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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Brazil Perspectives: Education

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There is a real problem with education in Brazil, with standards lagging well behind other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica. The UN’s Education Development Index ranks Brazil at 79, compared with Chile at 41.

But the solution to this is not to adopt yet more aspirational targets for good education for all, which experience shows are certain to fail. Instead, resources must be focussed on where they can do the most good. The practical, cost-effective options are to expand pre-school coverage, increase the percentage of children who attend school and improve overall school quality.

Comparatively few Brazilian children go to pre-primary school, despite early years’ education boosting children’s development and having a significant beneficial impact in later life. Children who attend pre-school perform better in later years of schooling, are less likely to drop out, are less likely to be involved in crime and have higher earnings as adults. For each year of pre-school as infants, adults have a 7-12% increase in lifetime income.

Another problem for Brazil is that it is one of the few countries which does not have good basic educational statistics. Nevertheless, it is clear that too few children go to primary school. To make matters worse, more than a third of children repeat a grade at least once in primary or secondary school. This is particularly true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This poor performance at school is linked to a high drop-out rate. Only 88.7% complete basic education and there are more than 600,000 primary age children are out of school.

For those who do remain at school, performance is poor, reflecting poor school quality. The OECD’s internationally respected PISA survey  (Program for International Student Assessment) put Brazil near the bottom of the list of 65 countries taking part, making it comparable to Albania, Jordan and Tunisia.

The overall result is a high level of illiteracy. Over a third of a million Brazilians are classified as illiterate, but the result is even worse if we consider functional literacy (sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to function in the community). On this basis, 90% of the population could be seen as illiterate, either because they never attended school, dropped out early or have poor cognitive skills.

These educational disadvantages are not spread equitably across the population. Students from poor families are, for example, 46% more likely to drop out of school following a drop in family income than children of wealthier parents. And, on average, children in the South and Southeast of the country have several more years’ education than their peers in the North and Northeast.

There are effective ways to improve matters. For example, improving student test scores by one standard deviation is linked to a 2.6 percentage point higher economic growth rate. For the current average per capita income in Brazil of $11,690, this means an annual benefit of $304 per graduate over their whole lifetime. Delivering this improved benefit for four years of schooling would cost $100 a year but the benefits would be much greater. Each Real spent would pay back 16 Reals at present value.

Expanding primary school coverage would also be a smart move. It looks likely that completing primary school would boost earnings by 10%. Investing a Real to get more children into school would pay back 11 Reals in benefits.

But even better would be investing in early years’ education. Children who attend preschool are likely to earn 15% more as adults. Three years’ preschool would cost $500 per child, but each Real spent would pay back 51 Real in extra earnings.

Achieving these targets would benefit in particular those who are now excluded from good quality education and help to address social inequities in the country. But the should also be supplemented by collecting basic education statistics: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”