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School children in Guatemala. (Photo: IDB)
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Education for Transformation

A new report from the Inter-American Development Bank spotlights education in Latin America.




There is no doubt that education results in Latin America are not good. But even more importantly, what can be done? What are the strategies, the comprehensive reforms that countries need to improve the quality of their schools? That is exactly what the latest Inter-American Development Bank publication, Education for Transformation, seeks to understand.


The report is edited by Marcelo Cabrol, former head of the Bank’s education division, and Miguel Székely, Mexico’s former Undersecretary for Secondary Education at the Ministry of Education, and combines the insights of a series of education experts. The structure of the book purposely follows the “natural educational cycle,” beginning with early childhood development, then moving to teachers, as well as addressing important factors like infrastructure and technology.


However, that is not to say that the report is student centered. The emphasis, rather, is on teachers, their salaries, and their training. The brief commentary about technology’s ability to put the student at the center of learning via a personalized education is referred to as a novelty. But hasn’t the education system ultimately always been about students? There is unfortunately not much reference to this reality – little is said about the reforms, movement, and institutions that have been struggling to put the student back at the center of the education process.


The report is made up of ten chapters written by a number of advisors, consultants and Bank experts, a group of people that are certainly among the most knowledgeable about education reform in the region, not only from a theoretical perspective, but also from a practical one. The authors have worked with both federal and local governments to develop educational initiatives, and administer educational loans and grants.


Education for Transformation does diagnose the problems facing Latin America quite well, with an array of fresh data. Over the past few decades, access has been growing fast, but early childhood development and high school attendance continue to be the strongest challenges for the region. Access for four and five year olds increased from 36 percent in 1990 to more than 60 percent at the present day – including girls, making Latin America one of the most gender equal regions of the world in terms of access to school.


Distressingly, however, more than 40 percent of students drop out. This is often for economic reasons, but increasingly it’s because they simply don’t find what they are learning to be useful – according to the report, this describes one out of three dropouts. As other Bank research has shown, the skills that the increasingly globalized labor market demands are very different from what schools are teaching.


The book also brings new data that demonstrates the correlation between good school infrastructure with education performance. The way in which they highlight the importance of school management – including empowering school principals with enough autonomy to hire their own teaching team – also adds significant value to the discussion. Students at schools with these elements consistently achieve better results.


Achieving educational quality remains the most important challenge. Quality is strongly correlated to socioeconomic factors, as the authors once again confirmed. It is less clear, however, how the authors propose to deal with these challenges. In the final chapters they include some analysis of initiatives like Teach for America in Chile, Argentina and Peru, and a program to improve the teaching of math in Argentina. But there is not much analysis about broader reforms that are taking place in the region, nor how to achieve them.


Perhaps what is missing is a greater sense of political economy, more about the way in which the political process impacts our ability to achieve reforms. Who are the major stakeholders in the education reform process? There is no mention of teacher unions, one of the most important players in any education system. Only at the conclusion do they address the evident importance of reaching consensus among governments, parents, and other civil society members to achieve reform. A close analysis of these factors is increasingly important for bringing new ideas into the education reform debate. The omission is noticeable, so I asked one of the editors, and former head of the education division at the IDB, Marcelo Cabrol. He told me that in the last few years, education reform has been driven by non-governmental organizations, civic society movements, which is the main reason they focused on them as game changers. Institutions like Teach for America, Empresarios por la Educacion, Mexicanos Primero.


Finally, what is the role of the private sector? Latin American companies have been growing at leaps and bounds; a specific term, “multilatinas” has even been coined to refer to phenomenon of multinational firms based in the region. Multilatinas are taking more relevant roles in advocating for education improvements, financing reform initiatives, and participating in public-private partnerships.

Education for Transformation contains excellent data and makes an important contribution to understanding Latin American education. But it also points to the limits of what we currently know. How can private organizations push for better quality? How can parents develop the skills to become a force that can pressure political leaders? It is unfortunate that we don’t hear about these issues, even though the authors have their experiences to share. In order to move forward, it will be increasingly important to hear about just this kind of concrete, real world experiences. Cabrol assured me that those are the topics of his next book.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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