In the 1950s, 64% of the Brazilian population still lived in rural areas and more than 50% of those people were illiterate. Improving education gradually became a priority among the country’s leaders, but convincing parents of the importance of more and better quality education for their children was a challenge.
Brazil’s geography made it difficult to improve access to education: the country’s 193 million inhabitants are spread out over some 8.5 million square kilometres–an area slightly smaller than the US. With around 83,000 rural schools, many with one or two teachers, scattered across the country, the quality of both the teachers and the education they provided was limited. And the school system’s extensive use of grade repetition meant that the age of students in any given class could span two to six years, making teaching more difficult. By 1995, 90% of students were in schools, but only half of them completed 8th grade.
And those who made it that far took an average of 12 years to get there because of the poor quality of teaching and low student achievement that led to repeated grades. In 2000, 13.6% of Brazil’s adult population was considered illiterate and 75% were functionally illiterate, meaning those people were not able to read long texts, follow subtitles, compare two texts, carry out inferences and syntheses, solve math problems, or work with maps and graphics. That year, Brazil was the lowest-scoring country in PISA.
But during the past decade, Brazil appears to have been able to produce measureable improvements in student achievement across different assessment areas. The country has invested significantly more resources in education, raising spending on educational institutions from 4% of GDP in 2000 to 5.2% of GDP by 2009, and allocating more of those resources to raising teachers’ salaries. It is also spending that money much more equitably than in the past.
In addition, educators in Brazil cite the Basic Education Development Index (IDEB), created in 2005, as key to improving school results across the country. The index is based on both the average achievement on national examinations in Portuguese language and mathematics conducted in 4th, 8th and 11th grades, and on the rate of student promotion. The calculation creates a score from 1 to 10, with the levels linked to the international PISA scale. The explicit goal of the Brazilian government is to reach the average PISA score in 2021, the year before the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence.
Educators have accepted the system because they believe it is fairer to compare a school’s current performance to its past performance than to set an arbitrary score that all schools should reach. Unlike many other countries, Brazil includes both public and private schools in the assessment and for targeting purposes. Since the index was adopted, national performance in primary schools (1st to 4th grade) has risen from 3.8 in 2005 to 4.6 in 2009, outperforming the target of 4.2. In intermediate grades (5th to 8th grade), the index has gone from 3.5 in 2005 to 4.0 in 2009, outperforming the target of 3.7; and high school (9th to 11th grade) performance rose slightly from 3.4 to 3.6 during the same period. PISA reading scores also improved between 2000 and 2009.
©OECD Observer No 287 Q4 2011