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La Educación
Número: (114) I
Año: 1993

The Shape of Reforms

The expansion of education and the new educational problems brought about by society’s growing expectations and demands in relation to education have led to an education reform movement in the region. In some cases, the reforms have been thorough and comprehensive; in others, they have been confined to certain sectors or levels of education. Historically, the reforms/innovations in education in the region have been due to the influences of international agencies rather than a sense of “educational identity” derived from similar cultural values. Thus, the criticism is that the educational reforms in the region do not always consider the uniqueness of each country—or the differences among regions—as a condition for success. To a certain extent, the failure of many successful foreign experiences, when applied to the Latin American context without any adjustments to the region’s characteristics, can be blamed as one reason for the problems. Recently, Latin American educators and policy makers have become increasingly aware of the need for exchanging experiences within the region and finding solutions based on the region’s past educational experiences and collective issues. This new attitude has also contributed in adjusting international experiences and educational innovations in Latin American educational reality.

Together with international agencies’ technical and financial support to education, the regional conferences of Education Ministers, usually sponsored or convened by UNESCO and other international agencies, have played an important role in the educational development of the region. Those conferences, mainly aimed at providing support and aid for national policies and measures in the field of education, have, to a great extent, determined the direction and shape of reforms. Historically, the nature and basic objectives of these movements are rooted to a concern for democratizing education and improving its quality. As expected, the reforms in Brazil have reflected these ideas as well.

Following the 1956 Regional Conference on Free and Compulsory Education in Latin America held in Lima (Peru), which marked a turning point in the education in the region, many reforms were introduced. Compulsory education was extended and the initial years of secondary education were combined to produce a more effective basic education course. Secondary education was divided into two phases, a common first phase and a diversified second phase. In recent reforms, the tendency has been to provide more specialized studies with various subject options or more vocational education courses that prepare pupils for specific occupations.

A growing importance has been attached to pre-school education, and the consequent expansion of this level of education has been increasingly reflected in structural reforms. Pre-school education, not generally available to those who are most in need of it, and rarely provided in rural areas, was expanding principally in the private sector and was beyond the reach of all except those who had sufficient financial means to meet the expenditure involved. Recent studies in the field of pre-school education involving low-income children have shown the vital importance of pre-schooling to the intellectual development of children, as well as how pre-school education is such an effective way of making up for inadequacies and shortcomings in a child’s upbringing that originate from their social cultural background.3 With the motivation to enhance the quality of basic education, Brazil has made considerable improvements in providing pre-school education in public schools, both at state and municipal levels. In fact, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution gives an express responsibility in the provision of such programs to the municipalities. On the other hand, international and national agencies are now making provisions for pre-school opportunities, mainly for those belonging to low-income segments of the population. The Salvadorean EDUCO4 program is one example of pre-school and basic education intervention managed by the community groups with the technical and financial support of the Ministry of Education. Parent participation has been an important tool in the provision of education in rural areas, and results of this participation in education show the necessity of raising the quality of education provided.

In higher education there has been a tendency towards structural integration. In particular, departments have now been established to replace the traditional faculties and schools. This move has been coupled with the adoption of a credit system and other changes in the organization and structure of higher education programs. Another trend is the establishment of specialized institutions to provide training for specific professions. Post-graduate studies are frequently organized within the framework of lifelong education. Recently in Brazil, with regard to higher education reforms, the issue of autonomy in public universities has been translated into less participation of the public sector in the maintenance of higher education. However, the country’s economic turmoil has held back any major changes in public higher education.

More attention is now being paid to the various forms of adult education, such as literacy training, supplementary education for people who missed part of their school education, accelerated vocational training, and job training within the framework of economic development plans. However, with few exceptions, adult education alternatives have thus far been unable to solve adult illiteracy problems in the region.

Curricular reforms have been increasingly introduced in the region. Particularly in the Brazilian case, the 1971 Educational Reform established curriculum-development departments and/or state divisions which were, at the time, responsible for curricular reform and for improving the quality of educational content. New material was included in curricula on matters of contemporary interest and on topics never previously given adequate attention despite their importance; topics such as environment education, population education, sex and family education, and education in health and nutrition. But attempts to bring about renewal have, perhaps, been most evident in the reform of syllabi for the sciences and their technological applications. Brazil has been recognized as one of the countries that, together with Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and most of the Caribbean countries, has made the greatest effort in this direction.

Teaching materials present a twofold problem, for in some cases they are short in supply, and in others they are not used to their full capacity. To remedy the shortage in the 1970s and 1980s, equipment was imported at considerable expense, very often by using foreign credit. In some cases, it proved difficult to adapt such equipment to the local situation and find staff able to use and maintain it. With the lessons learned from these past experiences, and based also on the significant results demonstrated by students’ achievements in programs that emphasized the use of educational materials as the best tool to improve students’ educational achievements (Lockheed and Vespoor, 1990), production and provision of local teaching/learning materials and text books have been a major concern and have received primary attention in the design of the most recent educational projects in the region.

There is a trend towards demanding higher qualifications in teacher education. This is reflected in an increase in the length of their courses and in the provisions for better salaries for teachers at the primary level. Some advances have been made by Latin American governments in regard to the professional, administrative, and financial status of teachers through suitable legislation, particularly with a view to giving teachers a degree of security and providing a sound basis for a teaching career. In Brazil, although requirements for a move in this direction are stated in the 1971 Educational Law, the country cannot fully implement these requirements due to the large percentage of unqualified teachers, foremost in the rural areas. Nevertheless, teacher qualifications and salaries are important and sensitive issues since, in many cases, teachers are the sole providers of educational input. Thus, a teacher’s level of qualification is of significant importance to student learning achievements. The federal, state, and municipal levels of Brazilian government have had to face the fact that without giving better conditions to teachers and administrators in the public system, it would be most impossible to raise the quality of the educational services in the Brazilian public schools.

Mass media for educational purposes has also been considered in the educational reforms of Latin America. It is, in fact, particularly well-suited to this region in view of its geographical nature, the vast distances, the scattered population, the lack of buildings and amenities, and other circumstances. The movement towards development of educational research in Latin America is fairly recent, and many of the educational reforms now being undertaken lack the experimental and scientific support that this kind of research can provide. Some of the project studies are carried out with the direct cooperation of governments and academic institutions in those countries, or international agencies, so their recommendations are directed toward the solutions of the specific problems.

Coombs (1985) defends the need of making a horizontal change, rather than a linear expansion, of educational opportunities to deal with educational inequalities based on geography, sex, and socioeconomic differences. Since one of today’s most crucial problems in education is how to provide better quality to, and more relevant education for, an increasing number of learners with the limited resources available (Coombs and Hallack, 1987), administrative reforms that would permit horizontal administrative changes to enhance systems’ efficiency and quality are frequently discussed among policy makers in Third World countries.

The spectacular upsurge in the demand for education, which has exceeded all forecasts in recent years, has forced administrators to introduce stopgap measures to meet new requirements. Moreover, the new and serious problems confronting them have led to consideration of the need for reorganizing the administration of the educational systems where centralization has been pegged as the major problem of education. The debate of “the notion of decentralizing systems of education seems to command a wide range of settings” (Weiler, 1990) has also been supported by a variety of arguments. Centralization is considered to lead to bureaucratization, blocking the demands for change by society. In that sense, there has been a broad general agreement in theoretical terms with the idea of a need for decentralization, and various statements have been made to that effect. In practice, however, it is still held up by an unwillingness to hand over decision-making powers or control at certain levels. In Brazil, the current reform aims to decentralize basic education at the municipal level in order to improve education systems’ efficiency and quality.