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Brazil  Biggest Challenges Ahead: Infrastructure and Education



With so much growth expected for the next few decades, it is scary to think of who will be there to lead the country through development. A well prepared executive branch is a good start, but it is not enough. A country needs talented professionals to lead the way. The United States, for instance, is noticing a drop in the number of engineers and scientists (numbers are higher in parts of Europe for the first time). Today, the government is right at it trying to motivate young students to study math and science again. In the case of Brazil, lack of motivation is not the actual problem in the educational system. The problem is made up of the combination of bad institutions and bad teachers. In addition to that, 20 years ago, there was little government spending on education—now, there is too much mismanaged spending.

The educational system in Brazil is made up of private and public schools covering all levels of education. The average American would expect any public school to be better funded and better prepared, but in Brazil, it is the complete opposite. Private schools are better prepared than public ones, but they still do not meet the wished average. During his presidency, FHC decided to enter the country into the PISA (Program for International Assessment), which is a program created by the OECD (a group of mostly rich countries) with the purpose of measuring how much their children were learning. At the end of 2009, the fourth PISA study, which involved students averaging the age of 15, was published and Brazil showed gains in all three subjects: mathematics, reading, and science. The test now involves 65 countries and Brazil came in 53rd (in reading and science). The following chart shows the improved performance of Brazilian students considering the OECD score average is 500 points.

Showing Improvement
(Average performance of Brazilians 15-year-old)

Source: OECD PISA 2009

Although improved, it is still a small progress—the average 15 year old in Brazil scores much lower than the average student from OECD countries. The cause of this is not the students alone, but the teachers as well. It is known that Latin American teachers tend to be poorly educated. Teachers in Brazil are mostly trained on the philosophy of education, whereas teachers from OECD countries are mostly trained on the basis of subject matter or teaching skills (on top of their background education). Some of the state governments are taking the problem more serious and trying to come up with innovative ways to fix their systems. The state of São Paulo created a career track for teachers who do well on tests and the city of Rio de Janeiro is giving bonuses for schools that are achieving goal targets. Another solution would be to make sure the existing teachers and up-comers are also tested and required to meet a minimum standard. Those who are not prepared should not be fired, but instead, they should be better trained with the support of the local government. Of course students should also be motivated (which starts at home), but teachers must know their material in order to teach effectively.

FHC, who was a former university professor himself, also began a program intended to influence poor families to keep their children in school (while also trying to give an end to child labor). Today, this program, as improved by former president Lula, is called Bolsa Familia. More than 12 million families are now enrolled and this program is generating positive results. Bolsa Familia works by paying low-income families (who register) a small monthly amount per child attending school. This amount varies from R$22 (US$12) to R$200. Despite being an internationally recognized program, some people would argue against it by saying that social programs like these only create a dependency and helps politicians get elected again. This may be so, but at the same time, Bolsa Familia is producing very positive results. Millions of families have emerged from poverty and entered the middle class as a result of Bolsa Familia. On the other hand, it is just unfortunate that the Brazilian schools are not in a better shape to take care of these students.

Universities also do not escape the horror. Public ones tend to be academically better than most private universities. Universities such as USP or UFMG are great examples, but the students who were actually intended to go to these public schools are rarely seen around. Public universities (also called federal universities) are free of charge or sometimes they may have very low tuition. The original intention was to create public universities to—mostly—students from poor families. The problem is that, in order to get in, a student must take a rigorous test to compete for a limited number of seats. Students who went to public primary and secondary schools are much less prepared than students from wealthier families who attended private schools and have had private tutoring. Those who cannot score high enough to get a seat are left off with the option of paying for a private university (some students may just opt for a private university because they are better maintained and have better equipment). For these and other reasons, the educational system in Brazil is handicapped and it is pushing its own future professionals behind the line. The educational system ought to be fixed in order to help sustain the economic growth in Brazil in the upcoming years. And as we have seen so far, the challenges to economic sustainability do not stop here.

“No longer bottom of the class.” The Economist, 11 Dec 2010.

“The Americas: No longer bottom of the class.” The Economist, 11 Dec 2010.

“The Americas: No longer bottom of the class.” The Economist, 11 Dec 2010.

“Brazil’s Bolsa Familia: How to get children out of jobs and into school,” The Economist, 29 Jul 2010.


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