You hear it at almost every conference on development and economic competitiveness in Latin America. Eventually, the discussion turns to the conclusion that it boils down to education, that the region can’t develop and can’t compete in the modern economy if it can’t educate its youth. And inevitably that becomes the take-away from the conference. (If we’re lucky we’ll also get a handful of disconnected, self-serving stories from several benefactors about what they’re doing to improve pedagogy for a small sample of students.)
Yes, education is critical for social mobility (I personally can attest to that), economic growth, socioeconomic development, moving up the global value chain, and even reducing crime and violence (that I can’t personally attest to). But the recent obsession and surfeit of platitudes and simple answers uttered breathlessly from Davos to Denver is, at best, misguided and, at worst, dangerous (and most certainly annoying).
First, none of this is simple. You would think that the way people fret and knit their brows about it and exhort everyone in the conference room to do something about it that it would be easy. It’s not. In fact, in the United States we have been engaging in a decades-old debate about how to improve our sagging, underperforming primary and secondary educational systems. De-segregation, charters, testing, vouchers, accountability, bringing in volunteers… we’re trying all of them in the United States, and as far as I can tell there’s still no consensus about what works. Meanwhile our students continue to underperform in the OECD PISA tests. Let’s face it, this issue confronts powerful stakeholders (teachers’ unions), massive bureaucracies (federal, state and local) and multiple factors that are often out of the reach of reformers: parent support, infrastructure, retaining educated families in the public school system, health and nutrition, and multiple, conflicting teaching methods, to name a few.
And if you think those are tough, consider Latin America. In Mexico and Argentina—to name a few countries—teachers’ unions remain implacable foes to any reforms that demand accountability, even—in Mexico—that require them to show up regularly. Infrastructure is woefully inadequate in rural areas across the region, where one-room school houses are still common and students lack books and basic supplies. And in racially diverse countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala, for example, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities still lack access to quality schools and teachers.
There is no roadmap to reform and improve education. Chile is a perfect example, in which its Pinochet-era voucher program was held up as a model to inject market incentives into education; until it was discovered that the schools were not behaving as market actors. Top schools were actively selecting student applicants from better neighborhoods believing they would perform better and thereby improve the stock of the schools for the future. Poorer students were shunted off to poorer performing schools.
In short, we’re not confronting a development challenge akin to fixing exchange rates or reducing inflation. Truth is, we really don’t know how to fix it; yet we keep on talking about how it has to be fixed.
Second, in response to the global handwringing there has been a troubling proliferation of initiatives, some of which are consuming large amounts of development or private funds without addressing the core issues, namely the woeful condition of national public school systems that are supposed to serve all students. Instead, smaller, more boutique initiatives have become the fad. There are the Khan academy schools in Peru and other places supported by local business leaders. I’ve seen mining companies that have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into school buildings and materials around their areas of activities in Peru, Dominican Republic and Colombia. There are tech entrepreneurs that are selling blended learning models that donors or parents support for student consumers. And there is the GlassWing project in Central America in which volunteers refurbish schools and teach after-school classes. Let’s also not forget the now much-criticized One-Laptop-per-Child program that was the rage a few years ago and in which President Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, in his first term, sunk millions of dollars to equip every student with the toy-like laptops. Most are no longer in use.
Many of the individual efforts may be generating real benefits, but they are all limited to a handful of schools or to after-school programs. As such they miss the broad-based challenges of the entire school system: insufficient budgets, bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of oversight, poor infrastructure, lack of materials for all students, corrupt teachers’ unions… to name a few. While many of the founders and supporters of these initiatives talk about scaling up, even a scaled-up model cannot completely cover or address the multitude of inefficiencies and gaps present in the national educational system that is supposed to cover all students. (Note: even Gates Foundation projects are intended to incentivize broader educational reforms, not just mobilize volunteers to paint school walls or create special set-aside schools.)
I’d be willing to bet that many of the businesses and private sector leaders that support the projects mentioned above pay low taxes or even evade their taxes and prefer to stay away from state-sponsored reform altogether. Engaging in systemic reform of that sort would address the problems at their root and for all children. But, of course, pushing for state reform and sinking more taxes into a cleaned up and transparent government-managed budget and government-administered education program would deny these businesses and leaders bragging rights at the next international conference.
I am aware of one exception to this, though there may be more. The Mexican NGO Mexicanos Primero aggressively and systematically monitors state education policy and teacher performance, demanding greater accountability from the government and the classroom. It successfully pushed for recent government reforms—that were met by protests from, you guessed it, the teachers’ union—and continue to grade school and teacher performance. Sure, it doesn’t give its supporters the sort of warm and fuzzy stories of children interacting with their first computer or how one underprivileged student learned to love school. But more important, it promises benefits on a grand scale for all kids, not just the lucky ones enrolled in a handful of schools or an online course.
There’s one last problem with education as the topic de jure. The education-as-magic-bullet talk is bound to a specific point in the region’s development and economic situation. It is a creature of the resource boom in the Americas, when observers—though, unfortunately, not enough policymakers in Venezuela, Brazil or Kirchner’s Argentina—fretted about how to get the regional economies out of their cycle of resource dependence. For many, now, that time has passed. Now we’re more likely to hear about how governments have to patch the growing holes in their economy through macroeconomic and structural reforms. Education is a long-term issue. When governments face double or triple digit inflation, saving a tanking economy is likely to overtake long-term concerns of how to break out of resource dependence, especially several generations down the road. And that’s a shame.
Education is important and deserves to continue to be front and center in our discussions on social mobility, economic growth and socioeconomic development in the U.S. and across the Americas But it also deserves more than meaningless exhortation and self-aggrandizing, isolated initiatives.