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Challenges to secondary education in Latin America and the Caribbean: Universality, quality, relevance

SANTIAGO, Chile - Universality, quality, and relevance are the three great challenges to secondary education, the weakest link in the chain of the educational systems of Latin American and the Caribbean, according to panelists speaking today at a seminar organized by the Inter-American Development Bank.

In the next 10 years the demand for secondary education in the region will increase by 40 percent, the equivalent of 10 million youths out of a total student population of around 27 million at the end of the past decade.

To increase the percentage of students receiving secondary education from the present 55 percent to 75 percent, the region must invest more than $5 billion in the construction of schools alone in the next few years.

Latin America would be in a position to make investments of this magnitude if it returns to economic growth rates achieved at the beginning of the decade of the 1990s. Another favorable factor is the region’s unique demographic opportunity. During the next 20 years many countries will experience a reduction in the growth of their school-age population and an increase in the labor force, which will result in greater resources for social investments.

Nevertheless, building schools is insufficient if it is not accompanied by better quality education that reflects the demands of a world in permanent transformation.

In fact, education is the key to remedy the great challenges to Latin America: poverty and social inequality and low economic competitiveness, and consolidation of democratic systems.

"At the beginning of the 21st Century, high-quality education for all our youth was a necessary building block, although insufficient, to assure satisfactory opportunities of social integration," according to Chile’s Education Minister Mariana Aylwin in the opening address at the seminar on "Alternatives for Secondary Education."

She urged the that education systems have models and criteria that respond to the interests of youth and open permanent learning opportunities that will allow them to enter a complex labor market that is changing and segmented.

The IDB’s manager of the Sustainable Development Department, Carlos M. Jarque, said that Latin America has improved its secondary education and that several countries in the region are studying alternatives and making large investments to overcome the great challenges.

"We have the historic responsibility to cement the bases that will define, through education, the profile of our region in the 21st Century," he said. "A constant and vigorous effort will be needed."

Jarque, the former secretary of Social Development in Mexico, said "the main contribution that we can and should make for development is to give access to excellent secondary education to the future generations in Latin America and the Caribbean."

He defined the following as the principal goals:

· Improve the training of professors with modern programs, organized professional careers and salaries that attract persons highly qualified for teaching.

· Design effective systems of evaluation of teaching performance to measure the results of teaching and teachers’ training.

· Increase the amount of time students spend in the classroom. Now the school day for most countries in the region is between three and three and one-half hours. Public schools in industrial countries provide double the amount of classroom hours, while Latin American students lose between 10 and 40 days each year because of labor conflicts.

· Promote the informatics culture and reduce the so-called "digital divide" in educational systems. This means designing education programs that prepare youth for a world where there is a premium on teamwork and creativity in complex areas that frequently require specialized technical and linguistic knowledge.

Jarque said the IDB will continue to support efforts of countries in the region to improve their educational systems, especially at the secondary level, where most of the $1 billion in Bank loans for education programs have been directed in the past three years.

Panels of the seminar, held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the IDB, examined subjects such as secondary education in industrialized countries, education as a key to equity and development in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the experiences in the region with reform.

Among the speakers were the ministers of education of Brazil, Paulo Renato Souza; of Colombia, Francisco J. Lloreda; and of Mexico, Reyes Tamez Guerra. Also participating were young education officials from Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, as well as academics. IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias closed the meeting.

Impact of education: good and bad news

Two specialists of the IDB’s Sustainable Development Department, Aimee Verdisco and Germán W. Rama, coordinator of the seminar, presented a study on the transgenerational impact of education. It was based on household surveys in 10 Latin American countries that account for 80 percent of the region’s population.

The study detected both favorable and disturbing trends. It confirmed that education can be a great social equalizer in the region because of its potential to stimulate mobility and improve the educational achievements of the next generation.

On the other hand, the study shows that Latin American education remains stratified according to socio-economic, racial and linguistic divisions.

Children of parents with superior levels of education attend school regularly and advance without hindrance from primary to secondary levels. In contrast, with few exceptions children from poor families or those from racial and ethnic minorities continue to fall behind.

Family surveys, although varied in methodology and coverage, indicate that more than 90 percent of Latin American youths between the ages of 7 and 12 attend school. Eighty percent of those between the ages of 12 and 14 continue to study, while only 58 percent of those continue in school between the ages of 14 and 18.

In the poorest families, 70 percent of the 15-year-olds are studying. In Brazil, 83 percent of the 15-year-olds from families classified as white attend school compared to 75 percent of those from families classified as Afro-Brazilian or mixed race. In Bolivia, only 22 percent of the 15-year-olds from a linguistic minority group, such as an indigenous community, are in school, compared with 79 percent from Spanish-speaking families.

The studies show that dropout and grade repetition rates are high for the poorest youth and reaches alarming rates for those from racial and ethnic minorities.

The solution to these problems, the study concluded, is more education. This can be confirmed empirically by examining households headed by women. The harmful social impact

is neutralized when the head of the household has post-secondary education.

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