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I recently had the opportunity to hear Secretary of Education Claudia Costin speak about the series of reforms implemented in Rio de Janeiro’s education system since 2009. The Rio approach—system-wide reform with a strong focus on results—appears to have had significant positive outcomes and may offer useful lessons for reformers elsewhere in Latin America.
Costin and her colleagues made raising levels of learning quickly their chief objective. They chose a combination of reforms they thought might promote that objective in different ways. These included lengthening the school day, testing all students every two months (in reading, math, science and writing) to assess progress, tutoring those who fall behind, involving teachers in decision making, signing annual management contracts with schools and making them accountable for results, providing salary bonuses for schools that meet learning goals, and involving civil society in the reform process. They also established an on-line platform (Educopédia) for collaborative digital lessons, a set of experimental middle schools, and special “Schools for Tomorrow” in violent areas.
After more than four years, results have been remarkably positive. Test scores have risen significantly, as have literacy and numeracy rates. Nearly 90% of first-year students are reading and writing at grade level, and over 40% of schools have received salary bonuses for meeting learning goals. So far, at least, the system-wide approach appears to be successful. Costin and her colleagues are working to refine and institutionalize the reforms, and to design additional steps towards raising levels of learning.
I was particularly impressed by how Costin and her colleagues have combined established management principles with pragmatism. They have sought to mix continuity with change, communicate clearly the problems they seek to address, draw selectively on the recent education policy literature, and establish a system of performance incentives. They have defended the use of student achievement tests against arguments that they are not good enough (“The perfect is the enemy of the good”). They have been realistic about resistance to ranking schools on the basis of performance (“Everybody hates rankings, but everybody loves rankings”). They have argued strongly in favor of involving civil society in overseeing schools (“Education is too important to be left entirely in the hands of government”). The result has been exceptional and deserves broader attention. You can view a video of Costin’s presentation (at the World Bank), along with her PowerPoint, below.