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La Educación
Número: (126-128) I,III
Año: 1997

II. The Diagnostic: Strengths, Problems and Causes

Latin American and Caribbean educational systems have achieved virtually universal access to basic education and are beginning to extend available learning time during the school year. Nonetheless, the quality of public school education is incapable of responding to the demands made by political, economic, and socio-cultural development.  And, while private schools offer quality programs, they tend to serve only those in the top fifth of the income scale. Although enrollment has become virtually universal and the numbers of illiterate people (self-defined in population censuses) has stabilized, only half of the population in each age group finishes primary school and most of the rest cannot comprehend what they read on a daily basis; they are, in other words, functionally illiterate. These problems are most acute in rural and disadvantaged-urban areas and essentially are indicative of a lack of equity in the system.

Research has contributed to consensus in terms of the problems facing education, especially for students from families at the lower half of the socio-economic scale.  Poor quality is the result of a deficient learning process produced by: passive methods of teacher training; little access to effective educational materials (nearly exclusive reliance on lecture style teaching); a majority of teachers who choose their career due to inability to enter other fields (the education field is less demanding since teachers earn very little); poor administration; and, centralized funding and supervision that encourages absenteeism among teachers in rural areas.

1.  Coverage

The fact that countries in the region are concerned about education is demonstrated by universalized access to public education —which particularly benefits the most disadvantaged sectors— and in the increased number of school days per year.  Even so, children of under-educated parents are the last to benefit from each improvement (Rojas and Schiefelbein, 1997). In 1991, net school enrollment for children seven to twelve years old was virtually universal (93 percent), and peaked at the age of eight (96.3 percent). This leads to the conclusion that coverage is no longer a problem for the region’s education systems.  It also accounts for the decrease in absolute illiteracy, which went from 34 percent in 1960 to 13 percent in 1995 (UNESCO, 1968 and 1995); a final push in this regard, however, is still lacking (Gasperini, 1996).

Grade repetition rates in Latin America are among the highest in the world (although the rates for Africa and Asia may be underestimated).  Average primary school attendance is approximately seven years, but students pass only an average of four grade levels, meaning that they usually repeat three grades (Schiefelbein and Wolff, 1995).

Coverage has also increased at each educational level.  From 1980 to 1991, the percentage of the population enrolled at the four levels of the formal system —preschool, primary, secondary, and university— increased in the region from 91.9 million in 1980 to 119.5 million in 1992 (UNESCO, 1994).  During this period, preschool and university enrollment showed the greatest increase in the countries in the region, with average annual increases of 7.9 percent and 8.5 percent respectively between 1960 and 1992; these increases significantly outpace the population growth rate of 2.2 percent.  Secondary school enrollment increased by 6.2 percent for the same period.


Sixty percent of  children between the ages of five and six are enrolled in school, and enrollment for seven-year-olds has reached 95 percent of the population (Table 1). There has been a significant increase in the net rate of preschool enrollment: from 2.4 percent in 1960 to nearly 23 percent in the mid 1990s.  Forty percent of all five-year-olds attend preschool as well as 25 percent of four-year-olds.  However, few children from rural areas (except in the Caribbean) benefit from this educational level (Schiefelbein and Wolff, 1995). Preschool education mainly serves children who will start primary school the following year, live in urban areas, and belong to the middle and upper classes which can afford private programs.  Preschool programs serve only a minor percentage of the needs of the most disadvantaged groups and working mothers who require care for their children during the work day (Myers, 1995; Fujimoto-Gómez, 1996). Fifty percent of children between the ages of four and six still are not enrolled in the preschool or primary school system because they live in isolated areas, extremely impoverished regions, or indigenous settlements.


Primary School

Latin America and the Caribbean have achieved universal access to the education system, which indicates that the region is serving youth, both male and female, from all cultures and nearly all disadvantaged households.  Only children with special education needs or those living in isolated areas remain to be served.  It is worth mentioning that the number of students in the six grades of primary school exceeds the population between the ages of seven and twelve years (gross school enrollment exceeds 100 percent).  This means that, in most countries, there is sufficient educational supply to serve the entire population of the corresponding school age, barring repetition.  Moreover, the wide range of ages in first grade, which nearly all students begin at age seven, indicates that almost all first graders aged eight and older are repeaters, as well as a large portion of seven-year-olds.  A comparison between the number of first graders (17,863,964) and the population of a single age group (fewer than 11 million) illustrates the elevated number of repeaters  (close to 50 percent).

The high repetition rate, and the fact that 33 percent of  “primary school programs are only partial” (UNESCO, 1996b), reduces the possibility of completing this level of schooling, particularly in rural areas (30 per cent of the total).  It is difficult for students from low income families to be able to finance the trip far from home to attend a school offering additional grade levels.  Thus the percentage of  elementary schools offering only some grade levels contributes to inequity of coverage.

Secondary School

The increase in primary school graduates has created constant pressure to improve coverage at the secondary level.  The entire school system currently serves 64 percent of the population between ages twelve and seventeen, but only 36 percent of this population is actually in secondary school (net secondary school enrollment—the appropriate level for this age group). The remaining 27 percent of this population is enrolled in primary school because of high repetition rates (since there is no age delay in beginning school: Table 1 shows that, 96 percent of the time, entry into primary school occurs between the ages of six and seven).  Grades seven through nine have a gross enrollment of 60 per cent which decreases to 30 percent in grades ten through twelve.  This indicates that educational reforms in most countries in the region have extended basic education to eight or nine years.  Secondary school has been reduced to the last three years and is envisioned as preparation for college or technical education (UNESCO/ OREALC, 1997).

