The ongoing protests by Chilean university students, which began last year, are partly a sign of progress and rising expectations, partly a sign of frustration with tuition costs and economic inequality, and partly a sign of broader social unrest. The protests have focused attention on certain problems that are unique to Chile, and other problems that are common across Latin America. But they are largely a distraction from the region’s biggest educational challenge: improving its primary and secondary schools.
Indeed, for all the excitement over the relatively strong performance of Latin America’s economies since 2002, the persistently weak performance of its education systems continues to drag down the region’s overall competitiveness.
In the World Economic Forum’s latest executive-opinion survey (conducted for the Global Competitiveness Report), which spanned 142 countries and territories, only two Latin American/Caribbean nations (Barbados and Costa Rica) ranked in the top 30 for the quality of their primary-education systems, and only eight (Barbados, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Uruguay, Belize, and Colombia) ranked in the top 80. Meanwhile, the region accounted for nearly half of the bottom 30 nations.
The results were similar when executives rated the caliber of their countries’ overall educational systems. Once again, only two Latin American/Caribbean nations (the same two, Barbados and Costa Rica) cracked the top 30, and only six placed in the top 80. But 16 of the bottom 40 countries were from Latin America or the Caribbean, as were fully half of the bottom 20 nations.
We should also note that the region’s two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, both received low marks. For primary education, Brazil ranked 124th and Mexico 121st. For overall educational quality, Brazil ranked 115th and Mexico 107th. For math and science education, Brazil ranked 127th and Mexico 126th. (Chile’s rankings in those categories were 123rd, 87th, and 124th, respectively.)
Bear in mind that Brazil and Mexico have achieved great success with cash-transfer programs designed to reward parents for keeping their children in school and taking them for regular health checkups. The main Brazilian program is known as Bolsa Família; its Mexican counterpart is Oportunidades (it was originally called Progresa). And yet both countries are still struggling mightily to boost educational outcomes.
The current Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, has expanded Bolsa Família, as did her predecessor, Lula da Silva. She has also launched a scholarship program called Science Without Borders to help more Brazilians pursue STEM studies at foreign universities. This program is “both welcome and much needed,” writes Rutgers political scientist Eduardo Gómez.
But before aspiring to build a world-renowned, technically sophisticated workforce, perhaps President Rousseff should invest more in her primary and secondary schools, where the future of Brazil's scientific and technological progress truly resides.
Indeed, the weakness of its K-12 educational system is the primary reason why Brazil is now facing a major shortage of skilled workers. The same problem has arisen in Panama, a country that is booming despite the poor quality of its schools.
Thankfully, the campaign for education reform is gaining steam across Latin America. “In country after country,” Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, managing director of Blue Star Strategies, observed recently, “Latin American businesses are teaming up with NGOs and governments to deliver better educational outcomes.”
He listed several examples. In Brazil, the continent’s biggest media conglomerate is funding a program that offers “government-accredited, complete elementary education through free television programming and accompanying materials such as books and DVDs.” In Mexico, a nonprofit organization helped finance a 2012 documentary highlighting the obstacles to a better Mexican education system. The film, which paints a damning portrait of the Mexican national teachers’ union and its leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, generated enormous buzz in Mexico, sparking a passionate debate and “outdrawing Oscar-winning features,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, the private sector is expanding Internet access via a massive laptop initiative in Nicaragua, and energy companies are sponsoring scholarships and other educational programs in Colombia.
Even those Latin American and Caribbean countries that ranked highest in the World Economic Forum survey are working hard to bolster their schools. Take my native Costa Rica. “In 2010,” reports the Legatum Institute, “over 80 percent of respondents expressed both satisfaction with their local educational institutions and believed that Costa Rican children have sufficient opportunities to learn and grow every day.” Yet the country still needs far more of its students to complete high school and some form of college: “The typical Costa Rican worker has undertaken just under a year of both secondary and tertiary education.” Since 2006, Costa Rica has used a conditional cash-transfer program (similar to Brazil’s Bolsa Família and Mexico’s Oportunidades) to reduce its high-school dropout rate.
Such programs should be expanded wherever possible. Latin America must also place a stronger emphasis on math and science education, given its innovation deficit, its need to create more technology-based jobs, and its need to keep up with the emerging economies of Asia. Finally, it must harness the current momentum and encourage the private sector to become more involved in educational initiatives (such as scholarship and Internet programs).
If Latin American countries take these steps, they will greatly enhance their ability to compete in a 21st-century global economy.
(Read this article in Spanish here.)