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La Educación
Número: (117) I
Año: 1994

Background and Conceptual Framework

The persistent backwardness of the Brazilian educational system has been recognized, analyzed, and discussed for more than six decades. Before the Revolution of 1930, politicians and policymakers began to acknowledge that to join the ranks of the developed countries, Brazil would require vast improvements in the performance of the educational system and in the educational attainments of Brazilian citizens (Romanelli 1978). In their development plans and policy documents, successive governments have invariably acknowledged the country’s educational problems and the threat they pose to future economic growth and social well-being. Both military and civilian regimes have called for the expansion and improvement of the school system, assigning the highest priority to the achievement of universal primary schooling and the elimination of illiteracy.

Since 1930 much has changed for the better: enrollment rates at all levels have greatly increased, universities have proliferated, and literacy rates have risen sharply. Brazil nevertheless continues to lag behind other countries on virtually all indices of educational development. The Ministry of Education (MEC) estimates that only 82 percent of children between the ages of seven and fourteen are enrolled and that nearly five million children of compulsory attendance age are not in school. Only 16 percent of those between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are enrolled in secondary schools (see Table 1). The literacy rate among adults is approximately 80 percent, which means that more than 17 million Brazilians cannot read and write (MEC 1990). Far from matching the educational standards of  Europe and North America,  educational standards in 1990 barely exceed those of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

The reasons for the poor performance of the Brazilian educational system are well known and have been amply documented.1 Among them are low teacher salaries and a consequent shortage of qualified teachers, especially in rural areas; scarcity of textbooks and instructional materials; abbreviated school days; decaying and ill-equipped school buildings; administrative inefficiency; and curricular and pedagogical rigidities that perpetuate high rates of grade repetition and dropout.


A variety of explanations is commonly put forward for the continuing lack of improvement in the Brazilian educational system: scarcity of financial and human resources, failure of “political will” (vontade política) to put necessary reforms into practice, overstaffed and underqualified administrative and planning agencies at all levels, and ignorance of policy alternatives and effective reform strategies (e.g., Castro 1989). These explanations share the premise that the problems of the system are located in the process of policy implementation, where one or more of a set of material, institutional, and political obstacles prevent the achievement of clearly defined and universally approved educational objectives.

Explanations of this type face the monumental task of accounting for six decades of consistent policy “failure” in the Brazilian education system. To attribute the persistence of Brazil’s educational backwardness to problems in policy implementation is to impute an extraordinarily low level of competence to a long line of Brazilian governments, both civilian and military. It is simply implausible to suppose that all of the laws, plans, and policies put forward in the past sixty years to bring about improvements in the educational system have come to nothing for lack of “leadership,” money, or technical skill.2

The argument that the continuing backwardness of the Brazilian education system represents a failure to implement worthy educational policies is rooted in two closely related and equally mistaken assumptions. The first of these assumptions is that stated goals coincide with real goals.3 In fact, the educational system’s public objectives may be and often are significantly different from the objectives pursued by those in charge of the system. The former invariably include expanded access and improved instructional quality at all levels of the system, with particular emphasis on basic education. In contrast, the latter often include the provision of jobs and financial benefits for clients and the maximization of electoral support through the protection or advancement of particularistic interests.

The second assumption follows from the first. It asserts that the key policy problem in the educational system is the identification of the “best” (most effective, most efficient) means for accomplishing agreed system goals. In an educational system where private objectives commonly take precedence over public, however, political conflict focuses not on the definition of policy objectives but on the ostensibly technical question of the choice of policy instruments. Conflict arises not in disagreements over the merits of alternative administrative and financial arrangements but rather in a struggle for control of resources and responsibilities within the educational system.

The problems of policy objectives and policy instruments are discussed in the following sections of the paper. The second section discusses the ends of the education system and the priority generally accorded to private over public interests. The third section surveys three contentious and recurrent policy debates in Brazilian education, each of which hinges on the control of means within the educational system. The concluding section discusses recent policy initiatives aimed at resolving some of these problems.