has not been a constraint for enrolling in primary education, but it has played a role in the ability to achieve minimal levels of learning and enrollment in secondary education. The majority of public schools have not been able to deliver adequate education on a sustained basis, and research productivity is low in Latin American universities. On the other hand, there are enough successful education projects to suggest that effective reform can be implemented.

Quality of Education

In spite of the expansion of student enrollments and multiple reform attempts, both the quality and relevance of the education that students receive are inadequate in most countries of the region. In addition to lineal expansion (more of the same educational policies and methods), countries have: (1) enacted curricular reforms and constitutional provisions for minimum budgets or free education; (2) launched educational radio and TV programs and adult literacy campaigns; (3) organized nuclear groupings of schools and created comprehensive secondary schools; (4) instituted on-the-job training of teachers; (5) decentralized decisions and changed administrative structures; and (6) launched testing programs. However, the testing programs have shown that students are learning at roughly half the expected levels (those achieved by students in good private schools), and that only half of the students in the fourth grade are able to understand what they read. Furthermore, only in the elite private schools do students perform close to the average of students in developed countries. International comparisons carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) show that cognitive achievement in Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela–which are representative of the best systems in the LAC region–is closer to the levels of Africa than East Asia. In addition, there are serious equity problems. Even in the case of Chile, which has improved most inputs (e.g., teacher time, books, rooms, libraries, remedial training, buses, food) and effectively implemented structural reforms, achievement scores remained constant between 1982 and 2000 for every socioeconomic group.

As detected in the IEA study, achievement scores of students in marginal urban public schools and in rural primary schools (especially among indigenous populations) are usually equivalent to half the scores of wealthy students. Poor public schools also have a shorter school year and daily schedule, which, in many cases, give students less that 800 hours per year of potential learning opportunities (compared with 1200 or more hours offered to students in good private schools, a figure close to the average in developed countries). This limited amount of time for learning is usually due to using public school space in double shifts, and to a lack of teachers' time, even though this is mainly related to poor allocation of the public teaching staff in countries with a student/teacher ratio below thirty to one. In poor schools, a substantial amount of the time available for learning is, in fact, wasted in unproductive activities such as silence (discipline), roll call, and disruptions.

Possible Causes of the Low Quality of Education

These poor regional results seem to be linked to the lack of formal evaluations of most of the implemented projects, and to poor professional review of the strategies included in each project. Most of these educational investments were made on the basis of untested or partially tested assumptions about the cost-effectiveness of particular interventions. This is because current knowledge about cost-effectiveness in education is extraordinarily inadequate, especially considering the amount of money that goes into education. In fact, education projects implemented in this region in the 1990s did not include the three highest cost-effective strategies suggested by a group of ten world experts (M. Carnoy and H. Levin, Stanford; N. McGinn and F. Reimers, Harvard; C. Moura Castro, Inter-American Development Bank; S. Heyneman, H. Martinez, and E. Velez, World Bank; J. Velez, PREAL; and J.C. Tedesco, UNESCO). According to their estimations, countries should start by undertaking interventions that do not cost much but do have an impact. For example, the best teacher should be assigned to the first grade in order to help students to learn to read as well as possible (this is particularly relevant in Latin America, where there is such a poor reading and writing record). These experts also highlighted the need for students to have enough time to learn, and they suggest that the official length of school year should be enforced. The third priority was given to a policy not to switch the classroom teacher during the year. It appears that not a single project undertaken during the 1990s in LAC countries supported these strategies.

It is also puzzling that the approaches and methodologies used in a successful Colombian program, Escuela Nueva, have not been adapted in education projects designed to develop basic education in other Latin American countries. In spite of being one of the few programs successfully evaluated in the region, it has only been used by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve primary education in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Above all, the poor quality of the public education system in LAC countries is linked to a vicious circle, perpetuated by complex social factors resistant to reform. Few high school graduates are interested in a teaching career, as low salary levels and poor student achievement levels have created a low level of professional satisfaction. Therefore, most teachers select the profession not due to its intrinsic interest, but because they are not accepted in more prestigious careers. The difference between the required and actual levels of training tends to raise demands for salaries because all teachers assume they meet the required standards. There are, in fact, no effective methods for assessing the individual ability of teachers. Salary demands are also affected by gender and by time schedules. More than two-thirds of all teachers are female, and all teachers have a part-time schedule, but the expected salary level is the salary of a full-time male teacher.