The gross enrollment rate in the 1990s is four times higher than it was in the 1960s due to rapid growth.  The average annual increase at the intermediate level (6.2 percent between 1960 and 1991) was twice the population growth rate for the corresponding age group (UNESCO, 1996b). During the 1960s and 1970s, enrollment grew by as much as 7 percent, dropping to a 2.6 percent increase in the 1980s.  Substantial expansion of secondary schools has occurred in urban areas as a result of pressure from the middle classes seeking an education similar to that of the ruling elite (Rama, 1986).  The demand for secondary education in CARICOM countries, which was prohibited during the colonial period, burgeoned when they achieved independence (Alleyne, 1995).

Despite increased access, a high level of selectivity is evident in secondary school enrollment. Indigenous youth, and those from rural or depressed urban areas have difficulty entering and remaining in secondary school, which is the level offering the greatest potential for upward mobility.  Equity is nonexistent for most of this population group.

Currently, there is pressure to offer secondary education to the rest of the population.  Policies to expand secondary education have failed in cases where economic development has been too slow to generate sufficient opportunities (Wilson, 1997).  However, the high number of unemployed youth (MIDEPLAN, 1997) demands that their time be filled either by social activities or by an education that facilitates the entry of these youth into the workplace.  The response of many countries has been to double their secondary school capacity by teaching one group in a morning session and another in the afternoon; this method, however, leaves many young people unoccupied on a regular basis during the “off” session.  New strategies, therefore, must take these pressures into account, including: (i) predicted increases in primary school graduation rates; (ii) an expanded concept of basic education (nine to ten years or more); (iii) division into a general studies branch and a technical branch; (iv) increase in overall spending for teachers’ salaries; and (v) probable increases in public and private funding (Jimenez and Lockheed, 1995).

Some experiences with vocational/technical education have been successful in other parts of the world, such as Japan’s vocational training system and the “dual education system” in Germany, which include on-site student training by corporations (Schiefelbein, P., 1994; Wilson, 1997). Nonetheless, the applicability of these experiences in Latin America and the Caribbean requires a thorough analysis of their real potential.  Recent technical and vocational education projects in the region reveal a tendency to combine academic and vocational programs, since the economy is eliminating the division between intellectual and manual labor.  The school system must do the same.

Higher Education

Post secondary and higher education have also expanded remarkably with an annual increase of 8.5 percent between 1960 and 1992.  Moreover, education at this level has been extended geographically, has become more institutionally diverse, and offers new specialities.  Latin America has a broad and diverse system which includes traditional and new universities, professional or polytechnic institutes, and technical training centers to cope with the growing demand for post secondary education (Brunner 1990; Winkler, 1990; Levy, 1997).  CARICOM countries offer higher education to 200 young people for each 100,000 inhabitants (World Bank, 1992).  This rate is likely to double or triple during the next decade.

Nineteen percent of the population in each age group eventually enters higher education.  The high repetition rate during the first two years of higher education tends to be even higher for students who are older when they begin. Students who fall behind at the primary or secondary level tend to have more difficulty completing post secondary studies without repetition (Table 1). The university system in the region, moreover, requires prospective students to choose a career, even though many of them are still unsure about their professional interests.  Recently introduced programs similar to the U.S. bachelors degree allow this decision to be postponed (Lolas, 1996).

The Situation of Women

In recent decades, the educational situation of women has achieved parity with that of men in terms of both quality and coverage. Population censuses demonstrate that the wide disparities in schooling between the sexes that was evident in the 1950s has disappeared.  A slight discrepancy at the post secondary level, and among certain minorities, persists (Schiefelbein and Peruzzi, 1991; UNESCO, 1995; World Bank, 1995).  In several countries, especially in the Caribbean, female enrollment is surpassing that of men at the university level (World Bank, 1992; ECLAC, 1994), although women continue to be disproportionately represented in fields traditionally categorized as feminine (Stromquist, 1996).  In many countries, and particularly CARICOM countries, achievement levels are higher for girls than for boys in primary and secondary school (Steward, 1996).  This is not the case for indigenous groups in the region:  indigenous women remain at a disadvantage in terms of access to education.  It is worth pointing out that increasing young women’s  access to education will contribute to reduced illiteracy by improving support in the home for future generations of children. And, it will have a positive impact on population growth (reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies).

Special Education

The population between the ages of seven and twelve with special needs was estimated at 6 million in 1991 (10 percent of the total regional population in this age group). Of these children, 14 percent are placed in special schools and an estimated 5 percent more attend regular schools but receive special services.  However, nearly 50 percent of students with special needs attend regular schools with no special services, a situation which inhibits their personal and social development. (The remaining 30 percent are not yet in the school system.)  Special education services are only available in urban areas and some 27 percent are privately owned (UNESCO, 1996b).

Ten to 20 percent of the total population have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, physiological problems, or  low intellectual capacity).  Poor nutrition during the first years of life (especially “in utero”) or complications during delivery increase this percentage.  Available research shows that the ability to learn is directly related to the nutrition and health of the students (Pollet, 1989; Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991).  Children lacking sufficient protein or calories in their diets may experience limitations in the development of their motor and mental skills and learning ability (UN, 1990; Gomes-Neto et al, 1992; ICBF/UNICEF, 1992).  If these children receive special attention in time, as is the case in developed societies, they eventually may overcome their difficulties.  Lack of resources currently precludes such solutions in Latin America and the Caribbean.

2. Quality of Education

Most children in Latin America and the Caribbean receive a poor quality education.  Not a single student from Colombia —the only country which participated in the third international study of mathematics and science—appeared in the top ten percentile of the worldwide sample (and Colombia is representative of the Latin American average).  The 1992 International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP) produced similar results.  The emphasis on expanding coverage has resulted in neglect of the educational process itself, and the quality of learning.  In Latin America, the quality of education is particularly lacking in the public school system, while in CARICOM countries public schools tend to be better than private schools, especially at the secondary level.  In general, public schools serve primary and secondary school students from the poorest sectors of the region and thus do not serve most of the children of public school officials.  Now that most countries provide nearly universal access to basic education, there is growing interest in the issues of quality and equity. Attention is now being paid to fundamental learning requirements in order to improve the educational process (Castro, 1996).  This implies an education respectful of and sensitive to students’ individual differences.

