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What Holds Latin America Back Most Of All? Bad Schools

Latin America's leading economies look for the formula to compete globally. They should start by studying local schools — and the bitter resistance to any education reform.

Walking in Mompox, in Columbia's Bolivar Department.
Walking in Mompox, in Columbia's Bolivar Department.


SANTIAGO - Bad education, not bad economic policies, may well be a more important cause of Latin America's weak growth figures. Because of our bad schools, we lack a workforce capable of competing with those of South Korea and other high-performing countries.

In the mid 1960s, South Korea's annual per capita income was about $1,000; and today after radical educational reforms (1975-90), it has risen to $3,000, twice the world average. Chile, the richest country in Latin America, was far ahead of South Korea in the 1960s, yet today reports per capita income nearly half that of the Asian country.

Good education does not just foment growth. It also curbs inequality. High-quality, free public education as imparted in advanced countries, is the great social leveller that gives equal opportunities to rich and poor.

Latin America has already begun its great educational reform, in terms of accessibility. Public spending on education increased in all countries between the 1970s and 1990s, and today practically all Latin American children can read. About 90% complete their primary education.

This was necessary, but is far from enough. Today, curricula are often largely unchanged from 50 years ago, perhaps lightly enhanced with the odd computer class or half-hearted retraining programs for teachers.

So beyond accessibility, it is quality that must be urgently improved. As the economy becomes global, the rewards of globalization go increasingly to workers with the most skills and greatest productivity: that is, the best educated.

Only two countries in the region have begun reforms to improve the quality of education, Chile and Mexico.

The principal means of measuring quality of education around the world is the PISA tests carried out every three years in OECD, the group of mostly wealthy states that includes Mexico and Chile.

A world apart

PISA assessment tests focus on abilities in reading, math and science literacy among pupils aged 15 years, in 65 countries. Their methodology and the value of the findings have been questioned, but there are no other comparative measurements of quality of education at a global level. Our small country Chile was the top in Latin America, but near the bottom of the ranking of 65 countries, at 53. It is followed by Uruguay (55) and Costa Rica (56), two even smaller countries, while big states like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and Peru are among the last 10.

While around 100 countries are absent in the list and have challenged the PISA methodology, their refusal to submit to its tests suggests they would not have attained high rankings.

Those not evaluated include Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Central American countries. How can the quality of education be compared with global standards when they refuse to take part in international tests? In spite of their authorities' good intentions, how would they know which are the reforms they need to allow them to attain the education levels of Finland, South Korea or Japan?

Doubts on PISA methods have generated other measurement initiatives, like TERCE, which in 2013 compared 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. It also evaluates students at different stages of their educational development, between 8 and 11 years old.

In this ranking Chile comes in first again, followed by Costa Rica and Uruguay, and the quality of education has slightly improved in all the countries compared to tests taken in 2006. Contested or not, such tests point in the same direction: the urgent need to improve the quality of education.

The findings have also shown that spending more money will not resolve education's problems. Latin America already spends almost the same amount as OECD countries, which obtain much better results. Mexico spends more on education than China and various other Asian countries in terms of the percentage of its GDP, yet only 25% of Mexican youngsters go to university, compared to 93% of South Koreans.

Latin America's shortcoming is in the so-called "knowledge capital," that is the ability both to innovate and disseminate innovation. This includes spending on schools, universities, research and development centers (R&D), and media and information infrastructures. Latin American states spend on average 13% of their GDP on these areas, which is less than half the money spent in OECD.

Hope dashed in Mexico

In February 2013, months after becoming president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto signed an extensive education reform law approved by parliament, which initially sought to reduce the influence of labor unions of the education sector. Mexico's is the biggest union of its kind in Latin America, and controls the contracts of newly employed teachers, administers and educational premises, establishing veritable "dynasties" of teachers who pass their posts onto children. Many teachers start to teach without any experience or training whatsoever.

A day after the reforms became law, the judiciary arrested the union's lifelong boss Elba Esther Gordillo, charging her with misappropriation of some $150 million of union money for personal expenses like buying property in California, an airplane, art works and plastic surgery. She remains in custody as investigations continue.

Public opinion in Mexico, other states and even we at América Economía praised the Peña government's action as a sign that its educational reforms were in earnest. But two and a half years later, it does not look as if his government has managed to make the teachers' unions yield, and they continue to decide who teaches and who does not in public schools. The labor leaders have also opposed the evaluation of teachers, which was a key component of reforms intended to make merit a cornerstone of the teaching profession.

Fighting back with strikes and blockades in recent weeks, teachers have effectively impeded the planned evaluation of some 250,000 aspiring and 1.2 million working teachers. Their actions have also interrupted the studies of millions of children, not for the first time in Mexico.

Something similar is happening these days in Chile, which also wants an overhaul of this sector. While Mexico began with a bid to reform its teachers, Chile has begun by changing ownership, financing and selectivity rules for public schools, though the government has also proposed a teachers' statute that includes performance evaluations. The Chilean teachers' union has also reacted with protests, strikes and confrontation.

Teachers have a right to defend their interests, which is why unions exist. But they do not want to improve the quality of education, nor should they as that is a job for government.

The governments of Mexico and Chile want a more appropriate framework of ownership, financing and selectivity for the public schools sector and careers based on merit. Both these are correct and important, but neither goes to the heart of the problem. What matters in educational reforms is whatever would improve learning; issues like: the content of teaching programs, skills transferred to pupils, numbers of hours in class and those needed for homework, how to train and raise wages for better teachers, or how to attract the best talent to the teaching profession.

So far none of these has emerged in the Mexican or Chilean reforms. We hope they do in the weeks, months and even years ahead. Because educational reform is not just a matter of utmost importance, but of absolute urgency. And maybe also of the greatest complexity.

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Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
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