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Time To Send Brazil's Education Minister To The Principal's Office

A poor education ranking in the latest international PISA report failed to humble the country's top education official, who instead hailed the outcome as a "great triumph."

A classroom in Sao Manoel, Maranhao, Brazil
A classroom in Sao Manoel, Maranhao, Brazil
Clóvis Rossi

-Commentary-

SAO PAULO — What was the most disconcerting news published about Brazil last week?

For me, it wasn’t that we ranked 72nd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. This simply confirmed that 20 years of successive governments from two parties that thought they had a monopoly on virtue — the Brazilian Social Democracy Party and Lula and Dilma Rousseff's Workers’ Party — failed to free Brazil from secular rottenness.

Neither was it the news of Brazil’s economic deterioration. The 0.5% contraction in the third quarter was predictable. Only those who haven’t been paying attention to the basics were surprized.

And it wasn’t the disastrous performance in the PISA ranking, the biggest international evaluation of education. Anyone who has set foot in Brazil’s public schools — even in some private ones — could have roughly predicted the outcome: Brazil was ranked No. 58 overall among 65 countries.

No, the worst of all the recent news about Brazil was the reaction from Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante, who went on public radio to say he considered the PISA ranking “a great triumph.”

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Brazil's Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante — Photo: Lindomar Cruz/ABr

What this statement revealed in itself was the triumph of mediocrity, which characterizes most Brazilian officials. They would rather engage in propaganda than publicly acknowledge the facts as they really are.

“The OECD results show that almost 70% of our youth don’t know enough mathematics to continue learning in school or even to compete in the workplace,” explains Paula Louzano, a researcher af the University of Sao Paulo. “That’s because they’re not able to, among other things, use information in a chart or a graph to calculate an average or a tendency.”

She says the results would have been even worse if all of those who should have participated in the survey actually had. “It’s even more alarming to see that 23% of Brazil's 15-year-olds did not take part in the PISA study. This proportion represents the youngsters who are not in school anymore or that are more than two years behind in their education. In other words, if this whole group had been in school like they should have been at the level they should have been, the results for Brazil could have been much worse.”

Of course, I understand that the minister wasn’t going to come forward and publicly say, “We have failed once again.” Acting like everything’s fine is part of the game. But he could have at least feigned some humility. Instead, he looked ridiculous.

I hope that when they are away from cameras and microphones, officials at the Ministry of Education conduct an honest evaluation of the causes behind such a failure.

They could, for example, take the advice of Jaime Rivière, a sociology professor at the University of Salamanca in Spain who was interviewed by the newspaper El País. He explains that East Asian countries perform so well academically because of “the levels of self-expectation and of respect toward teachers that do not exist in the Western world, and that lead to better results with the same public effort in education.”

For those like me who studied their entire lives in public schools, this seems to be a crucial point: Give the teachers back the respect we used to show them — and, obviously, decent wages.

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