Education in Latin America

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Despite significant progress, education coverage remains a challenge in Latin America. The region has made great progress in educational coverage; almost all children attend primary school and access to secondary education has increased considerably. Adolescents complete on average two more years of schooling than their parents' generation.[1] Most educational systems in the region have implemented various types of administrative and institutional reforms that have enabled reach for places and communities that had no access to education services in the early 90’s.

However, there are still 23 million children in the region between the ages of 4 and 17 outside of the formal education system. Estimates indicate that 30% of preschool age children (ages 4 –5) do not attend school, and for the most vulnerable populations – poor, rural, indigenous and afro-descendants - this calculation exceeds 40 percent. Among primary school age children (ages 6 to 12), coverage is almost universal; however there is still a need to incorporate 5 million children in the primary education system. These children live mostly in remote areas, are indigenous or Afro-descendants and live in extreme poverty.[2]

Among people between the ages of 13 and 17 years, only 80% are enrolled in the education system; among those, only 66% attend secondary school. The remaining 14% are still attending primary school. These percentages are higher among vulnerable population groups: 75% of the poorest youth between the ages of 13 and 17 years attend school. Tertiary education has the lowest coverage, with only 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 years outside of the education system. Currently, more than half of low income children or people living in rural areas fail to complete nine years of education.[2]

Retention and Completion[edit]

In Mexico, access to education has increased with 87% of the population today completing their primary schooling compared to 46.6% in 1980.[3] The countries of the region show wide differences in their averages and gaps in completion rates, especially at the secondary level. While on average 55% of youth in the region complete the first cycle of secondary education, in countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua this estimation falls to 30%. In Chile, it approaches 80%. Desertion is also a challenge for Latin America. According to Inter-American Development Bank studies, 20% of students enter primary school with one or more lagging years. During this cycle, about 10% repeat 1st and 2nd grade, and 8% repeat grades 3 and 4. Only 40% of children enter secondary school at the expected age. At the secondary level, approximately 10% of youth in each grade level repeat their grade. On average, a child who attends 7.2 years of school completes only 6 years of education (primary), while a person attending 12 years of school only completes 9 years of education (junior high school).[2] By the age of 18, only 1 in every 6 rural men and women are still in school. Therefore, only a small number or poor rural youth have the chance to attend a university. [4]

Education Inputs[edit]

The 2007 Teacher Evaluation Census in Peru and Chilean Teacher Evaluation System (DocenteMás), indicated that teacher quality in the region is very low.[5] Other education inputs and services are equally inadequate. School infrastructure and access to basic services such as water, electricity, telecommunications and sewage systems are very poor in many Latin American schools. Approximately 40% of elementary schools lack libraries, 88% lack science labs, 63% lack a meeting space for teachers, 65% lack computer rooms, and 35% lack a gymnasium. On the other hand, 21% of schools have no access to potable water, 40% lack a drainage system, 53% lack phone lines, 32% have an inadequate number of bathrooms, and 11% have no access to electricity. The conditions of schools that hold students from the poorest quintile are highly unsuitable: approximately 50% have electricity and water, 19% have a drainage system and 4% have access to a telephone line; almost none have science labs, gymnasiums, computer rooms, and only 42% have libraries.[6] Additionally, students who migrate to cities from rural areas generally live cheaply on the periphery of urban centers where they have little to no access to public services.[7]

Few schools can count on education inputs like textbooks and educational technologies. Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE) data indicate that, on average, 3rd and 6th grade students have access to only three books per student in the school library. Students from lower socioeconomic status have access to an average of one book per student, while students from higher socioeconomic status have access to eight books per student. A school’s location is a high determinant of the amount of books that a student will have, benefitting urban schools over rural schools.[8] With regards to educational technologies, while there has been an increase in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) access for Latin American children and adolescents in the last decade, along with a widespeard interest in One-to-One (1-1) computing models in the past 4 years, its access and use is still too limited to produce sufficient changes in the educational practices of teachers and students. Students in the region are reaching a rate of 100 students per computer, indicating that each student has access to a few minutes of computer time a week.[9]

The majority of Latin American countries have a shorter school year than Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries: while the school year in Japan lasts 240 days, it lasts 180 days in Argentina and only 125 days in Honduras.[10] Furthermore, the average instruction time in the region is also short: two thirds of students in the region have less than 20 hours of instruction time per week (on average only 10% of Latin American students at the primary level attend school full-time). Student and teacher absence rates in the region are also high.


