miércoles, 8 de febrero de 2012

Challenges for comprehensive education reform in South America

By: Gonzalo Alcalde

The integral reform of the education is necessary, but it will not be able to be obtained without special attention to the educative decentralization and the national political debates

The countries of South America continue to perform poorly in primary and secondary education, significantly below what would be expected at their income levels. This is a critical deficiency insofar as quality education is the most important element for sustainably reducing inequality and poverty, as well as for ensuring competitiveness. All of the region’s countries that participated in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay) consistently performed well below the OECD average in the reading, mathematics and science categories (see Table 1).(5)  In contrast, South Korea, one of the lowest-income OECD countries, topped the study’s rankings.

TABLE 1. Performance of South American Countries in 2009 PISA Study

Source: OECD, PISA 2009 Database (released in December 2010)

According to a 2010 OECD analysis of these recent results, “successful school systems provide all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, with similar opportunities to learn.” Students in the region are still far from this situation. While basic education access and enrollment have undoubtedly expanded (secondary education enrollment increased from 57 percent to 91 percent between 1999 and 2006), South American education systems still face significant challenges in quality, equity, and efficiency; the education received by the poor hinders social mobility.

Nevertheless, since the 1990s, reforms undertaken in South America have ostensibly sought to improve not only access, but also quality. The World Bank and IADB notably influenced the actual and recommended reforms undertaken in the region in this period, policies countries understood as the institutional reforms that must necessarily follow structural adjustment programs. These solutions emphasized a reduced role for the state, decentralization, school autonomy (sometimes involving privatization), new standards for evaluation, and measures to improve the quality of teachers. These reforms were not fully implemented and faced important challenges including, first and foremost, the scarcity of financial resources in an era of limited economic growth. They also faced significant political opposition from key actors such as national teacher unions.

In recent years, guidelines for reform have focused not only on changing the structure of education systems and improving financial and human resources, but also increasingly on the actual learning processes at the school level. This involves educational contents and the ways in which teachers and school officials perform their functions. Moreover, there is a new consensus related to restoring and expanding state responsibilities in order to achieve all these changes.(6) Past objectives of decentralization, school autonomy, teacher training, and broader coverage still require significant attention.

Thus, a more complex, integrated and comprehensive approach to reform is being called for, with strong leadership from the state in an era when resources are more plentiful and represent a window of opportunity. When planning reforms, it is essential that policy-makers take into account the anticipated demographic shift that will reduce school age population as a percentage of total population. Reforms in the last two decades, at the same time, suggest that at least two other important factors will determine the ability of countries to embark on such comprehensive changes.

Decentralization has moved forward in some countries, most notably Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru, while in others there has been no significant change. A consistent criticism of these processes (and most evident in Argentina and Peru) is that new resources and capabilities have not accompanied this newfound autonomy. This issue limits possibilities for improving quality in coming years. At the same time, the central governments of these countries will likely find it more difficult to systematically reform structural, financial and procedural aspects of education because of the complex coordination efforts required vis-à-vis both subnational levels of government and autonomous schools.

Second, it must be assumed that comprehensive social sector reforms are an issue of national political debate. Since the late 1990s, the policy literature (for example, Grindle, 2004)(7) has predominantly viewed teacher unions, still powerful in many countries, and other stakeholder groups as “obstacles” for technocratic reformers to overcome. In practice, many social sector reforms in the region were attempted bypassing national political debate.  The new consensus on education challenges, however, suggests that the necessary changes are so comprehensive that they can only come about in a context of democratic dialogue and inclusiveness, engaging all relevant stakeholders. Thus, countries with stronger democratic practices and institutions should be at an advantage for implementing politically viable reforms.

These two areas pose challenges for international cooperation in education. In the case of decentralization, the incomplete nature of reforms and the pending agenda suggest it will be preferable in the foreseeable future to offer cooperation packages that promote coordination and collaboration between different levels of government, rather than to offer cooperation individually to actors within a heterogeneous set of subnational governments. On the other hand, to ensure the political viability of reforms, it is important to begin considering roles for often ignored stakeholders like teacher unions in the formulation and implementation of existing cooperation programs, including programs in such recent priority areas as inclusion of marginalized groups, learning processes and technology transfer.

[5] Source: OECD, PISA 2009 Database. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888932343342. Accessed: December, 2010.
[6] Rosalía Cortés and Claudia Giacometti, “Políticas de educación y su impacto sobre la superación de la pobreza infantil”. CEPAL, División de Desarrollo Social: Santiago de Chile, January 2010
[7] Grindle, M. (2004), Despite the Odds: The Contentious Politics of Education Reform. Princeton University Press.

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