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Colección: Trends for a common future
Autor: Bernardo Kliksberg
Título: The Social Situation of Latin America and Its Impact on the Family and Education

IV. Poverty, Inequity and Education

Considerable progress in education has been made in the region in recent decades. Enrollment has been considerably broadened. In most countries, over 90% of children are enrolled in primary school. Illiteracy rates have been reduced, from 34% in 1960, to 13% in 1995. However, serious problems persist in three key areas, and are cause of great concern: dropout, repetition and the quality of teaching.

Most children start primary school, but it is estimated that less than half complete this first stage of education. Likewise, dropout rates are very high in high school. Updated schooling figures are shown on Graph 6 (IDB, 1999).

In a considerable number of countries, including Brazil and Mexico—with the largest population in Latin America—the average number of school years reached by the population is less than 6.

Likewise, repetition rates are very high. Close to half the children in the region repeat first grade in primary school, and 30% repeat in each one of the following years. Puryear (1997) estimates that an average student in the region spends seven years in primary school, completing only four years of same.

Piras (IDB 1997) has drawn up Graph 7 on the time children take to cover six grades, in various countries in the region:

As shown, in Nicaragua it takes an average child more than 11 years to complete six grades due to repeating, in Guatemala close to 11, in Peru 9, in Venezuela more than 8, and this problem is considerable throughout the region.

What are the factors behind these very high dropout and repeat rates?

The breakdown of lag rates in children (dropouts and repeaters), by social groups, allows to infer some very consistent trends, as shown on Graph 8.

GRAPH 6

All the countries included on the chart exhibit the same situation. In the cities, children belonging to the poorest 25% of the population (Urban, Quartile 1) have much higher lag rates than those belonging to the 25% of highest income (Urban, Quartile 4). Thus, in Brazil, for instance, dropouts and repeaters of the poor group represent 45% of the total, whereas the rate is 9% in the highest income group. The likelihood of being a lagging child in Brazil is five times greater when children belong to the poverty groups. Differences are also very important in rural areas according to the income quartile to which children belong.

GRAPH 7
GRAPH 8

All the countries included on the chart exhibit the same situation. In the cities, children belonging to the poorest 25% of the population (Urban, Quartile 1) have much higher lag rates than those belonging to the 25% of highest income (Urban, Quartile 4). Thus, in Brazil, for instance, dropouts and repeaters of the poor group represent 45% of the total, whereas the rate is 9% in the highest income group. The likelihood of being a lagging child in Brazil is five times greater when children belong to the poverty groups. Differences are also very important in rural areas according to the income quartile to which children belong.

The high dropout and repetition levels are closely linked to poverty and inequity. The fact of belonging to poor families entails disadvantages for the children in key aspects for their permanence and performance in school. The educational capital that can be provided by parents will be generally limited, overcrowded housing conditions stand in the way of concentrating on homework and studying, and there may be many more. If the family is one of the many single parent or disrupted homes, this will also have strong impact on the child’s studies. In addition, as has been frequently seen, poverty is often associated to sequellae such as malnutrition, which make it difficult for the child to perform. As mentioned, a significant proportion of children from poor homes need to work at an age at which they should have the possibility to devote their time fully to school; and this will seriously hinder their learning process, or motivate their dropping out. Even though many factors are involved in the overall situation, it can be estimated that very high repetition rates observed in four Central American countries (Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), where it takes children over 10 years to complete six grades of primary school, are connected to poverty levels above 70% of the population and to considerable nutrition deficits.

However, the close link between poverty and low educational levels is evidenced not only in the poorest countries of the region. It is also found very clearly in those countries in which poverty levels are lower. According to recent official figures in Argentina (INDES/ SIEMPRO 1999), 7.9% of children belonging to the poorest homes entered primary school late, whereas in the wealthiest homes, this situation occurs only in 4.5% of cases. Gaps are even greater in high school. Whereas 25% of teenagers from the poorest homes enter high school at a later stage, the percentage is only 8.5% of those belonging to wealthier groups. In general, 27% of children aged 6 to 14 of poor homes repeated a grade, whereas among wealthy children repetition rates are only 4.4%. In Argentina, this results in only 25% of childrem from poores homes completing high school, while the rate is 76% for children from wealthy homes.