The results of the Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE) indicate that almost two-thirds of Latin American students do not achieve satisfactory reading and math scores. There is a significant learning gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds, those who live in rural areas and those who belong to indigenous and Afro-descendant groups. Research indicates that student in 3rd grade belonging to the poorest quintile has a 12% probability of obtaining a satisfactory reading score while a student in the wealthiest quintile has a 56% probability of doing so. In mathematics, the probability differs between 10% and 48%.[8] Data from surveys conducted to employers in Argentina, Brazil and Chile developed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) show that a significant proportion of employers face difficulties in finding workers with relevant skills for good job performance, especially behavioral skills.


The 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results reveal that countries in the region have a low performance and high inequality level compared with other countries. 48% of Latin American students have difficulty performing rudimentary reading tasks and do not have the essential skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society (not achieving level 2), as measured by the 2009 PISA Assessment, compared with only 18% of students in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. This percentage is even more pronounced for low-income students in the region, where 62% do not demonstrate these essential skills.[11]

According to the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) analysis of the 2009 PISA Results, Chile, Colombia and Peru are among the countries that displayed the largest advancements when compared to previous versions of the test. Despite this, countries in the region are ranked among the lowest performing countries. Chile, which achieved the best reading scores at the regional level, is ranked number 44 out of 65 while Panama and Peru are located at numbers 62 and 63, respectively. The poor performance of Latin American students is also evident when compared to countries of similar income levels. The gap between the results obtained by the countries in the region and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (excluding Mexico and Chile) is enhanced when taking into account the level of income per capita of the countries in the sample. Latin America received systematically worse results than what their level of per capita income or expenditure on education would predict.[11]

Education and Growth[edit]

When regions of the world are compared in terms of long run economic growth, Latin America ranks at the bottom along with Sub-Saharan Africa. This slow growth has been a puzzle, because education and human capital is frequently identified as an important element of growth. Yet, the relatively good performance of Latin America in terms of access and school attainment has not translated into good economic outcomes. For this reason, many economists have argued that other factors such as economic institutions or financial crises must be responsible for the poor growth, and they have generally ignored any role for education in Latin American countries.[12] On the other hand, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann argue that the slow growth is directly related to the low achievement and poor learning that comes with each year of school in Latin America.[13] Their analysis suggests that the long run growth of Latin America would improve significantly if the learning in schools were to improve.


  1. ^ Welti, Carlos. 2002. "Adolescents in Latin America: Facing the Future with Skepticism." Pp. 292 in Brown et. al., (eds) The World's Youth: Adolescence in Eight Regions of the Globe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052180910X
  2. ^ a b c [BID/EDU Stakeholder Survey 1993/2003, February 8, 2011]
  3. ^ Welti, Carlos. Adolescents in Latin America Facing the Future with Skepticism
  4. ^ Saraswathi,, edited by B. Bradford Brown,... Reed W. Larson,... T.S. (2002). "9". The world's youth adolescence in eight regions of the globe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. p. 293. ISBN 978-0521006057. 
  5. ^ DocentesMas,Chilean Teacher Evaluation System , February 7, 2011
  6. ^ [Inter – American Development Bank, Situación de la Infraestructura Escolar y Calidad de la Educación Básica en América Latina Un análisis a partir del SERCE Forthcoming, February 7, 2011]
  7. ^ Brown, B. Bradford; Larson, Reed W.; Saraswathi, T.S.; Welti, Carlos (2002). "Adolescents in Latin America: Facing the Future with Skepticism". The World's Youth: Adolescence in Eight Regions of the Globe. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 284. 
  8. ^ a b Inter – American Development Bank, Los Docentes las Escuelas y los Aprendizajes Escolares en América Latina: Un Estudio Regional Usando la Base de Datos del SERCE, February 7, 2011
  9. ^ Segundo Estudio Regional Comparativo y Explicativo”, Factores Asociados al Logro Cognitivo de los Estudiantes de América Latina y el Caribe, February 7, 2011
  10. ^ Inter – American Development Bank, Análisis de la Fuerza Laboral en Educación en Honduras, February 7, 2011
  11. ^ a b Education Initiative”, PISA 2009 Results, February 7, 2011
  12. ^ For example, see Sebastion Edwards, Gerardo Esquivel, and Graciela Márquez (eds.), The decline of Latin American economies: Growth, institutions, and crises (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007) or Eduardo Fernández-Arias, Rodolfo Manuelli, and Juan S. Blyde (eds.). Sources of growth in Latin America: What is missing? (Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 2005).
  13. ^ Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, "Schooling, educational achievement, and the Latin American growth puzzle," Journal of Economic Development, 99(2), November 2012 [1]

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