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Latin Americans Satisfied With Education, Despite Quality Challenges

Most Latin Americans are satisfied with public education even though students from the region lag behind their peers from Asian and developed nations in international achievement tests, according to a Gallup poll commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank.

The study aims to identify, adopting a long-term perspective, how educational development has contributed to a better quality of life in Latin America and the Caribbean. Even though over the long-run the population in all countries in the region has had more access to educational services and has increased years of schooling, the situation in terms of quality is not encouraging. 

Data suggests that more than half of the population between 15 and 19 years old in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay lacks education and skills – measured by student assessment tests and not years of schooling -- to obtain a well-paid job in the highly competitive global economy (see graph below). This estimate is part of an IDB study that analyzes long-term trends in the quality of life in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in areas such as education, health and labor.

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Source: IDB calculations based on the percentage of population that did not complete grade 9
and the percentage of students on the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) that
scored below the lowest level (level 1). The study used the most recent PISA data for countries, in order to allow the same base of comparison. PISA data for Peru is from 2000. Data for Argentina and Mexico is from 2003 and Chile, Brazil and Uruguay data is from 2003.  PISA is a testing program sponsored by OECD. 

Several countries in the region reported levels of satisfaction similar to developed nations even though test scores were significantly lower. Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Honduras and Dominican Republic, for example, showed  levels of satisfaction with education  higher than Japan although students from those countries reported scores 35  percent lower on average than Japanese students., according to the poll.

Costa Rica, Venezuela and Nicaragua are the countries with the highest level of satisfaction in the region, with more than 80 percent of the people polled saying they are satisfied with the education system.  Haiti, Peru and Argentina are the least satisfied, with approval ratings below 55 percent (see graph below).

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                                           Source: IDBs' calculations based on Gallup (2006 and 2007).

People with lower levels of education tend to have a better opinion regarding the quality of educational services than those with more years of schooling, according to the survey, part of an IDB study into quality of life in Latin America. The survey also showed that parents, when rating quality, seem to be valuing other attributes other than learning achievement -as measured by test scores- such as whether the school is kept clean or discipline is fair among all students.

"Latin America has entered in a new phase of development that requires governments to dramatically improve the quality of education and other public services to ensure countries will be able to survive in a competitive global economy," said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the IDB. "Understanding people’s perceptions about quality of services can enrich the debate and lead to more effective policies."

The study uses data from Gallup World Poll and information from questions that were commissioned by the IDB as a complement for the poll. Gallup surveyed more than 40,000 people in 24 countries Latin America and the Caribbean between November 2005 and December 2007. The margin of error of the poll varies for each country, ranging from 3.1 percent to 5.1 percent. 

The survey is part of the series Development in the Americas, the IDB’s flagship publication aimed at bringing new perspectives on development issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. The bank will release the study on November 18 in Washington D.C., in an event that will mark the beginning of a series of presentations and public discussions in several countries in the region.

Policy Implications

Lack of demand for better education can mean governments are less motivated to make improvements, said Juan Carlos Navarro, one of the IDB researchers that conducted the study.

But as countries in the region improve the level of educational achievement of their population, criticism is bound to increase because more attention is paid on the services being offered, as shown in the cases of Chile and Brazil. Both countries showed lower-than expected satisfaction levels even though their students are among the top performers in the region, according to the study (see Table below). Dissatisfaction will create an opportunity for governments to implement reforms.

Chile and Brazil, in different ways, have invested in making national assessment tests scores available to the public. The tests increased the awareness of the population and have helped governments push for reforms.

Satisfaction with Education and Test Scores


Percentage Satisfied With Education

QIHC results* (Scores 1-100)







United Kingdom


















Dominican Republic















United States





















Source: Gallup 2007 and Altinok and Murseli (2007)

*Note: QIHC: Quality Indicators of Human Capital.

Still information alone is no silver bullet to improve quality.  The educational system and policymakers need to learn how to channel such frustration into effective policies for quality to be improved, the study concluded.

"It is important to raise awareness among the population about the importance of a good education," said Navarro.  "At the same time, governments should start preparing the programs and institutions that will allow them to handle a rising wave of criticism directed at schools and authorities, as parents become more educated."

Source of Growth

Education has been the primary source of economic growth in Asia but in Latin America and the Caribbean it has played a diminished role in the past 30 years. Most of the region’s growth between 1972 and 2000 can be attributed to an increase in the labor force while in both south and East Asia the main drivers of growth have been human capital and productivity.

"The number of years of education for an increasing number of Latin American children has not been necessarily translated into productivity growth, prosperity and enhanced welfare," Navarro said.

The results suggest that Latin Americans are not reaping the benefits from enrolling more children into the educational system and increasing the number of years its population remains in school.

Latin America and the Caribbean have made important advances in education over the past century. Literacy rates in the region have doubled since the 1930s to 86 percent. The average years of schooling for the population 15 years and older in the region has doubled to 7 in 2000 from 3.5 years in 1960, according to the study.

Today in the region, most children representing all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are able to attend school. Preschool education coverage currently rivals levels of developed nations, while secondary education has undergone an accelerated expansion in the past two decades.  Higher education has become a massive enterprise, allowing low-income students to earn a college degree. Education is more equally distributed in the region, helping mitigate the effects of income inequality.

Such improvements in the system will allow most of the countries in the region to achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, according to the study.

Still such advances have not been sufficient to improve the quality of education. Students in the region perform far worse than their peers in international student assessments in Asia, one of the region’s main competitors in international trade, and in Europe.

The average score of 15-year-old students in seven Latin American countries that took the test from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), run by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, is about one grade level below the average score of the 25 percent worst performing OECD students tested, the study said.

In addition, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the students in the seven Latin American countries scored less than the lowest skill level in the test, which means they lack basic literacy skills.  The Latin American countries that took part in the testing program were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

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