Despite Major Obstacles, São Paulo Aims High on Education
Bold Reform Includes Standards, Merit-Pay, and Support for Schools that Lag Behind
By Alejandro J. Ganimian
It is no coincidence that few have tried to overhaul the education system of the state of São Paulo in Brazil. The state has over five million students, 250,000 teachers, and six unions. Politicians may (accurately) conclude that major attempts to improve this type of system entail political costs and are unlikely to yield results within four-year electoral cycles.
Yet, despite the odds, São Paulo has become the venue of one of Latin America's most ambitious education reforms. Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro, the state’s new secretary of education, has launched a reform effort that sets quality targets for each of the 5,350 state schools, provides monetary incentives to schools that meet these targets, and offers support to those that need to catch up.
The question that arises from the São Paulo experience is: how can an under-performing, deeply politicized, poverty-stricken education system ever be turned into fertile ground for bold education reforms? To answer this question, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a breakfast discussion with Guimarães de Castro.
The presentation shed light on at least three factors that are present in São Paulo’s reform: politically savvy design, support for the secretariat of education, and the leadership qualities of the secretary.
First, a dose of political realism characterizes the reforms. For example, as Guimarães de Castro pointed out, while merit pay is often conceived as contentious, the initiative in Sao Paulo rewards schools for improving their performance, not for achieving a certain result. This increases the likelihood that schools will receive the incentive, and thus the probability that teachers will try harder to improve. Second, the incentives are given to the whole staff in a school, not to individual teachers. In this manner, São Paulo has avoided a criticism that has hindered other merit pay programs: that rewarding teachers for their performance fosters in-school rivalries.
The design of the reform may in part explain why São Paulo is doing something that most Latin American countries have not managed to do—incorporate system-wide incentives for improved performance. As Jeffrey Puryear, co-director of the Partnership for the Revitalization of Education in the Americas (PREAL) and vice-president for social policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, argued in his opening remarks: “the major obstacle to improving education in Latin America at this point in time is politics—and if you can’t meet those political challenges, having the technical solutions is not enough.”
The second factor favoring change in São Paulo is the secretariat’s ability to muster support. As Guimarães de Castro noted, there was already some consensus in São Paulo when she took office on the need to set performance targets for schools and evaluate them. The state’s new administration has known how to capitalize on that consensus and build informed demand for quality education.
For example, in addition to its other reforms, São Paulo has recently started to distribute school-level report cards to parents every two months. These report cards aim to distill and interpret information on how students and schools are performing in relation to others, in hopes of strengthening parent-teacher accountability relations. For Eduardo Vélez, education sector manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, this initiative is key. “Part of what we need to do in Latin America is make somebody accountable in the education sector,” he said. “Currently, the blame is on the student.” Vélez went on to note that the world’s best-performing school systems have mechanisms in place whereby under-performing teachers are provided with support, but if they do not make adequate progress, they are taken out of the classroom. This level of accountability, as Vélez noted, is absent in Latin America.
The third and final element driving the São Paulo reforms is the secretary’s dedication and resourcefulness. As a former president of the Brazilian Institute of Educational Studies and Research, and a professor of political science at the State University of Campinas, Guimarães de Castro knows both the numbers in education, and the politics that explain those numbers. But she also has an avid curiosity regarding successful reforms elsewhere. She spent last week in New York City, where she reviewed and discussed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s innovative education reforms.
On top of her expertise in education, Guimarães de Castro is a seasoned public official. She has held office at the municipal, state and federal levels, most recently as the secretary for science, technology, and economic development for the State of São Paolo (2006). Previously she was in the São Paolo State Secretariat of Social Development Assistance (2003), and before that, she served as executive secretary of the Ministry of the Education (2002) and secretary of Higher Education (2001). She is no political novice and knows how to get things done. As Puryear noted when introducing Guimarães de Castro, “She is a policy entrepreneur. Latin America needs more of those.”