After studying the situation of 15 countries in the region, IDB (1998) concludes the following:
  • Only 15 out of every 100 children who start primary school in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, complete 9 years of schooling.
  • Only 6 out of every 100 children who start primary school in Guatemala, Haiti and Dominican Republic, complete 9 years of schooling.
  • In general, less than half of every 100 children belonging to the poorest 40% of the population reach fifth grade. Only 10% reach ninth grade.
This situation, as well as the prevalence of similar trends at high school level, generates a considerable gap with regard to years of schooling in the various social groups:
  • Heads of household of the wealthiest 10% of the population receive 12.1 years of education. Household heads of the poorest 30%, only 5 years of education.
  • There is a difference of 7.1 years of schooling between both groups. It is even greater in Mexico, 9 years, and in Brazil, Panama and El Salvador, 8 to 9 years.
Poverty and inequality shape a totally unequal pattern of opportunities in education.

Thus, the gaps due to dropout and repetition, are widened even further by the marked differences in the quality of education within the reach of various social groups.

Schiefelbein (1995) sets up Chart 8 illustrating this issue on the progress made by 13 year old students from various Latin American countries, in different kinds of schools (he takes data from a well known inernational source, the Third International Math & Sciences (TIMSS)).

Four kinds of schools appear on the chart, three of them urban: private elite schools, private low income group schools or public high income group schools, public low income groups and rural public schools. As can be seen, performance levels follow a quite defined pattern.

In schools attended by students from higher income groups, performance rates are higher. This is closely linked to the advantages experienced by said schools in specific aspects relating to the quality of the learning process. Much better salaries of teachers, a greater number of yearly class/hours (private schools teach 1200 hours/year, public schools less than 800, and 400 in rural schools), better available support materials and other teaching aids, and an appropriate and functional infrastructure as opposed to the many shortcomings experienced by public schools. Given the fact that most of the enrollment in the region concentrates in public schools, while it is much reduced in private schools, these differences in quality are highly significant.

Even in societies having achieved considerable progress in education, as in Uruguay, for instance, important differences in performance are observed according to the social and cultural context of the various kinds of schools, as can be seen in Charts 9 and 10 (ECLAC 1997).

The value of preschool levels in the educational process is becoming increasingly recognized, as skills and abilities encouraged and developed at this time will influence the learning possibilities in following stages. In Latin America, attendance at this stage, which constitutes the foundation of later years, is within the reach of limited sectors only. According to CELADE-IDB (1996) estimates, in 1990 only 14% of the potential population was receiving care at his level. Lavin (1994) describes in this regard that this educational possibility “is aimed at medium and high income groups despite certain progress made in providing care to marginal areas through low cost non formal education programs”. Again, there is inequity of access to this very relevant educational level.

CHART 8
CHART 9
CHART 10

All the above mentioned trends, the gaps with regard to dropout, repetition and quality between lower and higher income groups determine very different “educational destinations”. Puryear (1997) describes the overall situation as follows:

In Latin America, primary and high school education systems are markedly segmented according to economic status, whereby the poorest are confined to the public system while the wealthiest and most of the middle class attend private schools. This results in marked segmentation, poor people are provided with a clearly inferior education as compared to the wealthy ones. Disproportionate numbers among repeaters and dropouts are poor, and even if the poor remain in school, they usually learn less.

Under the impact of poverty and of marked inequalities in Latin American societies, educational systems, which appear to provide a fundamental path toward improved social mobility and equal opportunities, actually determine rigid circuits for the rich and the poor, thus creating a “perverse circle”. Children from lower income groups do not even complete primary school most of the time, and are even less likely to finish high school. The studies they pursue are of lower quality and, thus, they are at a clear disadvantage to gain access to and permanence in the labor market. In the latter, their income will be much lower than the one received by the better educated, thus increasing the inequity gap. In turn, they will form families with limited educational capital and severe restrictions, which they will in all likelihood convey to their own children.