A recent Harvard University study found that Chile and Brazil are among the three countries that have raised student learning at the fastest rate between 1995 and 2011 (Latvia was the other). Each improved three times faster than the average of the 49 countries included in the study.
Colombia was also among the top 10, improving at twice the average. This is encouraging news for education reformers, suggesting that sustained efforts to raise student learning are beginning to pay off.
To be sure, results in Chile, Brazil and Colombia are still woefully unacceptable. Each country’s students score in the bottom third worldwide on the OECD’s PISA exam. However, they appear to be improving faster than most others.
How to explain their progress is less clear. All three countries have worked hard to increase learning, experimenting with many different reform measures. And they started from a very low base, making it easier to get results from relatively simple and inexpensive fixes. Here are some other possible explanations:
All have managed to grow their economies and reduce poverty over the past two decades, making it easier for poor children to concentrate on school. In each, presidents have made education a top priority, appointing and supporting talented ministers. In Brazil and Colombia, first-rate ministers have served for eight years, giving them time to learn the job and consolidate their strategies. All have favored whole-system reform over piecemeal measures and kept changes largely intact from one administration to the next.
The three countries have emphasized measuring results (particularly learning) and sharing that information widely—with parents, politicians and the press. Each administers achievement tests to all students rather than just to a sample, making it easy to compare progress. All participate regularly in global student achievement tests, and they have adopted policies aimed at attracting more talented teachers and rewarding good teaching. Chile has been the leader, significantly raising salaries, assessing teacher performance and experimenting with merit pay. Brazil has instituted bonus pay, raised the education levels of its teachers and improved in-service training.
All have experimented with competition and accountability (although in very different ways). Chile stands out with a robust system of publicly funded, privately managed voucher schools that lets many parents choose the school their children attend. Colombia has established a much smaller system of concessionary schools in which successful private schools contract to manage public schools and meet clear performance standards. Brazil has concentrated on creating a competitive climate by measuring and comparing publicly the results achieved by states, municipalities and individual schools. Each has taken steps to make education funding more equitable. For example, Brazil established a funding floor that reduced differences in funding between poor and rich states. Chile instituted a differentiated voucher system that pays schools up to 50 percent more for each disadvantaged student they teach.
Perhaps most importantly, all three countries have made education a national issue, creating a sense of urgency that has energized public opinion and pressured politicians and schools for results. The big question now is whether each country will figure out how to keep progress going until they reach acceptable levels of learning.