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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!