The problem in the public system is more serious because the best teachers tend to move to good private schools, where salaries may be five times higher that in the public system. Thus, there is continuous pressure for better salaries in the public sector. The pressure also involves annual strikes, because public school teachers make up a large share of the civil servants, which are organized in powerful unions and backed by congress members and political leaders. In addition, some teachers are leading local figures who play a critical role in elections. Even though salaries have not increased, strikes have eroded achievements levels and unions have not tried to improve teaching methods.

Most teachers use a frontal, or whole-class, teaching method, neglecting the needs of individual learners and distorting key educational objectives. Some 80 percent of Chilean secondary school teachers dictate their classes to students. Furthermore, frontal teaching implies an acceptance of an authoritarian teaching structure, the need to learn by rote, a single correct answer (and no opportunity to discuss divergent answers), lack of peer group discussion, and failure to link teaching with the local context.

There is consensus that improving primary and secondary education requires better educated teachers, but change strategies cannot rely on additional voluntary time spent by teachers or recruitment of better trained replacements. Since most teachers in these countries have poor training (there are few "good" teachers available for hire), teachers must be upgraded and provided with relevant tools such as learning guides. In addition, to get an extra effort from present teachers they must be paid more (e.g., one extra hour per day would increase the total cost by 20 to 25 percent). These tough conditions have been fulfilled in only a few successful projects. In these cases, suitable textbooks have played a key role in helping teachers to complement frontal teaching with other teaching models that support an active role for students. However, evaluations of textbooks in several countries have shown that they: (1) do not suggest activities that students should carry out to grasp the main concepts; (2) contain no instructions for effective group work; (3) present no options for the student to make decisions about how to engage in the learning experience; (4) give few instructions for writing conclusions or reporting the work carried out; (5) do not include activities to be carried out with the family; and (6) provide limited opportunity (in the book) for students to self-evaluate their work. Usage of traditional books is constrained by the inability of teachers to change the predominant frontal teaching method used during their training.

Teacher Training

Basic inputs are a required condition for learning, but they are not the only required condition. Without basic inputs, little learning may occur, but basic inputs do not necessarily generate expected achievement levels. Key inputs include classroom activities, the amount of time available for learning, materials for students to carry out their work (paper, pencils, learning guides and textbooks, and computers), and, of course, buildings. In addition, food and health programs are important, especially for deprived students. However, provision of these (and other) basic inputs does not guarantee that learning will improve, as observed in Chile. On the other hand, multigrade teaching without learning guides–learning materials with clear instructions for the students and teacher to generate an interesting learning experience–will be a failure. Without these guides, which complement the learning process, learning will be drastically reduced.

Even in LAC countries where more time, computers, and learning materials have been provided, no improvements have been measured, mostly due to the traditional frontal teaching style. Forty percent of students repeat the first grade, a fact that can only be explained in terms of poor teaching techniques. Lack of student discussions, learning tasks that are not related to context or expectations, few opportunities for composition writing, and lack of formative evaluation of students' writing and homework are all related to the lack of suitable training of teachers. In fact, it has been determined that while most training institutions provide theoretical training (e.g., structural grammar, linguistic, or learning models), they do not train teachers with specific strategies for teaching. In LAC countries, "teachers are poorly trained, poorly managed, and poorly paid. Superior teaching is seldom recognized, supported, or rewarded" according to Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas. The training of future teachers is not likely to change as long as those doing the training continue using the frontal techniques now prevalent in teacher training institutions.

