Report on education in Latin America is cause for alarm
Arizona Daily Star
Oct. 23, 2007


My opinion Andrés Oppenheimer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

One of the things that struck me the most during a recent visit to India was that amid growing competition for educational excellence children have to pass rigorous admission tests starting at kindergarten. What a difference in comparison to what's happening in Latin America.

In many Latin American countries, there is so little emphasis on the quality of education that you can go all the way from kindergarten to giant state-run universities such as Mexico's National Autonomous University or Argentina's University of Buenos Aires without ever having to pass an admissions test.

The contrast between what's happening in India — and most of Asia — and Latin America came to mind as I read a World Bank report on the quality of education in Latin America that was released last week. It's the most devastating indictment I have ever seen on the performance of Latin American schools.

In 1960, the percentage of people who completed high school in Latin America was 7 percent and in East Asia approximately 11 percent; nowadays, the percentages of high school completion are 18 percent in Latin America and 44 percent in East Asia, the report says.

Despite the rapid rise in enrollment in Latin American schools in recent decades, the region is falling dramatically behind the rest of the world, including when compared with other developing or medium-income countries, the report says.

In Latin America, governments are too focused on building schools and too little concerned on what's happening inside them. Many countries in the region — including Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba — often refuse to give international standardized tests or refuse to make their results public.

Consider some of the report's findings:

● In the Program for International Student Assessment, a standardized test that measures 15-year-olds in math, language and science, Latin American countries scored among the lowest in the world. Chinese students in Hong Kong scored 550 points in math, 510 in language and 539 in science; South Korean students scored 542, 534 and 538; and U.S. children scored 483, 495 and 491. However, the scores in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru were around 400 points or below.

● Even Latin American students from the most advantaged socioeconomic background perform badly in these tests, "dispelling the myth that the region's most privileged students receive a high-quality education," the report says.

● In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, which measures eighth-graders in math and science, the only two Latin American countries that participated — Colombia and Chile — scored near the bottom.

● In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which tests fourth-graders in reading, the only two Latin American countries that participated, Argentina and Colombia, ranked 30th and 31st, respectively, of the 35 participants.

"Educational systems have been too focused on getting children to attend school and too little on what they are taught in school," Emiliana Vegas, one of the report's authors, told me Friday.

My opinion: All of this bodes badly for Latin America. In today's knowledge-based economy, countries with lesser educational standards are condemned to slower growth and long-term poverty.

China, India and Eastern Europe's success shows that countries with better-educated populations produce more sophisticated goods, attract more investment, create more jobs and reduce poverty faster.

I'm not suggesting that Latin American 3-year olds be subjected to excruciating kindergarten admission tests. (Even India's Supreme Court has recently set limits on that practice, arguing that it puts too much pressure on kids too early in life.)

But, at the very least, Latin American countries should start participating in international standardized tests to measure themselves against the rest of the world, and then act accordingly. Otherwise, mediocre educational standards will condemn their populations to lag increasingly behind the rest of the world.

Postscript: The Latin American country whose education is going backward most rapidly is Venezuela, where maximum leader Hugo Chávez has announced a new curriculum aimed at helping create a socialist new man. While communist China and semi- socialist India focus on math, Venezuela will start teaching ideology.

My opinion

Andrés Oppenheimer

E-mail Andrés Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald, at