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<<Biblioteca Digital del Portal<<La Educación<<La Educación (120) I, 1995 <<Artículo
La Educación
Número: (120) I
Año: 1995

Principal Ideas

The most notable aspect of conference proceedings was the remarkable agreement among participants regarding problems and issues. Clearly, there is a growing consensus that something is seriously amiss with the region’s education systems and that major—even radical—change must be sought. It is also clear that many of the fundamental issues go beyond those traditionally included in discussions about educational reform. The main conference sessions—on the relationship between education and democracy, political obstacles to reform, and education and economic competitiveness—generated intense discussion and reflect the broader concerns currently driving the education debate and taking it beyond narrow technical solutions. Today the education policy agenda pays much more attention to political and economic issues than it did in the past.

Higher priority to education. Common throughout the discussions was the idea that higher priority should be given to education. For years governments have expended their greatest policy effort on macroeconomic reform and democratic rule—an effort that has led to profound economic and political change in virtually every country of the hemisphere. But they have dedicated much less effort and talent to social policy. With human resources overtaking natural resources as the most important factor in economic growth and political stability, a different approach is needed. Governments must now turn their attention to making sure that human capital is accumulated at a much higher rate—and education is their chief policy tool.

Not surprisingly, a major motivation behind this appraisal was economic. Secretary General Gaviria captured these concerns in his keynote speech when he observed that Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing a crisis in their education systems just at a time when the entire world is concluding that human resources will play an increasingly important role in determining success in world trade. Sebastián Edwards cited the poor performance of public schools as a major obstacle to improving Latin America’s economic competitiveness, and called on governments to take bold steps to improve them. Failing to do so would jeopardize the macroeconomic reforms that have been put in place. Jonathan Coles stressed the potential of the business community for improving levels of education and competitiveness in their countries. Others, such as Minister Eduardo Doryan, stressed the importance of good education for development strategy more generally, including its positive impact on democratic consolidation and sustainable economic and environmental systems.

Participants did not argue that the problem was low public spending. Birdsall pointed out that public expenditures on education in Latin America were 3.4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1990, compared with 3.6 percent for developing countries overall, and 3.7 percent for East Asia. But governments have failed to allocate the necessary political and intellectual resources to produce modern and effective education systems. Montenegro, citing the Colombian case, noted that education ministries have traditionally been weak, with second-rate ministers and little political backing. In many countries teachers unions are stronger and have more experienced leadership than do the education ministries. The incentives necessary to attract talented personnel (salaries, responsibility, and prestige)—often present for economic policy makers—have not been in place for education. The political will to institute tough reforms has also been lacking. Too often, as Pablo Better noted, education ministers have dedicated most of their efforts to short-term problems (like avoiding teachers’ strikes) rather than to making fundamental, long-term improvements in education quality.

Quality, not quantity. A second idea was that the principal problem is quality, not quantity. Despite major improvements in coverage over the past three decades, the quality of public education is far from acceptable—and some would say it is deplorable. Birdsall and Edwards both stressed the poor performance of Latin American students on international comparisons of test scores. Birdsall noted as well the region’s extraordinarily high primary repetition and dropout rates, and the steady decline in average expenditures per student since 1980. All point to a system that leaves many students without a basic mastery of language and mathematics, and unequipped to participate successfully in modern society. These failings have far-reaching negative implications for economic and political development. And because most countries have not established national achievement tests to measure skills, they have been slow in recognizing the problem. Policy makers should shift their priorities in education, placing less emphasis on expanding enrollments and more on bringing quality up to acceptable levels.

Income disparities. A third idea was that education has a crucial role in addressing the region’s extraordinarily high income disparities. Latin America has the most unequal distribution of income in the world—in part because quality schooling is so unequally distributed. As Schwartzman pointed out, providing good quality, universal primary education is essential to providing citizens with equal opportunity for participating in social life. The poor quality of public education in Latin America perpetuates existing inequalities and favors middle- and upper-income students who can afford to attend private schools. These inequities are particularly harsh in public primary schools, where most of the poor are concentrated and where quality is often the lowest. Birdsall characterized the present situation as offering rhetoric without resources: “The poor have been given an entitlement—there will be universal education. But without resources, the quality of that education and thus the value of that entitlement, has fallen.”