Graph 2 reveals significant disparities in educational quality in seven developed countries.  It highlights the distinction between “knowledge of facts” and their application in “new situations” (World Bank, 1996).  The region figures at the lower echelons in the first area and probably would descend even further in the other two (Wolff, Schiefelbein and Valenzuela, 1993; Schiefelbein, 1995; Puryear, 1996).

There is still no consensus in the region on measurements of educational quality, although there are indicators suggesting poor quality at every level.  The most widely accepted indicator is the incidence of repetition.  Nearly 40 percent of students repeat first grade (Schiefelbein and Wolff, 1995).  Since most students begin school on time, the broad age range at each level (Table 1) can only be due to high repetition rates (students nine years old and above in first grade, ten and above in second grade, and so on at each consecutive grade level).  This age difference makes the teacher’s job more difficult and, in part, accounts for poor quality.  In order to understand how the average student progress through the school system, it is necessary to examine the age of entry into first grade and then estimate grade repetition levels and drop-out patterns.

Timing of Entry into the School System

In most of the region —except for CARICOM countries where children usually begin school at age five— ninety-five percent of each group of seven-year-olds begin school on time, and at least another 1.3 per cent enter school at age eight (Table 1). This constitutes tremendous progress which should allow teachers to work with a homogeneous group of first grade students. Unfortunately, the large number of students age eight and above in first grade means that most are repeaters (since most began at age seven) who transform first grade into an age-diverse group.  This creates a vicious circle of increasing heterogeneity, which can only be broken by programs offering individual attention.

Paradoxically, children who attend preschool experience difficulties when they begin primary school, which sometimes cause adjustment problems during the transition; for example, they are not allowed to work in groups, they are seated in rows, and must remain immobile in their seats since the rigid lecture style of teaching is the predominant method.  For this reason, one educational priority is to reform the existing learning process at the primary level in order to reduce or eliminate this hurdle and promote improved education of this sector.  Relevant experiences that have been successfully applied in the region will be examined below.

Grade Repetition: Heterogeneous Classrooms

A comparison of total first grade enrollment (17.8 million students) with the population that reaches school age each year (10.5 million) reveals a repetition rate of nearly 7.4 million students (Table 1); in other words,  40 percent of students are repeaters (relative to the total first grade enrollment).  In an ideal system, approximately 10.5 million children would begin first grade each year, a similar number would pass and move on to second grade, and a new contingent of 10.5 million would start first grade the following year.  It is important to remember that this analysis permits a more accurate estimate of repetition levels; reports by school principals (which are used to prepare the annual statistics for each country) record a student transfer to another school as a “drop-out,” even though it often becomes a case of grade repetition when the student enrolls in a new school the following year at the same grade level (UNESCO-SIRI, 1990).  In other words, the repetition rates reported by teachers and principals on statistical forms are considerably lower than the actual levels (UNESCO, 1996b).  This can also be observed by calculating the difference between gross and net primary school enrollment.

Although there are many reasons for grade repetition, it is a clear indicator of poor quality teaching methods except in the final years of each level when students are preparing for examinations to pass to the next level; this is the case at the end of primary and secondary school in CARICOM countries (World Bank, 1992).  Teachers hold back any first grade student who cannot decode a minimum number of words.  And, although repetition levels have decreased, they are still considered to be excessively high.  In 1980, an  average of 50 percent of first graders were repeaters in the region’s primary schools; this decreased to 43 per cent in 1990, and currently has dropped to close to 35 percent. If this downward trend continues, the figure could drop to 10 per cent in the year 2020.

Age diversity in the classroom affects the quality of education by limiting the effectiveness of the traditional lecture style of teaching predominant in Latin America and the Caribbean. Language, cultural, geographic, economic, and social diversity also lead to heterogeneous classrooms. Teachers using the lecture style gear lessons toward an “imaginary average student;” this tends to be more effective with homogeneous groups in which there is little difference between the students and the “average student.”  Nonetheless, this same method is rendered ineffective in low income areas, where diversity of age (students entering school late and repeaters), intellectual ability, time to study, health and nutrition levels, and parental support make it hard to define an “average student” to teach to (Schiefelbein, 1994).  This has led to a perceived need to individualize the learning process and adapt curricula to local and regional conditions.  When education is not individualized, reading comprehension drops, repetition rates rise, and age diversity in the classroom increases, making it even more difficult to use the lecture style effectively (Thomas and Shaw, 1992).  It is not easy to break the vicious circle created by the diversity of age and abilities (Ezpeleta, 1989) without changing the teacher’s role and classroom methods.  This is difficult and, in the end, has meant that few students make significant progress in learning.

The School Dropout: An Unfinished Education

Only half of the students who begin primary school actually finish, leaving dropouts without the minimum reading and writing skills and basic competency in arithmetic (UNESCO/OREALC, 1992; de Ibarrola, 1995).  But those who drop out of primary school do so after repeating those grades several times (meaning that drop-out at the primary level should not be confused with having spent only a few years in the system).  School drop-out in the region begins at ages nine and ten  at a low rate (approximately 1 per cent), growing to 3 per cent at age eleven, and 6 per cent at age twelve.  Drop-out become more pronounced at age thirteen (7 percent) and fourteen (10 percent), ages at which pressure to enter the workplace increases.  Most likely, though, many drop out because both the students and those responsible for them feel that they are not learning (after repeating the same grades several times), that they are wasting their time at school, and that the workplace, on the other hand, offers an incentive (a salary) for their efforts (García and Hernández, 1992; Anker and Melkas; Schiefelbein, 1997b).  Absenteeism is cause for concern, especially in CARICOM countries such as Jamaica and Guyana, where high absentee rates have a negative impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of education (World Bank, 1992).

