Have emerging Latin American countries chosen quantity over quality in education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Developing human capital is an integral part of economic growth and social progress. Mature, developed economies in Europe, North America and Australasia expanded their education and skills systems mainly after the Second World War in a context of unbridled economic prosperity and the modernisation of their social and political institutions. The conditions were favourable for increasing the share of tertiary-educated workers, ensuring that upper secondary education gradually became the minimum level of educational achievement for large parts of the population, and for reducing the numbers of people without an upper secondary education. These countries also benefitted from the luxury of time. It took OECD countries 30 years, on average, to halve the share of people without an upper secondary education – from 32% among current 55-64 year-olds to 16% among 25-34 year-olds.

Conditions have not been as auspicious elsewhere. Consider Latin America. As shown in the chart above – taken from the most recent Education Indicators in Focus brief on educational attainment and investment in education in Ibero-American countries – the progress made in Chile, Colombia and Brazil between the two generations, separated by the same 30 years, is more than double the OECD average. In contrast, over 50% of 25-34 year-olds in both Costa Rica and Mexico lack an upper secondary education.

The chart also offers a comparison with Spain and Portugal, with which these Latin American countries share language, history and culture. Despite their location on the European continent and their integration in the European Union, both countries do not compare favourably with their counterparts in the Ibero-American world. Still, over the past 30 years, Portugal has made impressive progress in catching up to attainment levels observed in most other European countries.

These achievements are remarkable; but the obvious question is: has this change in educational attainment been matched with a similar rise in skills? Put another way: has the quality of education and learning outcomes been maintained during a time of massive expansion? As shown by the latest results from the Survey of Adult Skills for Chile – the only Ibero-American country that participated in the survey apart from Spain – 25-34 year-olds scored around 50 points higher in literacy then 55-64 year-olds did – a significant difference that is also larger than that observed in most other participating countries. However, the level of literacy proficiency remains relatively low. The younger cohort scored around 235 points, on average, on the literacy scale, while the OECD average score is around 280 points. Even with an educational attainment level close to the OECD average, the actual level of literacy skills among these younger adults is significantly lower than the OECD average. Chilean 16-24 year-olds who have upper secondary education or who are still in education scored around 235 points in literacy – which is far below all of the other participating countries and economies, except Jakarta in Indonesia.

Even if limited to one country, these data suggest that achieving impressive growth in educational attainment in emerging Latin American countries is not sufficient – and, in fact, can be deceptive. The real challenge is to improve the quality of education so that young people leave the system equipped with the skills that their economies and societies need to foster sustainable progress. The scores on the PISA 2015 reading assessment (which measures the skills of 15-year-olds) for Colombia (425 points), Mexico (423 points) and Brazil (407 points) – all well below the score for Chile (459 points) – suggest that the challenges implicit in maintaining quality are even greater among those other emerging Latin American countries.

The shift in focus from access and attainment to quality of learning embodied in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal for education, agreed upon by the whole world, is thus very timely and much needed. The emerging economies of the world, and the developing countries in their wake, should do more than just bridge the gap with the developed world in formal education levels; they should ensure that young adults emerge from their education systems with skills that matter. The price to be paid for neglecting this political imperative is disillusion among young people when their qualifications do not deliver on their promises, and ultimately stalled economic growth and thwarted social progress.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 50: Educational attainment and investment in education in Ibero-American countries
Skills in Ibero-America: Insights from PISA 2012
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
PISA 2015 Results

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Education
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Chart source: OECD, Education at a Glance (database), http://stats.oecd.org

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