September 4, 2010
Educational Gaps Limit Brazil’s Reach
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
CAETÉS, Brazil — When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president in early 2003, he emotionally declared that he had finally earned his “first diploma” by becoming president of the country.
One of Brazil’s least educated presidents — Mr. da Silva completed only the fourth grade — soon became one of its most beloved, lifting millions out of extreme poverty, stabilizing Brazil’s economy and earning near-legendary status both at home and abroad.
But while Mr. da Silva has overcome his humble beginnings, his country is still grappling with its own. Perhaps more than any other challenge facing Brazil today, education is a stumbling block in its bid to accelerate its economy and establish itself as one of the world’s most powerful nations, exposing a major weakness in its newfound armor.
“Unfortunately, in an era of global competition, the current state of education in Brazil means it is likely to fall behind other developing economies in the search for new investment and economic growth opportunities,” the World Bank concluded in a 2008 report.
Over the past decade, Brazil’s students have scored among the lowest of any country’s students taking international exams for basic skills like reading, mathematics and science, trailing fellow Latin American nations like Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.
Brazilian 15-year-olds tied for 49th out of 56 countries on the reading exam of the Program for International Student Assessment, with more than half scoring in the test’s bottom reading level in 2006, the most recent year available. In math and science, they fared even worse.
“We should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Ilona Becskeházy, executive director of the Lemann Foundation, an organization based in São Paulo devoted to improving Brazilian education. “This means that 15-year-olds in Brazil are mastering more or less the same skills as 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds in countries such as Denmark or Finland.”
The task confronting the nation — and Mr. da Silva’s legacy — is daunting. Here in this dirt-poor northeastern town, where Mr. da Silva lived his first seven years, about 30 percent of the population is still illiterate, a figure three times higher than the national rate.
When Mr. da Silva was a boy here, his father used to beat some of his older siblings when they went to school instead of working, said Denise Paraná, the author of a biography of the president.
Today, teachers say that many parents send their children to school only because school attendance is a requirement of the Bolsa Familia subsidy program that Mr. da Silva has greatly expanded under his watch, which provides up to about $115 a month per family.
But even with the added incentive, reading levels vary so greatly here that in one eighth-grade classroom, students from 13 to 17 all read aloud from the same text.
“A lot of parents say, ‘Why should they study if there are no opportunities?’ ” said Ana Carla Pereira, a teacher at another rural school here.
As president, Mr. da Silva’s own education policies got off to a slow start; he dismissed two education ministers before settling on one in 2005. Then the government’s educational program did not start until 2007 — four years after Mr. da Silva took office.
Now in his last year in office and talking about his place in history, Mr. da Silva has an “obsession” with the issue, his education minister, Fernando Haddad, said, which was plain to see when he recently returned here to his childhood town.
“I want every child to study much more than I could, much more,” he said while announcing a program to give laptops to students. “And for all of them to get a university diploma, for all of them to have a vocational diploma.”
The urgency could hardly be clearer. Brazil has already established itself as a global force, riding a commodity and domestic consumption boom to become one of the largest economies in the world. With huge new oil discoveries and an increasingly important role in providing food and raw materials to China, the country is poised to surge even more.
But the nation’s educational shortcomings are leaving many Brazilians on the sidelines. More than 22 percent of the roughly 25 million workers available to join Brazil’s work force this year were not considered qualified to meet the demands of the labor market, according to a government report in March.
“In certain cities and states we have a problem hiring workers, even though we do have employment,” said Márcio Pochmann, president of the Institute for Applied Economic Research, the government agency that produced the March report. Earlier estimates showed that tens of thousands of jobs went unclaimed because there were not enough qualified professionals to fill them.
Unless that gap is filled soon, Brazil may miss its “demographic window” over the next two decades in which “the economically active population is at its peak,” the World Bank said.
Dr. Haddad, the education minister, said that while Brazil still performed poorly compared with other countries, it was improving faster than many competitors.
“Brazil is trying to make up for lost time,” Dr. Haddad said. “While other countries were investing in education we were wasting our time here saying that education was not that important.”
The government has had some notable successes, including a program that has created about 700,000 scholarships for low-income students to attend private colleges, an effort lauded by education specialists.
Under Mr. da Silva, the government also opened more than 180 vocational schools — compared with 140 added during the previous 93 years — and has administered a new test to evaluate student performance.
School enrollment has continued to climb, a trend that began in the 1990s under the previous president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and middle school graduation rates have risen under Mr. da Silva by 13 percentage points to 47 percent, Mr. Haddad said.
But those successes fall short of the urgent thrust for change that some education specialists were hoping to see from Mr. da Silva, considering his background. Not nearly enough was done to improve the quality of education and teaching methods, and the president has not used his bully pulpit to inspire the nation to demand more from its teachers and schools, they say.
“He has this aura, he has this power, he influences a lot,” Ms. Becskeházy of the Lemann Foundation said. “He did not use the opportunity to lift people up.”
It has not helped, critics add, that Mr. da Silva has sometimes used his own lack of an education as part of a populist discourse to assail the well-educated “elites” who long ruled Brazil, almost boasting that he got as far as he did without formal education.
“In his speeches, he tended to pit less-educated people against the educated Brazilian elite,” Mr. Pochmann said.
Finding workers with the adequate basic skills for even manual labor jobs is becoming a challenge, and many companies are not waiting for Brazil’s education system to catch up. The Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht is one of several companies that train a potential labor pool for a few months in basic reading and math.
“Education is the big disadvantage for Brazil when compared to China, India and Russia,” said Paulo Henrique Quaresma, the director of human resources at Odebrecht, referring to the other three nations that global investors see as the world’s largest developing economies.
In Caetés, it is not difficult to see why.
“The first school my father introduced me to was the handle of a hoe,” said José Bezerra da Silva, who, like his wife, is illiterate and cannot help his children with their schoolwork. The couple and their seven children share a two-room house; the couch’s wood frame is poking out from under a threadbare cushion. “Lula changed a lot of things.”
Brazil’s first-grade repetition rate is 28 percent, among the highest in the world, the World Bank said, though the government contends that the number has been shrinking. Secondary schools contain many older students because of the high rate of failing students in earlier grades, and many of the frustrated simply drop out.
“Brazil will continue to grow slower than its potential,” said Samuel Pessoa, an economist at the Brazilian Economic Institute at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “If it had a better education system, things would be different.”
Myrna Domit contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil.