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How Can We Build Good Educational Systems in Latin America?

This post is by Silvina Gvirtz and Esteban Torre.

How can we build good educational systems in Latin America? This is a question that has had a significant place in the policy agenda of Latin American governments for the last decade. But, are we headed in the right direction? We should consider, at least, three dimensions:

necessary conditions

    : inputs such as education spending, school infrastructure, remuneration and working conditions of teachers;

internal efficiency

    : enrollment, repetition, dropout, graduation rates, etc.; and,

academic performance

    : students learning outcomes.

If we observe these dimensions, we should conclude that, although complex, the situation in Latin America is not as daunting as some voices suggest. There are people that just look at learning results without considering that, in democratic societies, the whole population must have access to school and, at the same time, have a quality education.

Necessary conditions: Latin American countries focus on sustained increase in education spending, education laws extending compulsory education, and massive initiatives of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) inclusion. Even though there is cross-country heterogeneity, on average, there are still important challenges related to the working conditions of teachers.

Internal efficiency: Latin American countries are experiencing significant growth in the net enrollment rates at all levels of education. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the average enrollment rate at the pre-primary level was 41.4% in 2000 and 57.7% in 2008. The primary level enrollment rate reached over 90% in most Latin American countries. And, the enrollment rate at the secondary level increased from 62.7% in 2000 to 72% in 2008. This achievement implies active inclusion policies of historically marginalized populations, school construction, and important education spending, a fact that is rarely properly weighted when analyzing the region. The significant growth in enrollment rates at all levels of education must be accompanied by low levels of repetition, high rates of graduation, and quality learning.

Academic performance: While enrollment rates are increasing, the learning levels need to be improved. Latin American countries that participate in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) get below average scores in reading, mathematics, and science. However, the "good news" is that Latin American countries participating in the 2009 test improved their 2006 performance (and we expect this tendency to continue for PISA 2012), which indicates a movement towards systemic improvement in student achievement.

Recently, one of us (Gvirtz) had the pleasure to participate at the International Experts' Meeting on "Key Curricular and Learning Issues in the Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda," organized by the UNESCO International Bureau of Education. I would like to share with you some of the points of the meeting's statement that should guide the construction of good education systems in Latin America (and elsewhere).

Access and quality are inseparable and intertwined.

    This is the big challenge: access to basic education cannot be separated from the equitable provision of quality education.

Curriculum is at the heart of quality learning as it shapes teaching and learning processes.

    Curriculum should imply the coordination of policy and planning, the preparation of textbooks, teacher training, and learning assessment.

Teachers are an essential component of quality learning and the core of educational change.

    In the context of democratization of access to school we have described, teachers need to be able to adapt their practices to the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. Countries should develop comprehensive policies that seek to strengthen teacher preparation in the digital age as well as their status, remuneration, and working conditions.

In addition to the three points, and in particular, pertaining to the curricular point, it is important to note another key element--an inclusion of student voice in informing curriculum reform, especially on the secondary level. For instance, an implementation of a curriculum reform in Buenos Aires city (Argentina) in the secondary level caused student complains because their voices were not heard in the discussion. A lesson from this episode is that curricular reform should be based on multi-stakeholder discussions including students, teachers, families, agencies, and the community.

Latin American governments are investing in the educational inputs. Educational change is a complex process. It takes time before significant outcomes are realized, specifically, results that indicate educational justice in Latin America.

Silvina Gvirtz is the general executive director of Conectar Igualdad (Connect Equality), a professor at Universidad de San Martín, a visiting professor at the University at Albany in New York, and a researcher at CONICET (National Scientific and Technology Research Agency) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Esteban Torre is an adviser to the general executive director of Conectar Igualdad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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