As Low Priority, Latin American Schools Not Very Competitive
A Monthly Look at Education in Latin America by the Inter-American Dialogue's Jeffrey Puryear
WASHINGTON, DC—Policymakers agree that Latin America's ability to compete in global markets depends substantially on the quality of its schools. Good education is crucial, goes the argument, because the region can't compete with China and India on the basis of cheap labor, and because its mineral and agricultural commodities can't provide lasting prosperity for all. As the global economy becomes more knowledge-intensive, only a skilled labor force can consistently add value and guarantee the region's comparative advantage.
Latin American schools, however, are not very competitive. Although more children go to school, they do not appear to learn very much. Latin America routinely scores at the bottom in every international assessment of student achievement. In the most recent OECD test, half or more of the 15-year olds in the three Latin American countries that participated (Mexico, Brazil, and Uruguay) could not use reading to analyze problems or build new skills. A majority could not consistently apply basic mathematical skills to real-world problems. These relationships hold even when comparing Latin American students with countries similar in GDP per capita. And curiously, even the most affluent Latin American students score at or below the OECD average, and well below the OECD top-performers.
Indicators at the university level are no more encouraging. In a 2005 ranking of the world's 500 universities, no Latin American university ranked in the top 100. In most countries, less than a quarter of students study science and engineering, compared with nearly 40 percent in Korea and 30 percent in Ireland and Finland. Latin America scores well below Asia and Eastern Europe and the former USSR in the production of scientific and engineering articles. Most Latin American students receive less English instruction than do their counterparts in East Asia.
What's going on? A variety of technical explanations—low learning standards, inadequate testing, poor teaching, bad management, and (in some countries) low investment—explain the poor quality of the region's schools. But behind them is a more fundamental problem: few countries have given education genuine political priority.
To be sure, everyone agrees that quality education is crucial, and should be extended to all children, especially the poor. But when it comes time to make tough decisions, the consensus breaks down. Holding schools, teachers, and students accountable for achieving high learning standards means making powerful interest groups unhappy. Presidents, Congress, party leaders, employers, and even parents have not been willing to do that. Because of their reluctance, the effective demand for high-quality education is weak in most of Latin America. Until political leaders, employers, and parents move beyond their current false consensus, they won't willingly take on the political costs necessary to make quality education a reality.
Jeffrey Puryear is Vice President for Social Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue.