Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Failing Grade

Reading Time: 7 minutesHow well are Latin American students performing compared to their peers in other countries and regions? We really don’t know.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Photo by Keith Dannemiller

Reading Time: 7 minutes

For decades, presidents and ministers of education have proudly announced they were spending more money, building more schools, hiring more teachers, and enrolling more students, to the applause of poor parents delighted to have their children spend more time in school. But education has improved too slowly in Latin America. Part of the reason is that leaders and the public focus exclusively on a single measure of success: enrollment.

What has gotten lost in the region-wide rush to expand enrollment is that getting kids into school is not enough. The goal of education is to promote learning. Sitting in classrooms is a weak proxy for knowing how to read, do math, and apply science. Latin America needs to worry less about schooling and more about learning.

Common sense—and recent research—suggest that schooling is important only if children learn.

Several studies show a close link between the cognitive skills of a country’s population and its rate of economic growth. Countries that do better on international math and science tests tend to grow faster.1 High-quality education is also crucial to exercising citizenship in democracies and helps people get ahead even if they were born poor.

Unfortunately, too many Latin American children learn too little. On the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), all participating Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay) ranked in the bottom third of the 57 countries that participated globally. Roughly half their students scored at or below the lowest proficiency levels in math and science (see Figure 1 for math scores). By contrast, less than 10 percent of students in Finland and around 20 percent of children in other OECD countries scored that low. Even relatively well-off Latin American students generally scored below the OECD mean.2

Nor are these results limited to global comparisons. Latin American regional tests, such as the Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE) and other national tests also show low levels of learning across subject areas and grade levels. Far too many Latin American children are clearly not acquiring the skills they need to do well in today’s world.

Another measure of a good education system is not just the average level of learning, but also whether the poor and other disadvantaged groups are included in that learning. Again, Latin America falls short. Not only do poor children have less exposure to the early learning experiences of preschool (they are half as likely to attend as richer peers), students from poorer families also score much worse on tests. On the 2006 PISA science exam for example, poor students scored between one to two proficiency levels lower than those from higher income families. Indigenous children in Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru also perform significantly below their peers in reading and math.3

Below are a few key factors contributing to Latin America’s failure to focus on learning:

International agreements set the bar too low, giving countries little incentive to prioritize learning

Most international goals emphasize getting children, especially girls, into school—something Latin America already does fairly well. Learning, on the other hand, is seldom mentioned.

The sole Millennium Development Goal (MDG) specifically related to education—“Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”—makes no mention of quality at all. The MDG related to gender equity also relates to education access and does not mention quality.

Though nearly every Summit of the Americas education goal mentions quality, none specifies what it means in terms of learning or how to measure it. Of UNESCO’s six “Education for All” goals, three mention quality, but two only do so in passing—specifying that children should “have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality” (goal 2), and that girls should have “full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality” (goal 5). The sixth goal is specifically related to learning and commits countries to improving quality “so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.” However, it does not specify what those learning outcomes might be, how they will be measured, or when they should be achieved.

More recent goals, like the Metas Educativas del Bicentenario 2021 (Educational Goals for the 2021 Bicentennial) laid out by the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI by its initials in Spanish), go further, explicitly stating that all students should master “basic competencies” that prepare them for future studies and allow them to actively participate in society as responsible citizens.4 They even stipulate that progress should be measured using international exams such as SERCE and PISA. But improving student learning is only one of the 11 OEI education goals. The others cover such a wide gamut of activities that learning tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Because most agreements do not set specific measurable goals for learning or set a timeline for achieving them, countries give less priority to doing so. As a result, countries are failing to address a fundamental question: are children learning what they need to succeed?

Learning is harder to define and measure than enrollment

Enrollment tends to dominate discussions of education progress because it is easy to understand and measure, relatively easy to improve, and makes everyone happy. A child is either physically in school or not and either graduates or does not. UNESCO long ago developed common global standards for measuring enrollment and oversees the efforts of governments to do so. Most parents want their children to spend more time in school and thus favor expanding enrollments. Putting more children in school also benefits teachers and ministerial officials by creating more jobs. Because expanding enrollment is broadly popular, governments are willing to put up the necessary funds.