Academic Performance Measures

In countries that have conducted assessments, it has been determined that nearly 50 percent of students do not master the minimum objectives of the national curriculum.  Few indicators are currently  available to assess the quality of education.  It has been demonstrated, for example, that primary school students in Colombia use mathematical skills mechanically, without reasoning; they can perform basic operations but cannot use them to solve concrete problems (Aldana, 1997).

Only recently have Latin American countries begun to design national systems to evaluate academic performance (Arancibia and Segovia, 1996; Guia Neto, 1997); CARICOM countries, on the other hand, have a longstanding tradition of evaluation dating back to the colonial period. Given that the subjects of mathematics and the official language are considered to be fundamental cultural tools —and their acquisition the minimum objective of any primary education— emphasis has been placed on measuring performance in these subjects as indicators of quality.  Thus, it has been determined that the average public school student achieves only half of the performance levels set forth in the official curriculum and that, conversely, private school students attain nearly 100 percent of the desired levels (Schiefelbein, 1995). (The exception to this are CARICOM countries where public schools offer a higher quality education than private schools.)

Appropriate tests to measure quality in mathematics and language have been developed through UNESCO’s Laboratory to Measure Educational Quality; preliminary results from eleven countries became available recently.  At the same time, five countries have announced their decision to participate in the repeat of the third international study of educational progress in the areas of mathematics and science.

Functional Illiteracy

Functional illiteracy is now being studied as a problem that adversely affects the competitiveness of  countries of the region (UNESCO, 1996a).  UNESCO is conducting a regional study which has made it possible to develop measurement tools for mastery of reading and writing and applied mathematics.  These tools make it possible to develop a profile of the different types of functional illiteracy existing in these countries.  Preliminary results indicate that this phenomenon is linked closely to number of years of schooling and the quality of primary education received (Infante, 1997).

The high number of students who do not achieve minimum competency in reading and writing, even after six years of schooling, underscores the urgent need to implement policies to improve the quality of education (Castro, 1997).  Countries in the region recognize the need for radical changes in the teaching-learning process, and for qualitative and quantitative increases in the time available for education.   It is common knowledge that improving quality in education requires decreases (perhaps by a third) in the use of educational methods based on the transfer and rote memorization of information.  Instead, the design and implementation of models and materials for an interactive learning process should be emphasized.  The identification of appropriate complementary learning models is a gradual (and sometimes controversial) undertaking which must be based on pertinent research and include the education of new teachers as well in-service training.  In this context, the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) is promoting an International Survey of the Adult Population, with the participation of countries in the region, to measure the ability to understand written information and use it in daily life.

It is important to add that in order to improve the quality of education in the region, strategies for change must be supported by research.  Some programs for action which have been implemented —with their respective costs— have failed to achieve their goals due to insufficient information (McGinn and Borden, 1995).  One example that was noted involves a policy to reduce class size (teacher-student ratio) —with the attendant 4 to 6 percent cost increase per student, enough money to provide appropriate learning materials to every student in the class— which, to date, has failed to reduce grade repetition.  Moreover, teachers are “lectured” about the importance of changing from a passive to an active educational model (to enable real learning to take place); in other words, passive teaching methods are used to instruct teachers to use active ones.  These teachers are then required to apply active teaching methods without ever having experienced them first hand.

3. Equity in Education

Latin America has the most skewed income distribution in the world (CEPAL, 1995), as demonstrated by the fact that its education system has more private schools than any other region.  Students from families at the “poorest half” of the income scale are concentrated in low quality public schools offering only three to four hours of class time per day.  Students from the middle and upper classes attend private primary and secondary schools for five to six hours per day and achieve at significantly higher levels (except for CARICOM countries, as already mentioned).  Problems of quality have the strongest impact on the poorest sectors, minorities, and children with learning disabilities.  However, when the socio-economic status of the parents is held constant, differences in academic performance disappear (Schiefelbein and Farrell, 1982). Policy-makers usually place their children in private schools and, therefore, are not affected by their own policy decisions.  This could mean that the emphasis placed on private education will leave fewer resources and incentives for public education. The perpetuation of current education policies will make it difficult to close the income gap, with unfortunate consequences for economic development (Edwards, 1995; Londoño, 1996; Birdsall, 1997).

Part of the problem is that equity in education has been measured in terms of coverage, which has improved significantly, rather than quality (Farrell, 1998).  Low family income, while not a barrier to primary school enrollment, is an effective barrier to adequate academic achievement (ECLAC/UNESCO, 1992; Wolff, Schiefelbein and Valenzuela, 1993;  Brunner and Cox, 1995).

Therefore, the concept of equity of opportunity must include equity in academic outcomes.  This means that all children —irrespective of their social background— must obtain a good academic education and be able to use it successfully (Farrell, 1998).


The majority of socio-economically disadvantaged children are excluded from preschool education and 7 per cent of these children between the ages of seven and twelve are excluded from the primary school system (Table 1).  These are children living in isolated or deprived areas, extremely impoverished regions, or indigenous settlements, since the educational supply is concentrated in urban areas.  Many of the 7 percent who do not attend primary schools have special needs (approximately 10 percent of the population in this age group presents some type of disability).  Their presence in regular classrooms increases the difficulty for the teacher (since the more costly facilities need to attend to their needs is lacking).  An analysis by country reveals that very few serve 100 percent of the population.  The region serves 96.3 percent of children at any given time, which indicates that half of all special needs students do enter the school system. Most, however, attend schools that cannot meet their needs.

