My opinion Andrés Oppenheimer
One of the things that struck me the most during a recent visit to India
was that amid growing competition for educational excellence children
have to pass rigorous admission tests starting at kindergarten. What a
difference in comparison to what's happening in
In many Latin American countries, there is so little emphasis on the
quality of education that you can go all the way from kindergarten to
giant state-run universities such as
Mexico's National Autonomous University or Argentina's University of Buenos Aires
without ever having to pass an admissions test.
The contrast between what's happening in India — and most of Asia — and
Latin America came to mind as I read a World Bank report on the quality
of education in Latin America that was released last week. It's the most
devastating indictment I have ever seen on the performance of Latin
In 1960, the percentage of people who completed high school in Latin
America was 7 percent and in East Asia approximately 11 percent;
nowadays, the percentages of high school completion are 18 percent in
Latin America and 44 percent in East Asia, the report says.
Despite the rapid rise in enrollment in Latin American schools in recent
decades, the region is falling dramatically behind the rest of the
world, including when compared with other developing or medium-income
countries, the report says.
In Latin America, governments are too focused on building
schools and too little concerned on what's happening inside them. Many
countries in the region — including Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba — often
refuse to give international standardized tests or refuse to make their
Consider some of the report's findings:
In the Program for International Student Assessment, a standardized test
that measures 15-year-olds in math, language and science, Latin American
countries scored among the lowest in the world. Chinese students in Hong
Kong scored 550 points in math, 510 in language and 539 in science;
South Korean students scored 542, 534 and 538; and U.S. children scored 483, 495 and
491. However, the scores in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru were around
400 points or below.
Even Latin American students from the most advantaged socioeconomic
background perform badly in these tests, "dispelling the myth that the
region's most privileged students receive a high-quality education," the
In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, which
measures eighth-graders in math and science, the only two Latin American
countries that participated — Colombia
Chile — scored near the bottom.
In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which tests
fourth-graders in reading, the only two Latin American countries that
participated, Argentina and Colombia, ranked 30th and 31st,
respectively, of the 35 participants.
"Educational systems have been too focused on getting children to attend
school and too little on what they are taught in school," Emiliana
Vegas, one of the report's authors, told me Friday.
My opinion: All of this bodes badly for Latin
America. In today's knowledge-based economy, countries with
lesser educational standards are condemned to slower growth and
India and Eastern Europe's success shows that countries with
better-educated populations produce more sophisticated goods, attract
more investment, create more jobs and reduce poverty faster.
I'm not suggesting that Latin American 3-year olds be subjected to
excruciating kindergarten admission tests. (Even India's Supreme Court has recently
set limits on that practice, arguing that it puts too much pressure on
kids too early in life.)
But, at the very least, Latin American countries should start
participating in international standardized tests to measure themselves
against the rest of the world, and then act accordingly. Otherwise,
mediocre educational standards will condemn their populations to lag
increasingly behind the rest of the world.
Postscript: The Latin American country whose education is going backward
most rapidly is
Venezuela, where maximum leader Hugo
Chávez has announced a new curriculum aimed at helping create a
socialist new man. While communist China
and semi- socialist India
focus on math, Venezuela will start teaching
E-mail Andrés Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald, at