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Latin America/Report: Improving Education is Key to Close the Social Divide and Boost Development

Available in: Português, Español
Press Release No:2008/097/LAC


In Washington: Sergio Jellinek (202) 458-2841

Gabriela Aguilar (202) 473-6768


Washington, DC, October 17, 2007. - Quality can have an even larger impact on economic development –compared to years of schooling– in the Latin American and the Caribbean countries. For this reason, raising student learning is the main challenge in a region that has achieved considerable progress in school enrollment in the past few years.


According to the findings of a new World Bank report —Raising Student Learning in Latin America: The Challenge of the 21st Century issued today, almost all Latin American and the Caribbean countries have been successful in getting most children to attend basic education and in increasing enrollment in secondary and tertiary education. Likewise, the region’s average educational spending increased from 2.7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1990 to 4.3 percent in 2003.


Despite this progress, warns the report, some of the region’s countries are lagging behind other medium and high income nations.


In 1960, Latin America, East Asia, Scandinavian countries, and Spain had similar levels of educational attainment. However by 2005, the Latin America and Caribbean region was lagging behind in the number of children completing 12 years of schooling. Although in 1960 the share of adults that had satisfactorily completed upper secondary education was 7 percent in Latin America and about 11 percent in East Asia, by the early 2000s the figures were 18 percent for Latin America and 44 percent for East Asia.


“In Latin America, educational inequity is not as high as social inequity and income inequality,” said Pamela Cox, World Bank Vice-President for Latin America and the Caribbean.Although the region’s countries have expanded education and most children have equal access to learning opportunities, this has not resulted in considerable reductions in income inequalities,” she added.


In their efforts to achieve universal primary enrollment —which is only a first step in education expansion— some countries have missed other goals associated with quality education, says the report. It further highlights several reasons why the level of student learning is the key challenge facing education in the region.


  • Latin American countries are among the lowest performers in international student assessments in subjects like mathematics.
  • There is also a high share of students who perform well below minimum levels in all subjects.
  • In many countries in the region, the substantial achievement gaps among students point to high inequality in learning outcomes of students from different backgrounds.
  • Few students in the region complete their studies with an internationally competitive education. Although poor and minority students have indeed a greater likelihood of achieving lower scores than students of higher socioeconomic status, equally troubling is than even ethnic and racial majorities and those with socioeconomic advantages in Latin America are performing well below students from countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in international assessments. This situation dispels the myth that the region’s most privileged students have access to quality education.


For all these reasons, LAC countries must focus on equal access to secondary and tertiary education, reducing socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities and, above all, targeting education’s most crucial goal: ensuring that all children acquire the knowledge and skills required to lead successful lives.


The report highlights that quality education may have a far stronger effect on economic growth than years of schooling. Several analyses and evidence increasingly suggest that quality –and not quantity–may be responsible for perpetuating income inequalities and, conversely, it can also help mitigate such inequalities. The impacts of quality education, as represented by scores on international assessments, are much stronger from the standpoint of social equity than the impacts of the number of students enrolled. Although access is a first necessary step, it is not enough on its own.


However, for quality to bring higher incomes at the individual level and greater economic growth for countries, an adequate macroeconomic and labor market environment is also needed, says the report.


“Because cognitive skills influence a worker’s ability to adopt new technologies and, consequently, impact his/her capacity to earn higher incomes, economies that foster innovation also tend to have greater economic returns to quality education,” explained Emiliana Vegas, report author and Senior Education Economist at the World Bank.


Ensuring student learning and quality education requires a clear vision regarding expected outcomes from the overall education system and consistency in the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders (teachers, parents, others).


The challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean ––finds the report— includes adopting an institutional vision that can meet the challenges of the 21st Century. This vision should be consistent with each country’s political, historical and social contexts so as to ensure that all students achieve their highest potential.


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