Great strides have been made in the past two decades in access to education throughout Latin America, but the majority of children in the region are still 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.
Levels of inequality in Latin America are some of the highest in the world. Countries in the region, in consideration of the Gini coefficient, are nearly 30% more unequal than the global average (Lustig, IMF, 2015). 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 must be supported in efforts towards greater education quality
Latin America is falling behind other regions of the world with respect to years of school and quality of schooling. In 2015, Latin America is, on average, 2.5 years of schooling behind the OECD average (IDB, 2015). 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. On average, in Mexico, students score 81 points below on math than the OECD average (494 points). This is equivalent to a loss of two years of schooling. In the most recent 2015 PISA exam, this gap widened even further to the equivalent of three years loss in schooling.
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 and Brazil’s performance has remained unchanged since 2006 (OECD PISA, 2015).
Latin America’s high dropout rate – Children are not staying in school
- Primary school completions rates have risen from 85% in 2001 to 92% in 2013, highlighting the incredible gains in educational access in the region (Brookings, 2015). However, 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).
- One in five youth aged 15–24 in Latin America is out-of-school and not working, a phenomenon referred to as “Ninis” – short for “ni estudian ni trabajan”. While the share of youth who are ninis has declined gradually since 1992, it hasn’t fallen fast enough to offset the growth in population. As a result, the number of ninis in the region has grown by two million to 20 million (World Bank, 2016).
- It is well established that school dropouts have worse outcomes (physical, mental and economic) than do those youth who stay in school.
Education investments are inadequate, poorly directed, and favor high-income students
Despite increases in past years, spending on elementary education is still low throughout the region
- Mexico spends USD 27,848 per student between ages 6 to 15 years. This level of expenditure is 31% of the OECD average, whereas Mexico’s per capita GDP (USD 17 315) is 44% of the OECD average (OECD, 2015).
- 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.)
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.
Across the globe, teachers report a desire to increase their skills through professional development. According to the OECD’s Teacher and Learning International Survey, on average globally, 55% of teachers want more professional development opportunities (TALIS, 2013).
Mexican and Brazilian teachers feel thankful for the opportunity but unprepared to adequately address the teaching challenges they face. Almost a quarter (24%) of teachers in Mexico report not feeling prepared to perform their work (the third largest share of teachers), compared with the TALIS average of 7% (OECD, 2013).
Mexico has the lowest proportion of teachers who report having completed a teacher education or training programme (62%) among countries participating in TALIS (OECD, 2013).
In a 2014 press release by the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) finds that more than nine out of ten teachers are satisfied with their jobs. But less than a third believe teaching is a valued profession in society. Importantly, those countries where teachers feel valued tend to perform better in PISA.
Plan for progress – the case for Worldfund
Progress is surely taking hold throughout Latin America. Worldfund is proud to play a role in furthering this decade’s social progress. Poverty is still a problem, but with a $4 a day poverty line, the region’s population living in poverty fell from 45 to 25 percent between 2000 and 2014 (Brookings, 2016). But Latin American countries still rank very low in the world in terms of the quality of education. In the PISA 2015, Latin America and the Caribbean were again positioned at the bottom of the international ranking on education quality. Mexico ranked at 56th in Math and 58th in Science; Brazil did worse: 65th in Math and 63rd in Science. Both Mexico and Brazil obtained results equivalent to three years less of schooling than the average registered by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)
Worldfund envisions a future in which all children in Latin America receive the education they need to become productive members of society and works every day toward this vision.
We focus on the key area where we can have the greatest impact: leadership at the school level. Our mission is to deliver world-class training and ongoing support to teachers and principals from underserved schools in Latin America, fundamentally impacting the system from the bottom up.
Worldfund works in partnership with local governments and brings private corporations to the table to invest resources and expertise. Since its founding in 2002, Worldfund has invested over $24 million in education programs, and trained nearly 8,000 educators in Mexican and Brazilian public schools, reaching more than 4.4 million students.
Building bridges: Cross-cultural investment and celebration of high-quality education
The Americas is a vast and nuanced region. But as neighbors, we owe it to the common global good to come together to support each other in areas crucial to global development and international cooperation. In one particular example that Worldfund works towards: quality education for all of our citizens.
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.
The vast, continued exchange of citizens, goods and services between the United States and Latin America’s two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, is reason enough to ensure an open dialogue throughout the Americas. Common decency and respect should seal the deal.
At Worldfund, we’re fighting to make sure students in Latin America do not continue to suffer from the underfunding of education. Your contribution helps make a difference.