Learning for All: An Urgent Challenge in Latin America

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In the last 15 years, education in Latin America has experienced mixed progress. While the region has made important achievements with regard to school enrollment rates for children and youth, learning levels continue to be extremely low. Additional years of schooling are not resulting in higher learning or more skills. This document presents a brief introduction to these trends.

Latin America has expanded its education coverage, particularly at the pre-primary level. Between 1999 and 2012, the percentage of children enrolled at this level—measured by the gross enrollment ratio—grew from 54% to 74%. Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Costa Rica are among the countries where the enrollment rate grew the most. In these countries, less than half of children attended pre-school learning centers in 1999, but by 2012 the percentage surpassed 60%.

The region has also shown progress in expanding primary school coverage. The adjusted net enrollment rate at this level grew from 87% in 1990 to 93% in 1999. Since then, it has grown by one percentage point—to 94% by 2012. This deceleration in the movement toward universal education is a trend that Latin America shares with other regions of the world, and may have to do with the difficulty of reaching the most marginalized sectors of society.

Secondary school coverage has also improved. The net enrollment rate at this level grew from 59% in 1999 to 73% in 2012. Moreover, most countries in the region have high transition levels between primary and secondary school; what is more, only 4 out of the 27 countries with available data had a transition rate lower than 90% in 2010, with an average of 93%.

Despite this progress in educational coverage and access, students are not learning at acceptable levels. The most recent results from PISA and TERCE revealed strong deficiencies in reading, math, and science for students in the region. Without significant improvements in learning levels, the rising levels of schooling will hardly turn into the improvements in quality of life to which Latin American citizens aspire—and will probably be another source of frustration, instead of progress.

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