Effects of Higher Education

Higher education has expanded the supply of teachers (mainly through private programs) and increased tuitions in professional careers, but less than one-fifth of the faculty has training in doctoral programs. Net enrollment rates of those between eighteen and twenty-two years of age increased from less than 4 percent in 1960 to nearly 25 percent in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, this rapid expansion of undergraduate enrollment was not preceded by an increase in graduate training. Therefore, graduates from undergraduate programs (those training for professional careers) were recruited to fill the additional higher education faculty positions.

Poor training in secondary education and professional careers starting in the first year of postsecondary studies are linked to high dropout and repetition rates in the first years of higher education, and to transfers to other programs. Some universities are trying out one or two years of college (similar to community colleges in the United States) to reduce the wastage of time and tuitions and the high levels of disappointment and rage found among the student population.

Master's degree programs in certain areas, particularly those sought by private business, are being offered by joint ventures of local and foreign universities. Some distance education or visiting professors are usually included in the training packages. The Technological Institute of Monterrey (Mexico) is one of the leading institutions in this area, and has students all over Latin America. But improving the quality of the higher-education staff requires doctoral training linked with research. During the 1990s less than 20 percent of the higher education faculty had completed training in doctoral programs. Furthermore, there are few doctoral programs available for academic personnel willing to improve their training; salaries do not provide incentives for faculty with doctoral degrees; almost no scholarships are available for potential candidates; and few research grants are available for preparing the doctoral thesis required for graduating. However, some advances were made in the 1990s in the allocation of research grants.

Lack of Relevant Research

UNESCO and the OAS recommend that financing of research should be increased to reach at least 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), which for many LAC countries would be a twofold increase. In the past, the additional funds provided to universities were not channeled to research, but to many competing objectives. Therefore, present trends to allocate grants through competitive research contests should be reinforced, and contributions by private business (with some reduction in taxes) should be explored in order to link research activities with the problems faced by the private sector.

In some areas more public support seems to be required. For example not enough time has been devoted to identifying, understanding, and defining key educational problems, especially those that happen at the classroom level in primary and secondary education and those related to the development of a tradition of empirical research at the university level. Conventional wisdom has prevailed, however, and too much time has been spent in addressing irrelevant problems (e.g., class size, outdated curricula, labs, and libraries). According to research findings (for example, Gene Glass), class size is not related to achievement. Labs have been provided in most LAC countries through loans, but most of them are used as regular classrooms. Libraries are not used in primary and secondary education. All these elements are used when teachers have been trained in a different way. There is a lack of analysis of the real nature and causes of the poor quality of education observed in LAC countries, and of the probable effects of reforms (in most cases reform means gradual, complex changes, rather than drastic simple changes). Even though everything seems to have been tried in LAC education, the effective fight for quality reform has yet to start.

Lack of Relevant Incentives

The staffs of ministries of education and of development cooperation agencies (and their children) are enrolled in private schools–they do not use the public schools they are managing and thus are not affected by the classroom impact of their projects, nor are their professional careers. They therefore have limited incentives for searching out better strategies to improve the performance of the education system. Fortunately, personal commitment often compensates for this lack of built-in incentives.

The learning process is affected by the gap between the educational background of decision makers and the education delivered to students in rural areas or in urban marginal schools of developing countries. The gap is so wide that policymakers or lending and project officials have problems understanding the key elements of the educational development process. Furthermore, these leaders, who enroll their children in private schools, are not going to be affected by the final outcomes of the recommended strategies or projects, so the effort spent in the design of good education projects only depends on their personal values and commitment. The lack of incentives for educational leaders to do their utmost to achieve success with their policies seems to be sadly reflected in poor educational outcomes.

The lack of evaluation of the impact of projects in students' achievement (and, ideally, in the personal development of students) and the lack of good estimations of the cost-effectiveness of specific strategies, constrain professional judgment and tend to support old approaches focused on traditional goals or on timely implementation of disbursements. Therefore, progress in a teacher's professional career is not related to student improvement. Educational policies have thus been detached from improvement of human resources in the LAC region.


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