Certain children who wish to study at the secondary level to achieve upward mobility have difficulty enrolling and remaining in the system due to the scarcity of schools in their sector. This includes poor children, Amerinds from rural areas, some Asians, and children living on remote islands or in depressed communities (See Table 2).  These children may feel shunted aside and distrustful of promises of equity or equality in education.

Progress to Higher Grades

Although an overall average of 35 percent of students repeat first grade, the rate for students at the top half of the socio-economic scale is only 5 to 10 percent, while 60 to 65 percent of students at the bottom half of the scale are held back (UNESCO, 1996b).  This can be attributed to a particularly substandard school system in rural or urban-disadvantaged zones (which are only served by public schools).  High repetition rates in these schools result from serving children of different ages, abilities, and time and support to study.  Classroom diversity requires individualized attention.  Teachers cannot provide this attention if they rely solely on the lecture style, which must be geared toward an “average” student in order to teach the entire class at once. In addition, teachers of low income students tend to be less thoroughly trained than those serving students from wealthier socio-economic backgrounds and are often unfamiliar with alternative teaching methods that might facilitate learning (Avalos, 1986).

Academic Achievement

Public schools are producing a work force unable to comprehend written instructions, which limits its ability to adapt to technological changes.   An analysis of responses to questions regarding reading and writing reveals that two out of five students in the fourth and fifth grades do not understand what they read.  The situation is bleaker, however, at the bottom half of the socio-economic scale where “three out of four children in the fourth or fifth grades cannot understand what they read.”  This means that the performance levels attained by the future labor force will not enable it to contribute to national development (Rama, 1992; Birdsall and Sabot, 1994; UNESCO/ OREALC, 1994; Edwards, 1995; Schiefelbein, 1995).  Assessments of academic achievement expose raw inequities in the quality of education.  While student achievement overall is barely 50 percent of that required by the official public school curriculum, achievement by students enrolled in private schools approaches 100 percent (Graph 3).  In fact, the scores of elite private school students are comparable only to average scores in developed countries (Schiefelbein, 1995).  In general, nearly half of those with six or more years of schooling have serious difficulties applying their reading, writing and mathematical skills in the workplace.


Preventing High Risk Situations

The countries of the region do not offer the intense level of services necessary to successfully serve at-risk children, leaving them predisposed to fail in school.  Specifically, the highest percentage of the region’s children living in difficult or high risk situations are: child workers, street children, and those living in acutely impoverished or deprived economic and social environments.  In such cases, particularly intense services are needed, as well as flexible and varied methodologies, positive attitudes, and a highly motivated and well-trained teaching staff, to ensure that these children attend school and do not drop out.  Except in isolated cases, supplementary support programs to alleviate their inordinately harsh living conditions also are absent (Schiefelbein, 1997b).

Equity for Women and Minorities

Equal access to the school system in the sector has been virtually achieved for girls and young women under the age of twenty-five. Nonetheless, illiteracy levels rates among women in rural and indigenous areas—especially those in higher age groups—continue to be notably higher than for their male counterparts.  For this reason, the Ministers of Education recommended in PROMEDLAC II (1987) that policies be developed to address this “deplorable situation that impedes women’s realization of their full potential.”  Investment in women’s education and literacy is fundamental to improving family health, nutrition, and education.  It also has a positive impact on infant mortality, reproduction and, consequently, on the reservoir of human capital (Birdsall, 1997).  The International Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) emphasized that the formal and informal education of women has proved to be one of the most efficient means of achieving development and sustained and sustainable economic growth, which has led countries to endeavor to facilitate women’s access to education (UNESCO, 1996b).  In CARICOM countries, equity for women has reached the point where girls are achieving at higher levels than boys (World Bank, 1992; Steward, 1996).  Nonetheless, discrimination against women persists in qualitative areas of education in the following ways: (i) stereotypical educational materials (Michel, 1987);  professional segregation —which affects women’s participation in scientific and technological advances—; (iii)  the role teachers play in perpetuating existing paradigms; (iv) and the presence of women at the supervisory level of education regionally and nationally (ECLAC, 1994; Stromquist, 1996).


4.  Factors Affecting Quality

Since access to education in Latin America and the Caribbean is virtually universal, most children pass some primary school grades.  They do not, however, acquire the knowledge and skills required by modern labor markets.  It is important to pinpoint what is keeping children from learning. Therefore, a review of the available research on the relationship between school inputs and the education process is crucial.  Research findings from around the world consistently demonstrate a strong correlation between achievement and the socio-economic circumstances of the parents.  Research also shows that the factors that most influence learning are: educational materials, time spent on learning (including temporary student absences), teacher training, health, and nutrition.

However, improvements in these areas do not guarantee a better education, as demonstrated by cases observed between 1982 and 1990 during which time all of these factors improved and the quality of education  remained constant (Schiefelbein and Tedesco, 1995).  This suggests the presence of other determinative factors affecting the  “learning process in the classroom” which must be examined; they are addressed in this section.  It is common knowledge that school systems of high academic quality demonstrate strong internal consistency between curriculum, teaching methods, testing, and instructional materials (Delannoy, 1997).  It is also clear that other factors do not significantly influence quality, such as: class size, teacher-student ratio, and the gender of the teacher (Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991).  Other factors affecting the quality of education (but whose relationship to quality is minor or less clear) are: poor physical condition of schools, relatively low teacher salaries, and the presence of teachers lacking professional qualifications.  These factors are more pronounced in rural areas.  The following background information can be compared to policies implemented in the region, which are summarized in Table 3.

