Latin American Report


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8 April 1999

Latin America Gets Poor Marks

by Zoraida Portillo

LIMA, Mar 29 (IPS) - Latin America is noticeably lagging behind other regions of the developing South in the education sector and the majority of students are unable to obtain a top quality education, say researchers.

A study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has revealed that only one in three Latin American young people manage to obtain a secondary school education, while in Southeast Asia the number is 80 percent.

For their part, Latin American workers have an average of 4.8 years of education, compared to six years for their Asian counterparts, according to the document by the multilateral institution. The report also noted that, in the 1960s, both regions suffered from similar education problems. Another minus for the Latin American education system is the large number of students (one-third) who repeat a grade or who drop out of school before completing sixth grade.

A study by the Program to Promote Educational Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean (PREAL), financed by the Canada-based International Center for Research and Development (ICRD), produced more gloomy news. Only half of primary school graduates in Latin America go on to finish their studies, compared to the 95 percent in Malaysia and Korea.

All education experts agreed that one of the most important challenges facing Latin American authorities in the immediate future was to reduce the high levels of school desertion. Eduardo Lora, director of the IDB publication Economic Policies of Latin America, elaborated that of every 100 children who come from the poorest 40 percent of the region, only 10 percent continue their studies through the ninth year. The rest stop halfway, generally because they go to work to help their families' incomes.

The IDB's annual Economic and Social Progress report noted that students in Colombia, El Salvador and Peru who work and go to school, labor some 20 hours a week and 32 when they are on vacation. In rural zones, there is a marked drop in school attendance during harvest time and peasant children and teenagers leave school after five or six years and return the following year, the report found. The inadequate structure of the educational system obliged those children to repeat the year and, once again, the foreseeable result for most children was the final abandonment of school and full incorporation into the agricultural labor force.

The Peruvian expert Hugo Diaz affirms that a high percentage of school drop-outs ''have not mastered the basic concepts of mathematics and other sciences, including the use of language, nor do they have access to the basic training indispensable to successfully face the challenges of the modern labor market.'' Diaz, director of the non-governmental Institute for Development and National Defence, opined that one of the solutions would be to make the school day more flexible, in such a way that children and teenagers who work could have the option of choosing what time is best for them.

''A poll should be taken among these young workers to learn their work hours'' so the times of study could be adapted, he advises.

However, the experts indicated that the heart of the education problem in Latin America was its prevailing low quality. Poor people were not less educated only because of a lack of resources but because they received an education of inferior quality and the market paid little attention to any efforts to educate themselves, the experts said. At an international conference on education reform in Latin America, which took place last year in Toronto, it was stressed that the real problem for the region is not access to education, rather its poor quality. Educationalists took that opportunity to say that although, on average, graduation rates have risen in the countries of the area, instruction in basic subjects, like language, mathematics and the sciences, has eroded.

The biggest problem stems from the teaching in public schools, where in general the teachers are low-paid, fewer class hours are required than in private schools and resources are lacking, producing an education of very low quality.

''We are creating two urban classes: those who are prepared to lead, with broad technological and scientific knowledge, and their subordinates, who have a deficient education and are ill-prepared for the challenges of the next century,'' explained Carola Salvatierra, an international consultant on population and development issues. The former were educated in private schools, with facilities comparable to the industrialised world, while the latter attended deficient public schools, Salvatierra said.

According to diverse studies, graduates of private schools received an average of 1,000 hours of instruction per year, imparted by well-trained teachers who adhere to a modern curriculum that is periodically updated. Those at state schools, on the other hand, received between 500 and 800 hours of class time; their programs were not connected to the reality of the students, the educational services were insufficient and the low-paid instructors generally had to work at another job which diminished their teaching abilities, Salvatierra said.

Teachers' unions continued to be the most powerful in Latin America but, most of the time their demands were limited to salary raises with calls to improve the quality of education practically non-existent, she said. The allocation of resources to the education sector is the true core of the problem. On average, the countries of Latin America earmarked just 4.5 percent of their gross domestic products for education, while military spending was double or triple that percentage. Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba and Mexico were the only countries to allocate more than the average - spending almost 6 percent of their overall budgets on education. El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru were at the other extreme, with allocations of less than 2.5 percent to education. Paradoxically, in these countries, 20 percent of the budget went on defence.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)