Opinion: Latin America’s educational divide

December 22, 2013


What’s most worrisome about Latin America’s disastrous performance in the recently released international PISA student tests are not the results themselves, but that many countries in the region are not even recognizing that they have a serious problem.

Since the results of the test came out earlier this month, there has been a lot of media attention to the fact that Latin American countries that participated in the test — Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru — ranked at the bottom of the list of 65 participating countries.

But little or nothing has been written about the countries that pulled out from the test at the last minute, like Panama, or those that chose not to participate at all — perhaps fearing that they would fare even worse than those that did — such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Dominican Republic.

The PISA test is taken every three years by 15-year-old students, and measures their abilities in math, science and reading comprehension. It is by far the most respected international student test, education experts say.

This year, as in previous years, China and other Asian students got the best scores in all three categories.

In math, China’s city of Shanghai ranked No. 1, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Macao and Japan.

Further down the list are Switzerland (9), Finland (12), Germany (16), France (25), Spain (33), Russia (34), United States (36), Sweden (38), Chile (51), Mexico (53), Uruguay (55), Costa Rica (56), Brazil (58), Argentina (59), Colombia (62), and Peru (65). In reading comprehension and science, the results were similar.

In most European countries and the United States, the governments took responsibility for their relatively bad results, and interpreted them as a call to action to improve education standards. To their credit, some Latin American governments such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Peru did the same.

But other Latin American governments tried to downplay the importance of the PISA results, or sought to discredit the test itself.

Argentina’s education minister Alberto Sileoni, who in previous years had blamed the PISA tests’ methodology for his country’s plummeting test scores, this time admitted that the results were bad news that need to be addressed.

But instead of using the PISA results to press for a nationwide campaign to reverse Argentina’s deteriorating education standards, he couched his remarks by stating that all Latin American countries did bad, and went out of his way to praise President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s education policies.

By far the most stupid reaction came from Bolivia, whose education Minister Roberto Aguilar was quoted by Bolivian media as saying that his country abstained from participating in the international test because it is a “neo-liberal (pro-free market) imposition.” An earlier article published in Bolivia’s education ministry’s Web page quotes Aguilar as stating that “the government of Bolivia will not allow the PISA test” to influence the country’s education system, and that Bolivia “will build its own evaluation systems and model.”

Cuba, which claims to have high education standards, did not say why it didn’t participate in the test. Neither did Venezuela. Critics say it’s because both countries fear results that could disprove their official propaganda claims.

In addition to the test scores, the PISA tests also included a survey that asked students whether they are happy with their schools. Interestingly, Peruvian students — who ranked last in the test results — ranked third in the world in happiness with their schools, followed not too far behind by Colombians (5), Mexicans (7), Costa Ricans (8) and Uruguayans (13).

My opinion: While Latin American countries that participated in the PISA test are being harshly criticized in the media for their poor results, they should be commended for taking part in the exam.

If you have a serious problem, the best thing you can do is identifying it, quantifying it, and acting on it. The region’s educational divide is not between the countries that performed best and worse, but between those that participated and those that didn’t.

Fortunately, some non-participating countries, including Ecuador, Guatemala and Panama, are said to be considering taking the test in 2015.

But those that are not, such as Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and most Central American countries, are hiding behind ideological slogans or phony excuses to hide their educational debacle. They deserve the biggest criticism.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.


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