Student Characteristics, Previous Education, and Environment

One of the main factors influencing the learning process are the characteristics of the students and their immediate surroundings.  Children belonging to the poorest sectors tend to have difficulty developing  intellectually whether because of poor nutrition, lack of family support or resources, or the cultural literacy of the parents (Gajardo and de Andraca, 1988; Fausto and Cervini, 1992; UNESCO/MINEDLAC, 1996).

In terms of the student’s family and social situation, those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds living in impoverished-urban or isolated rural areas are particularly affected by the fact that their parents work up to twelve hours daily (Fausto and Cervini, 1992; García and Hernández, 1992; Fujimoto-Gómez, 1996 ) and older siblings often care for the younger ones. This is compounded by parents who never finished primary school, are illiterate or speak an indigenous language, and the scarcity or nonexistence of reading material at home. All of these make it difficult for parents to adequately support children with their school work.  The fact that many of these children have not attended preschool also has a negative impact on their school performance (Grawe, 1979; Myers, 1992a-b; Palafox et al, 1992).  Finally, once they reach a certain age, these children begin to work (sometimes part-time) to help their families, leaving them less time and energy to study.

Table 3

Level of Urban Development

Most students with poor academic performance levels attend school in rural areas (Wolff, Schiefelbein, and Valenzuela, 1993).  Lower income families and unqualified teachers are highly concentrated in these areas, as are small schools  —which may not offer all grades and use multi grade classrooms—, and non-individualized teaching methods.

The concentration of lower quality resources in rural areas affects equity of quality. One in five of all preschool and primary school teachers lacks a teaching degree.  But these teachers are concentrated (40 percent) in schools serving the lower half of the socio-economic scale, while at the top half of the scale, all the teachers have degrees.  This undoubtedly contributes to the lower quality of education offered in disadvantaged and rural areas.  And, although unemployed teachers with degrees are living in urban areas of many countries, they are unwilling to teach in rural areas because of the low salaries.  In these cases it would be useful to experiment with gradual salary increases until licensed teachers begin to apply for these positions.

Multilingualism affects education in the classroom, especially in rural areas.  Children belonging to minority ethnic or cultural groups often have difficulties because they must learn in a different language and cultural context (Tedesco, 1990;  EEC, 1992; Rojas, 1995).  There is increasing awareness of the need to take into account the native language and cultures that children bring to the school system when examining the relevance of curricula.

Time Available for Learning

The length of the school day has hovered between 3 and 4.5 hours for decades.  High rates of teacher absenteeism and excessive time spent on administrative and bureaucratic tasks, coupled with the salaries needed to cover increased teacher hours and the  “availability of educational spaces,” have limited the potential for increasing quality by lengthening the amount of time each day available for learning (Ezpeleta and Weiss, 1994).  Nonetheless, the amount of time available to learn must be extended: Latin American public schools offer between 500 and 800 hours (150 three-hour days and 170 four-and-one-half hour days) compared to 1,200 hours offered by private schools or schools in industrialized countries (Schiefelbein, 1995).  A comparison of the two systems must allow for the days spent on strikes in the public school system (Graph 4). Countries that try to extend the school day have increased educational spaces and rescheduled already allotted  spaces (such as physical education and music). The idea of multi grade classes usually is associated with substandard academic performance.  However, there is no empirical evidence that multi-grade or multi-area classrooms interfere with students’ learning (Veenman, 1995).  Moreover, it may be that they contribute to the students’ social development and emotional health (Pratt, 1986; Miller, 1990).  Current poor academic performance in these classrooms could be attributable solely to the use of methods incompatible with teaching several groups of students in the same classroom.


Quantity and Quality of Educational Materials

Research has found a positive correlation between access to educational materials and student achievement (Purves, 1973; Schiefelbein and Clavel, 1977; Costa 1977; Husen et al, 1978; Jamison et al, 1981; Farrell and Heyneman, 1989; Pogrow, 1996).  But this correlation may depend on the methods associated with their use; in other words, it is not enough to provide materials without simultaneously reforming the learning process itself (Colber, 1987; Schiefelbein and Tedesco, 1995).  Appropriate methods, as well as the educational materials to implement them, are needed for an effective learning process.  Many textbooks are too long, boring, full of banalities, unchallenging, devoid of substance, and ineffective in terms of developing reasoning skills (Schiefelbein, 1994; Eyzaguirre and Fontaine, 1997).  Texts should offer authentic, motivating situations, stimulate the use of context, provide options, create opportunities for family participation, include constructive evaluation, encourage group work, and contain clear instructions to optimize the student’s learning experience.  Computers can provide another strong incentive for reform (Miller, 1996; Ochoa and Monazo, 1997).

Teacher Characteristics

Studies indicate that the professional education of teachers (Costa, 1977) and their subsequent professional experience (Purves, 1973; Min. Educ, 1992; Psacharopoulos et al, 1994) have a positive influence on learning in children.  Although the total number of primary education teachers increased substantially between 1980 and 1991 (UNESCO, 1996b), problems in the quality of education persist.  Unfortunately, in-service teacher training has not been a significant factor in improving quality (Warwick et al, 1991; Harbison and Hanusheck, 1992; Raudenbush et al, 1992; Navarro, 1997).  The problem lies, then, in the initial education of teachers which continues to rely on a single methodology (Gajardo and de Andraca, 1992) and precludes the use of alternative methods.  Countries have recognized that in order to improve the quality of education, they must upgrade the preparation of their educational agents by offering them worthwhile opportunities for professional training, sometimes with the active cooperation of teachers’ associations and unions (OREALC, 1990).

