Improving the education of its citizens is vital for Brazil’s future economic development. With children under 15 years of age accounting for one-fourth of its population of 200 million, the challenges are enormous. But progress is being made.
In the 1950s, 64% of Brazil’s population lived in rural areas and over 50% were illiterate. Over the next half-century, the population soared and large numbers of people moved from rural to urban areas.
In 1972, Brazil expanded mandatory education to include children from 7-14 years of age. But in 1980, the illiteracy rate was still around 25%.
In 1988, a new Constitution provided for mandatory free elementary education and required a minimum 25% of state and municipal revenues and 18% of federal revenues to be spent on education. But setting targets was one thing: reaching them proved more difficult.
In 1995, 90% of all children were enrolled in primary school at age seven, but only half completed eighth grade.
In 2000, 13.6% of adults were still totally illiterate and Brazil was the lowest performing country in the PISA tests of 15-year-old school students. More than half of students tested ranked at Level One or below – 32.5% in Level One and 23.3% even lower. Fewer than 1% scored at the top level, Level Five.
Brazil’s 200,000 schools have bigger average class sizes than schools in most OECD countries: 27.1 children per class in primary schools and 30.5 at lower secondary level in 2008, against an OECD average of 21.6 and 23.7 respectively. The ratio of students to teaching staff is also higher, at 24.5 to one in primary school and 21.2 to one in lower secondary school in 2008, against OECD averages of 16.4 to one and 13.7 to one respectively.
Over the past decade, the federal government has launched a major effort to improve education, increasing spending in classrooms and on teacher salaries and providing extra help for poorer families in order to get children into classrooms. By setting quality targets and leaving schools free to choose how best to achieve them, its National Education Plan has transformed the country into a laboratory of best education practices.
From 4.0% in 2000, investment in education rose to the equivalent of 5.2% of Brazil’s gross domestic product in 2009.
Though still well below the OECD average, Brazil’s PISA scores have improved. In reading, they advanced from 396 in 2000 to 412 in 2009; in mathematics from 356 in 2003 to 386 in 2009; and in science from 390 in 2006 to 405 in 2009.
Average performance in primary schools (grades 1-4), as tracked by Brazil’s Basic Education Development Index (IDEB), rose from 3.8 on a scale of zero to 10 in 2005 to 4.6 in 2009. In intermediate schools (grades 5-8), the average rose from 3.5 to 4.0 and in high school (grades 9-11) from 3.4 to 3.6.
The government has set an IDEB target of 6.0 for 2021, the year before Brazil celebrates its 200th anniversary, against a 2005 average of 3.8.
Source: Pearson Foundation