In contrast, learning is harder to understand and measure and much more difficult to achieve. Nationally, few Latin American countries have established how much and what kinds of learning they want their schools to produce. Few parents have a clear notion of how much their children should learn in any given grade. Although national tests make implicit assumptions about what students should know, they are generally not aligned with widely known and accepted learning goals, depriving countries of key tools to improve learning. If you don’t know what you want from schools, you are unlikely to get it.

Comparing learning across countries is even more difficult. For years, international organizations have relied on proxies like completion, repetition or dropout rates (or even opinion polls) to gauge quality because so few developing countries participate in international tests. (National tests are different in every country, so you can’t compare them.)

Of the most recent global tests, only six Latin American countries participated in the 2006 PISA exam, only two participated in the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and only one, Trinidad and Tobago, participated in the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Only three additional countries will participate in the 2009–2011 versions of these tests. To be sure, participation is higher than in the past, but too many countries still fail to measure their students’ performance against international benchmarks that will define those students’ opportunities in the global economy.

Focusing on learning provides little payoff for politicians

Governments under pressure to show results “now” cannot afford to wait for longer-term investments in education to bear fruit. But better learning seldom happens overnight. Consequently, policymakers often discuss quality education in terms of tangible inputs, such as trained teachers, access to the Internet and availability of textbooks and materials. They seldom track whether these inputs increase student learning. Parents often don’t complain because school conditions have visibly improved—even if their child is still struggling to read and write.

Focusing on learning may also make powerful stakeholders uncomfortable. If children are not learning enough, who is responsible for fixing the problem and how? Are teachers the problem? If so, how do we help them improve their performance? Should the worst teachers be fired or the best rewarded? How do we reach poor students or others who are being left behind? Is the ministry of education failing to do its job? The president? What should the role of parents, students and community leaders be?

Answering these questions is difficult and may lead to changes that challenge vested interests and cause some teachers and education officials to lose their jobs. Not surprisingly, there are serious political obstacles to taking learning seriously. Those who provide education (principally governments and teachers) have been a good deal more enthusiastic about measuring progress in terms of enrollments (where the news is usually good) than about measuring progress in terms of learning (where the news is usually bad).

On the flip side, those with the greatest interests in improving learning—parents, students, employers—seldom realize the scope of the problem. Few receive easy-to-understand information on the performance of their child’s school or of the system as a whole. Those that do seldom lobby for change—either because they don’t feel they can, or because they don’t know how. Poor children, who make up the bulk of the public school systems’ K–12 constituency, have even fewer advocates, since pretty much everyone who can afford to go to private school at this level does. Without children in the system, middle- and upper-class parents have less reason to fight to improve its quality.

Building a constituency of parents and community leaders who are aware that children are not learning enough and are prepared to demand more would help offset the tendency for governments and teachers unions to downplay the poor learning results in public schools.

Addressing what really matters

Properly grading the performance of an education system depends on clarifying what that system is supposed to produce. If the goal is only to increase the time children spend in classrooms, then Latin America is on the right track. But if the goal is to go a step further and produce adequate learning for all, rather than just for those who attend elite private schools, then leaders need to fundamentally change their priorities.

No one debates that getting kids in school is the first step in helping them learn. But it is not enough.

Political leaders should spark national debates on how much children ought to learn and whether they are learning it. They should call for world-class learning standards in reading, math and science in all grades. Governments should develop strong, transparent evaluation systems that test all students and track their progress over time. They should regularly participate in international student tests. They should link teacher salaries to their effectiveness in improving learning. Organizations like UNESCO and the OAS should make learning the center of their education programs and propose multinational commitments and campaigns with specific learning goals and timelines. Because strong parental demand is crucial to making schools better, governments should make sure parents understand how much their children are learning. Leaders from all sectors should demand such information and insist on better student outcomes.

For parents, and for countries generally, making sure all children learn is what matters most.

Tags: Education, Jeffrey M. Puryear, Tamara Ortega Goodspeed
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