The high number of teachers educated and trained in the region means that the cost of improving their salaries and training is difficult to finance through traditional sources.  As a result, it has also been difficult to recruit good candidates to the teaching profession because of the poor quality of  training programs, and low salaries.  In real terms, salaries for teachers are lower in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s (Carnoy and Castro, 1996).   Moreover, in many countries of the region, teachers earn little more than street cleaners and, in some areas, they earn even less (Ellison, Johnson, and Tamayo, 1997).  This explains why candidates choosing the field of education often are those lacking the means to enter other more lucrative fields.  Lastly, the low levels of satisfaction and prestige and lack of incentives to strive for excellence that were detected in a six-country survey (Schiefelbein et al, 1994), compounded by deteriorating teacher salaries and living standards in recent years, has led many education professionals to leave the field.  This has led teachers’ unions to prioritize acceptable salaries over the potential to improve educational outcomes which, despite the strikes (Graph 4), discourages society from opting to raise teacher salaries (Schiefelbein, 1994).

Poor quality is also apparent among academics at the university level except in CARICOM countries.  Fewer than 20 percent of academics have doctoral level training and 50 percent have outside jobs, including many who have additional “full-time” jobs (Altbach, 1997).

Educational Methods

The traditional lecture style of teaching-learning is the predominant model in the region at the primary, secondary and Post secondary school levels although, fortunately, its negative impact decreases at the higher levels due to greater homogeneity of the student body.  When the teacher presents materials to the entire class, he or she adjusts the complexity and pace of learning to the level of an “average” student.  This can be fairly effective with homogeneous groups of children (of the same age and comparable abilities), in other words, in cases where there is little “variance” (Slavin, 1997).  Unfortunately, this educational model is associated with poor quality, especially in low income sectors where the student body is more diverse (Schiefelbein, 1994). One study revealed that rural schools applying individualized teaching models to multi grade groups, using  interactive pedagogical techniques, obtain better outcomes than traditional rural schools (Psacharopoulos et al, 1993).

Three characteristics that limit the quality of education can be observed in the lecture style: (i) student participation is low since, in a one hour class (forty-five minutes of actual teaching) with thirty students, each student has only one minute to speak if everyone is to participate; (ii) the professor has to struggle to maintain silence so that his or her voice can be heard (which absorbs from 25 to 40 percent of class time) thereby limiting the actual teaching time available (Galvez et al, 1981; Filp et al, 1987; Fumagalli, 1990; Rodríguez, 1990); (iii) the teacher is the principal source of knowledge and (at the end of the twentieth century) often remains at a disadvantage compared to television, radio, newspapers and magazines.  In this authoritarian educational structure, there is no discussion among students to achieve consensus and there is only one right answer, the teacher’s.  This model has other inherent weaknesses, such as: (i) students are not allowed to make decisions since the teacher is in charge at all times; (ii) written expression is discouraged since the teacher does not have time to correct assignments during school hours; (iii) memorization and passive learning are encouraged —despite the fact that learning occurs through “interpretation” rather than “memorization” (Mevarech and Kramarski, 1997); (iv) group work to identify problems or explore the diversity of approaches and outcomes is limited, although good teachers tend to modify the lecture style by incorporating these types of activities. It is helpful to remember that students have different intellectual strengths (Gardner, 1991 and 1993; Moraes, 1996), and group activities provide opportunities to integrate the different strengths that converge in this type of educational method.

Relevance of the Curriculum

Deficient performance also correlates to the content relevance of teaching materials and to the tradition of “transferring the subject material” rather than encouraging significant learning experiences.  The long list of standardized content in the curriculum precludes focusing on substantive issues (especially with the predominance of the lecture teaching style).  A typical curriculum is geared toward “geniuses” and administered to regular students by poorly trained professors, with predictably poor results (Castro, 1996).  In countries that measure performance, teachers focus on “preparing for the test” rather than for life (Alleyne, 1995).  This mechanical curriculum implementation precludes adjusting content based on the student’s experience, as well as the adoption of new methodologies that ensure effective learning.

The pressure to “transfer” an overly extensive curriculum (and the accompanying text books) prevents inclusion of the student’s experience and imposes contexts that relate exclusively to students from upper or (upper middle) class backgrounds.  Consequently, students from poor rural areas do not identify with the subjects and examples found in the curriculum.  Young people never have time to systematically discuss their experiences and problems (Hevia, 1997). This situation can change, since UNESCO and UNICEF have developed self-paced learning guides that enable students to bring their own individual context into the learning situation.  This motivates students to consider their own vital experiences and examine the basic needs of their respective communities (UNESCO/ UNICEF, 1993a,b,c; UNESCO/UNICEF/ CIDE, 1995).  And while these guides were developed for rural schools, they have since been used with equal success in elite private institutions.

A difficult situation arises when classroom activities are divorced from reality. At the earliest levels, for example, students study sentences with little meaning (“my mom mollifies me” or “Susi salts the soup”) and they wrestle with arithmetic problems unrelated to those found in daily life.  This wastes the opportunity to emphasize a generalized learning style based on problem-solving, which produces a more useful body of knowledge than rote memorization (Muñoz-Izquierdo, 1990). Further, there is little interest in, or effort to take advantage of, students’ prior experiences or family culture as a dynamic part of the learning process, although these aspects tend to be prime motivators of students (Schiefelbein, 1994; Tenti, 1997).  The same occurs at the highest educational levels, where contemporary ethical issues are not addressed and the technology offered in the classroom is totally outdated compared to that present in many households, offices, and entertainment centers  (information revolution, role playing, and the Internet/cyber space).

