Education and Inequality in Latin America
The majority of Latin American children are not receiving a high-quality and relevant education. As a result, too many Latin American youth entering the labor force lack the skills necessary to find dignified work and participate in an increasingly competitive, information-rich and globalized economy.
At the same time, employers cannot find enough qualified people to fill open positions. This profound human resource mismatch is suppressing economic growth and perpetuating a system of haves and have-nots. Unequal societies are less efficient at converting growth into poverty reduction. In Latin America, the education gap mirrors the income gap between rich and poor.
Averages in developing countries can be very deceptive. This is the case in Latin America, where GDP (PPP) per capita income levels for most of the major countries in the region vary between US$3,336 and US$18,355 versus US$49,802 for the USA. However, levels of inequality in Latin America are the highest in the world, with at least one in three households and two in five people living below the poverty line. Some 74 million Latin Americans (about 12.4% of the region's population) live on less than $2 per day. Over half of them are children. And, in Brazil, children in the bottom income quintile complete an average of eight years of school versus over ten years completed by children in the top income quintile.
Latin America’s High Drop-Out Rate – Children Are Not Staying In School
- 92% of Latin American children begin primary school, but only 41% of Brazilians and 35% of Mexicans graduate from secondary school (the U.S. equivalent of middle/high school).
- Approximately 22.2 million children and adolescents in Latin America are not in school or at risk of dropping out of school each year.
- It is well established that school dropouts have worse outcomes (physical, mental and economic) than do those youth who stay in school.
Latin America Is Falling Behind Other Regions of the World in Education Quality
Latin America is falling behind other regions of the world with respect to years of school and quality of schooling. Asian countries, like South Korea, had similar, if not worse, educational levels than many Latin American countries 50 years ago. Today, South Korea boasts more years of schooling and significantly better educational outcomes than every single Latin American country.
Latin American 15 year olds score especially poorly in math and science, critical skills in today’s job market. Approximately 50% of Mexicans, Colombians and Brazilians do not have the skills necessary to solve simple math equations or to explain basic scientific phenomena.
Perhaps even more surprising, only a tiny sliver (well under 1%) of Latin American students score at the top level of international exams; even Latin America’s high-income students perform below their international peers, not just Latin America’s poor. Less than 0.1% of students in Brazil performed at the highest level in science.
Education Investments Are Inadequate, Poorly Directed, and Favor High-Income Students
Despite increases in past years, spending on elementary education is still relatively low throughout the region.
- Per capita spending on primary education in Latin America averages approximately 22% of U.S. levels.
- Latin American universities, which serve less than 10% of the population, receive a disproportionate share of education dollars compared to primary education. (In Brazil, public universities have only 2% of all pupils, but receive 25% of all federal education funds.)
Educational Outcomes Directly Impact Economic Growth
The quality of a country’s education system has a direct impact on economic growth. Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford University has recently quantified this link, even for developing countries, where it has been traditionally difficult to collect data.
Teachers Are a Key Driver of Education Quality
A growing body of research clearly shows that the quality of a student’s teacher can have a huge impact on that student’s success in school and life. In other words, teacher quality is a key driver of education quality.
However, Latin American countries have little or no selectivity when It comes to the teaching profession, compared other countries with outstanding primary education.
- Korea allows only the top 5% of university graduates to enter the teaching profession, Finland allows only the top 10%, and Singapore allows only the top 30% to enter.
- In Brazil, one third of teachers barely passed high school.
- In Mexico, 70% of teachers failed the National Teacher Examination.
RESOURCE ALLOCATION: WHERE FOUNDATION GRANTS ARE GOING
Education in Latin America is being overlooked by international grantmakers within the United States. In fact only a small portion of overseas funding is directed toward Latin America. In addition, only a small fraction of international funding is directed toward education, and of that only a tiny fraction is directed to K-12 education.
At Worldfund, we're fighting to make sure students in Latin America do not continue to suffer from the under-funding of education. Your contribution helps make a difference.