The discussion of inequality led repeatedly to the question of how public resources are allocated, and to the relative merits of public subsidies to primary, secondary, and university education. The issue proved to be contentious. Birdsall stressed the argument for concentrating public resources on public primary and secondary education—as most of the successful East Asian economies have done—rather than on higher education, as is common in Latin America. Gaviria also urged giving priority to primary and secondary education over higher education. Other participants—particularly the several university rectors who participated in the conference—argued strongly for maintaining, or even increasing, public subsidies to higher education. The political pressure in favor of free higher education was evident in the discussions, as was the need for improving the quality of public primary schools. The struggle between these two competing demands is far from resolved.

Democracy. A fourth issue was the relationship between education and democracy. Participants stressed the importance of good education in stabilizing and consolidating democratic rule. Education diffuses democratic values and creates the informed citizenry necessary for democratic systems to function properly. Moreover, the spread of education promotes greater equity—which is at the heart of the democratic idea. But the relationship is also two-way: citizens expect democratic governments to provide them with tangible benefits, and good education usually is at the top of their agenda. “Equal access to basic education,” as Schwartzman pointed out, “is a public good.” Democracies need good systems of education if they are to succeed. Those that fail to offer equal access to quality education undermine their credibility and their stability.

Institutions are failing. A fifth idea heard throughout the proceedings was that a major part of the problem is institutional—that the institutions that provide education are seriously flawed and must be fundamentally restructured. The state has long maintained centralized control of education in most countries. The stakeholders in education, particularly parents, local authorities, and employers have little or no say in how schools are run. This has resulted in low quality and inefficient educational systems. Fundamental institutional change is needed.

Here the participants discussed at length such issues as decentralization, competition, and privatization. Edwards emphasized the need for restructuring educational systems, strengthening their management and giving the private sector a greater role. He stressed the tremendous political influence wielded by public sector unions in Latin American education, citing their resistance to measures that would introduce accountability and require greater productivity, and arguing for more flexible labor arrangements. Birdsall emphasized the importance of “mimicking the market”—by avoiding new public monopolies in such areas as pre-school education, giving schools more autonomy in hiring and firing, promoting competition among schools, and letting additional demand for higher education be met by the private sector. In a similar vein, Coles argued that the business sector, which stands to gain from better education, could be an effective mobilizer of support for reform. Engaging the business sector—through investment or governance—would make systems accountable and increase the incentives for higher quality. Secretary General Gaviria emphasized decentralization and suggested in some cases directly subsidizing demand, so as to enable students to choose the school they will attend. Once again, specific policy prescriptions agreeable to all did not emerge, but there was clearly a mandate for fundamental institutional change and for experimentation with various mechanisms for achieving it.

Politics is the barrier. A final idea broadly present in the discussions was that the greatest obstacles to improvement are political rather than technical. Montenegro outlined the political battles that accompanied Colombia’s recent education reform, emphasizing the fierce resistance by the teachers’ union to decentralization, greater autonomy for school managers, and increased parental choice. He also noted the relative absence of support for reform by business groups, party leaders, and municipal authorities. Politicians have opposed decentralization because it means that decisions on education jobs and investment (often an important source of patronage) will slip away to municipal authorities. The business community, traditionally unexposed to the rigors of international competition and accustomed to educating its children in private schools, has until recently also paid little attention to public education policy. Without political support from those key social sectors, he suggested, even the most reform-minded government will have a hard time making the necessary tough decisions.

Because so many of the obstacles to education reform are political, participants argued that governments must adopt a different approach. They must make reform a political priority, and allocate significant political resources to bringing it about rather than just turning the process over to ministries of education. Secretary General Gaviria suggested that education must become a “transcendent political issue” if needed policy changes are to be instituted. He noted that implementing education reform requires a courageous political decision that will produce neither immediate applause nor immediate results. Birdsall approached the political question from a different perspective, urging for a “social demand for reform, built on a knowledgeable consensus around the nature of the problem,” so that a broad movement for reform can take shape. In her view, changing the demand for education is crucial to changing the supply. That implies getting new actors—such as business leaders, community activists, and political party officials—involved in the debate on education policy. A political strategy must be devised before a technical strategy can be successful.