LATAM at Risk of Falling Twenty Years Behind in Global-Ready Education

For all the excitement over the relatively strong performance of Latin America’s economies, persistent weakness in the region’s education systems has become a major barrier to global competitiveness. Flawed teaching …

For all the excitement over the relatively strong performance of Latin America’s economies, persistent weakness in the region’s education systems has become a major barrier to global competitiveness. Flawed teaching methods are holding back millions of students from gaining proficiency in math and science subjects, says a new study from the Inter American Development Bank (IDB). “In Japan, students spend nearly 40 percent of their classroom hours solving math problems. But in LatAm countries, by contrast, students spend less than 3 percent of their time on math,” says Emma Näslund-Hadley, lead education specialist in the IDB, who directed the study.

If primary schools in the region cling to current instruction methods, the Bank warns, Latin America will take 21 years to reach the standards set for countries of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in math education.

“When it comes to science education, Latin America is a world apart,” says Näslund-Hadley. The region ‘may take 42 years to reach the average for the IECD countries’ in science education.

Math and science subjects help children use logic and become independent thinker. It is clear that a solid education basis in these subjects will help countries develop a competent and  innovative workforce.

Root Cause

The fundamental problem is that students are made to memorize math formulas instead of solve them through critical thinking. More striking still, some countries still focus on teaching history of science.

“They need to devote more time to solving math problems. We found students in Paraguay spending less than 2 percent of their classroom hours on math. In countries like the Dominican Republic and Mexico, students spend 1.2 percent and 3 percent respectively on math,” she said.

The IDB criticizes the teachers’ for over-reliance on these traditional instruction methods. “Teachers rely on the memorization of concepts and procedures as well as on the regurgitation of facts, and provide students with little evaluative feedback,” says the report.

Some notable points:

  1. Latin American students run far behind their peers in most developed countries in both math and science. The 2009 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that LatAm students are among the worst performers.
  2. In Paraguay, a great portion of those who graduate do not acquire enough knowledge or skills to function in society,
  3. Rote learning is often impeding the development of critical thinking skills.
  4. Development of premath skills at an early age is important for future mathematical understanding and problem solving skills.

Inadequate instruction has taken its toll on people’s social lives as well as on the economy of many countries. In one of the earlier report, IDB had said that nearly half of the students in Latin America do not finish secondary school at all.

In Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, nearly 87 per cent of students who begin IT higher education courses never end up graduating. Lack of basic mathematics ability and few clear specialist courses contribute to students dropping out half way through their journey, according to a  report in the British business daily Financial Times.

Brazil’s ICT sector requires about 78,000 people by 2014. But, according to Brasscom, there are only 33,000 youths studying ICT related courses in the country.

“It is not only the system that should be blamed. There are far deeper problems,” says Jacki Torres, CEO of Global Connex and English Connex in Chile, who worked as a teacher in more than five countries in the region.

Respecting Teachers

Across Latin America, she said, teachers are not respected by the general public and they receive low-paying salaryies. Therefore the teaching profession has trouble attracting talented professionals.

“The problem will remain unless the government brings talented teachers into the classrooms,” she added. Some countries, it seems, do not have enough resource and teachers to improve educational standards. “Poverty and social pressure is also forcing many students drop out half way through their journey,” Torres said.

“To do nothing is not an option,” says IDB.  If the governments in the region want to groom an ‘innovative’ workforce, if they are keen on creating more jobs in technology sector, and if they are serious about keeping pace with the emerging economies of Asia, countries in Latin America must do whatever they can to make sure that their children excel in math and science subjects, the IDB said.

As part of its study, IDB observers moved video cameras into hundreds of science and math classrooms in three countries: Mexico, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. Months of observation followed. “The results are quite sobering. Drill, practice, and memorization predominate,” IDB said in its report.

In the math classrooms of the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, the IDB said it found students with limited opportunities to be stimulated by anything beyond the most basic problem-solving tasks. But students in Mexico were found to have had some opportunities to stimulate their interest and engagement in the subject.

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“Finally, the role of the teacher as a transmitter of knowledge, rather than a facilitator of student-centered discovery, was even more pronounced in Paraguay and the Dominican Republic than in the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico,” the report said.

Some analysts, however, say a little modification in instruction method will tip the balance in favor of Latin Americans. A teaching program in Paraguay, for example, has proved that students can gain skills in math if they are taught in a more progressive way, said Näslund-Hadley.

She cited a pilot program called Tikichuela (Mathematics in My School) which the IDB launched in Cordillera, Paraguay, covering approximately 4,500 preschool students and 400 teachers. As part of the program, teachers used interactive audio clips to teach math. Five months later, the IDB observers found that the program had boosted the children’s math learning ability by about 9.2 percent.

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