In the last decade, Latin America has seen one of its biggest educational successes: the net enrollment rate in schools rose to 76%, compared to 49% in 1990. However, graduation rates are another story. Today, four out of ten Latin Americans do not finish their high school education and drop out before they reach the age of twelve, according to our data.
In the countries of Mesoamerica —a region that includes Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize— the numbers are worse. The early dropout rate is 14 percentage points higher than in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. Especially in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), the abandonment rates double those of other countries.
According to data from our CIMA database, secondary school attendance only reached 47 percent in Honduras, 44 percent in Guatemala and 60 percent in El Salvador. The situation is so severe that just in 2018, more than 217,000 students dropped out of school in Guatemala, according to data from their Ministry of Education.
In and out of school
A big problem is that schools are no longer synonymous with protection, safety and shelter in Mesoamerica. Today, many of them are recruiting grounds for gangs and dangerous spaces with confrontation and extortion. According to a study by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Spanish Cooperation Agency (AECID) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 30 percent of children in Honduras - some 890,000 - do not go to school and in El Salvador, about a thousand dropped out every week during 2018.
Interactive: explore the graph and see Latin American countries are doing in school enrollment
While these countries are increasing their efforts to transform their schools into safe and suitable places for study, the problem goes beyond the classrooms. In order to ensure that children and adolescents in the region remain in school, what happens at home must also be taken into account. Gangs violence aside, the economic solvency of the family and its needs ultimately affects whether a child leaves their education to go to work.
The consequences of not going to school drag on for decades. Every additional year of education means, on average, an increase of between 8 and 10 percent over a person's lifetime income; it also improves the odds of getting a higher skilled job that pays better and delivers greater benefits for their family. For women, the longer they stay in school, the less likely they are to get an unplanned pregnancy. In El Salvador, for example, 22 percent of girls between 15 and 19 who dropped out became mothers soon after.
What are we doing?
"Currently, the IDB's work in education in Mesoamerica focuses on identifying proven interventions and digital innovations that adapt to the context of each country,” says Pablo Zoido, IDB's Education Department lead specialist. The objective is to ensure that young people thrive in safe and stimulating learning environments; complete their secondary education with relevant life and work skills; and take advantage of flexible educational programs if they’ve dropped out of school. In this regard, we seek to facilitate the exchange of experience between the countries of Mesoamerica so that they can face their particular educational challenges,” he says.
The main idea is to empower vulnerable youth with literacy, numerical, socio-emotional and digital skills for the 21st century. “To achieve this, the Bank's education program in Mesoamerica will promote cost-effective and innovative interventions that encourage young people to remain in school, and for those young people who are already out of the system, it will promote alternative education opportunities so that they too can acquire relevant life and work skills,” says Raquel Fernández, IDB’s Education Department specialist.
To better understand school abandonment in the region, between March and April 2019 we conducted a study in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The country has an early school dropout rate of 35 percent, one of the highest in the region, caused primarily by insecurity, youth violence and gangs. For the study, we interviewed boys and girls between 11 and 18 years old who dropped out of school in the last 12 months. Although the study concluded that respondents considered their education valuable, many of them said that it was the environment - both inside and outside the school - that motivated them to leave their studies.
"I didn't want to go to school every day," says one of the respondents, who for security reasons remained anonymous. “It was like a fight. Where I lived supported one side, and the school supported the other, ”he says. "Sometimes they even kidnapped people," says another. This hostile environment has a negative effect on the development of the students, who instead of seeing their schools as safe spaces, feel discriminated against, threatened and isolated.
At the IDB, we are committed to ensuring that more children and young people have access to good educational opportunities. If you want to learn more about the current situation of education in Latin America and the Caribbean, we invite you to visit the Information Center for the Improvement of Learning (CIMA).