How Can We Reduce Educational Inequality in the Americas?

Sarah Stanton / Inter-American Dialogue

There is widespread agreement among academics, development organizations, and governments about the urgency of reducing inequality in Latin America, particularly in education. In this regard, on June 19, 2019, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted the event “How Can We Reduce Inequality in the Americas?” in partnership with the Organization of American States (OAS) and CAF-Development Bank of Latin America. The event launched the Inter-American Guide on Strategies to Reduce Educational Inequality (Guía Interamericana de Estrategias de la Reducción de la Desigualdad Educativa in Spanish). This report offers ten effective strategies to address the current gaps in education quality and access using empirical evidence from previous studies and reports on Latin America.

In his opening remarks, Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, stated that despite considerable progress reducing poverty in the region over the last decade, there are still high inequality levels that hinder sustainable growth and social inclusion, a fact which is clearly shown in educational statistics. For instance, 14 million children across the region are out of school, and 30% of those who are enrolled do not achieve the most basic levels of academic competency. Shifter pointed out that this reality invites policymakers and civil society leaders to look for strategies to achieve educational outcomes for all, but especially for the vulnerable.

Kim Hurtault-Osborne, Executive Secretary for Integral Development at the OAS, spoke about how education is not only the responsibility of the government, and that these strategies require actions from non-governmental organizations and the private sector as well. Said Hurtault-Osborne, “Education is a right for all, not a privilege of a few.”

María Oviedo, from the Dialogue, presented the report, sharing the highlighted interventions by education level: pre-primary, primary and secondary. The Guide, which is organized around the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Education), which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. At the pre-primary level, the guide recommends home visits, more and better childcare centers, and adapted curricula and training for early childhood teachers (developing, among others, their socio-emotional and organizational skills). In primary schools, the guide looks at strategies to promote early-grade reading, student-centered instruction, inclusive education, and intercultural bilingual education. In addition, it gives three strategies for secondary schools: conditional cash transfers, tutoring and mentorships, and school reentry programs. The report provides insights for policymakers based on relevant and successful examples and recommendations for their proper application in the region.

To show how the Guide presents the strategies, Oviedo chose to highlight one in particular: Home visits. As she explained, this intervention consists of supporting parents with children in situation of poverty and vulnerability, with the aim of changing parenting practices to improve childhood development. According to Oviedo, the success of these visits depends on their frequency, the quality of materials and preparation of visits, and the interpersonal relationships between parents and visitors. The Guide offers three examples (in Jamaica, Peru, and the United States) that demonstrate the short- and long-term positive effects of the visits, such as increased motor and socioemotional skills and better nutrition.

Oviedo stressed the key lessons from the guide, including the need to prioritize funding for programs aimed at reducing inequality, to identify clear target populations and their unique needs. These lessons may require a certain amount of decentralization, and more studies on educational inequality levels per country to maximize the efficiency of investments. It is also important to stimulate collaboration between ministries and non-governmental organizations working to address these challenges, especially in terms of sharing costs and strategies. This kind of coordination is particularly neccesary for early childhood development, said Oviedo. In addition, the Guide emphasizes the need to develop long-term strategies and longitudinal visions to align all educational levels with smooth transitions between them. Finally, Oviedo explained that countries need to create broad national plans for reducing educational inequality and defining goals, roles, evaluation mechanisms and concrete actions.

Following the presentation, Ariel Fiszbein, director of the Education Program at the Dialogue, moderated a panel discussion with Emiliana Vegas (Chief of the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank) and Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian (Director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of the American States). The panelists began by noting that countries must adapt the application of these recommendations, and there should be an emphasis not only on the financing for these policies but also on the need for qualified teachers’ and the necessary data for policymakers.

Fiszbein stated that despite the considerable advances in the rhetoric of policies to address inequality in the region, there is still a gap between the aims of these efforts and the results. Vegas responded that more data and evidence on education is essential to fill this gap.

For her part, Muñoz-Pogossian commented that there are two major bottlenecks to address inequality in Latin America. First, the need to strengthen teachers’ ability, especially when they are essential for many of the recommended strategies on the Guide; and second, the necessary coordination between agencies, ministries and stakeholders to produce truly inter-sectoral responses.

With more than sixty attendees in the audience, many questions and comments arose. After the panel, there was an opportunity to introduce other dimensions of the inequality issue, such as science, technology, engineering and math education, and how Latin America has performed poorly on international assessments, such as PISA, especially in these subject areas. Vegas insisted on the importance of early childhood education to ensure that young children have a strong to their development and the necessary skills to excel later in life.

The presentation of the report and subsequent discussion was an opportunity to present and contextualize policy strategies for public, private and non-governmental actors.

Watch the full event recording here:

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