Educational Management

Many Latin American countries (and Caribbean countries to a lesser degree) have begun to privatize or decentralize the education system, with results that are as yet unclear (Prawda, 1993; McGinn, 1997a).  Privatization has made private sector input possible, but has not succeeded in improving the level of quality when socio-economic level is held constant (Schiefelbein and Tedesco, 1995; Carnoy and McEwin, 1997) except in the case of schools operated by religious groups (Swope, Celedón, and Latorre, 1997; Neal, 1997).  Decentralization alone also appears insufficient to alleviate existing administrative problems because: (i) there are no central or local systems in place to evaluate educational outcomes; (ii) procedures to track successful local initiatives using information technology have not been developed; (iii) there are no procedures to evaluate methods underlying valuable experiences that teachers would find useful as they make decisions; (iv) there are no concerted initiatives to reduce inequalities; and (v) with few exceptions, there are no policies to encourage innovations (Sander, 1996a; Amaro, 1997).

The United States has a decentralized system and has not achieved high level of equity in education.  Its public school system differs from that of most other industrialized countries and Latin America in that it is essentially administrated and supervised locally.  Efforts to decentralize Latin American educational systems must study the tension between local and federal oversight in the United States and its implications for equity in school.  School systems are administrated by locally elected school boards based on a budget that is largely financed by local taxes.  Since U.S. neighborhoods are highly segregated based on the income level of the residents (as well as by race), and since school districts are drawn along residential boundaries, there is significant variation in school financing. Moreover, since the presence of better schools increases the property value in a given sector, a vicious/virtuous circle of action is created. Figures show that in New York, for example, public spending on the districts of the richest 5 percent of the sector is U.S. $7,571 higher per student annually than what is spent on the poorest 5 percent of the income scale (Biddle, 1997).

In Latin America, information and evaluation systems in education are generally deficient, making it impossible to monitor student performance or the quality of teaching (Puryear, 1996). The lack of access to research findings, and the dearth of indicators to identify problem areas, prevent the implementation of appropriate innovative policies. Learning cannot occur without institutional memory and, therefore, having a data base to consult would lead to decision-making based on successful experiences.  Moreover, decision-makers are not informed in a timely manner about effective ways of eliminating deterrents to improvements in education (Schiefelbein et al, 1997) and specialized staff often rotate with each change of ministers (Graph 5).

There are successful examples of administrative reform that have positively influenced quality in education (Farrell, 1997a).  Parental involvement in supervising rural teachers and the selection of competent school principals seem to be the most relevant factors for successful decentralization (Swope, Celedón, and Latorre, 1997). For example, in El Salvador, the government took the risk of transferring funds for education from the Ministry of Education to School Board Councils comprised of parents and community groups in rural areas through a program called Education with Community Participation.  They have had very promising outcomes through a system of locally administrated and supervised school systems.  Something similar occurred with the Community Foundations, which contract Community Instructors through the CONAFE program in Mexico (BID, 1996; UNESCO, 1996b). And Brazil has succeeded in channeling more funds to the public school system (Souza, 1997).  These programs are similar to several others recently introduced in New Zealand.


Funding for Education

Fewer public funds are assigned to education in the region than in developed countries, although CARICOM countries make more effort in this regard than other developing countries (World Bank, 1992).  The disparity between the percentage of the Gross National Product spent on public education in developed countries and in Latin America and the Caribbean (5.3 percent versus 4.6 per cent) affects the potential for educational development in these countries. Although public spending for education decreased during the 1980s, from U.S. $95 per capita in 1980 to U.S. $71 in 1985 —the same rate that the economic crisis reduced government spending— the student population increased as did the total number of primary school teachers (UNESCO, 1996b).  Between 1980 and 1985 the average cost per primary school student decreased from U.S. $164 to U.S. $118 (Wolff, Schiefelbein and Valenzuela, 1993) and although spending is now rising to 1980 levels, it still represents one tenth of the amount spent per student in developed countries (U.S. $1,089 versus U.S. $143 in 1993).  This has caused a decrease in teachers’ salaries and a reduction in average class size (even when research has shown that this type of reduction does not necessarily improve the quality of education).  The priority placed on education in recent years has led Latin American governments to increase spending to U.S. $124 per capita in 1996 (UNESCO, 1994; UNESCO, 1996b), but the impact on salaries has been less pronounced, as the average percentage continues to decrease.  Even though increased resources do not guarantee better education (Hanusheck, 1992), as long as investment in education continues to be lower than that of developed countries, the working conditions and social status of Latin American and Caribbean teachers will continue to be relatively  poor (Reimers, 1994).

Different formulas to increase national spending on education are being identified and tested (Table 4).  The idea is to spread the burden throughout the different levels of the public sector (federal, state, regional, municipal and local) and the private sector to better serve high risk populations .  In some countries, incentives have been used to encourage private sector participation through subsidies comparable in size to the public sector, or by making private contributions tax deductible. The net impact of increasing private funds relative to public spending (as well as the impact on the quality of public education) remains to be seen.

There is also growing international involvement in education since research has shown that it plays a crucial role in overcoming poverty and inequity (Birdsall, 1995).  More than half of regional investing in education is externally funded.  Regional educational projects obtained funding in excess of  U.S. $1.1 billion between 1990 and 1994 (McMeekin, 1995) which creates the risk of instituting overly ambitious educational reforms (while discarding simpler and less costly alternatives).

To summarize, innovation is required in addition to new resources; in other words, greater efficiency and equity in allocating available inputs (affirmative action) are needed, as well as making full use of the comparative advantage offered by different public and private, national or international institutions.  Although more resources are needed to lengthen the school day, increase preschool coverage, or fund doctoral training, the priority of reforming the learning process in the classroom requires political will and national consensus (Brunner, 1994; Honduras, 1997) as well as decision-making based on pertinent research (Castro, 1997a). Simultaneous reforms in related areas could be a critical element of designing strategies for change (Tables 3 and 4).  Because the learning process includes many interrelated components, the absence of one of them could limit the overall impact (Slavin, 1997).  For example, in order to obtain the desired impact, it might be necessary to modify simultaneously the time available for learning, teacher training, design of materials, and the types of questions used on national assessments.

Table 4