16.04.2012 - UNESCO Office in Brasilia

Article "We can do it"

O Globo newspaper, 14 April, 2012.

*José Francisco Soares anda Paolo Fontani

Those in charge of basic education systems in Brazil – secretaries of education, teachers, principals and parents – have come to agree that the pedagogical success, management practices and political options of schools should be checked through the impact observed on students. Today, Brazilian society has greater expectations regarding schools that go beyond access and permanence of students. They want them to acquire the cognitive competences required to enjoy a productive personal life and critical social participation, as well as the non-cognitive competences capable of contributing to the building of a better society for all. As regards cognitive competences, we face a huge challenge.

A recent study by the Grupo de Avaliação e Medidas Educacionais (Evaluation and Educational Measures Group) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (GAME-UFMG), commissioned by UNESCO, finds that, in 2009, 22% of the Brazilian public school students had concluded primary education without achieving elementary Reading skills, while 39% failed in acquiring basic Mathematics competences. Students with lower learning levels are exposed to less qualified teachers with heavier workloads, besides being concentrated in schools reporting the poorest quality indicators: worst libraries, facilities and working conditions; management and teaching teams that are less cohesive; and higher levels of school violence.

According to the study, indicators on learning exclusion have improved between 2005 and 2009. In that period, the ratio of students performing below the basic level remained stable for 9th grade students in Mathematics, but decreased for 5th grade students in Reading and Mathematics and, among 9th grade students in Reading. The data point out that if, on one hand, we are not doing well, on the other, solutions have being tried, many of which successfully.

However, education systems must pay more attention to one crucial priority: they should produce more equitable and fairer results. School equity is achieved when there are no observable differences in performance between social groups. Nonetheless, the study points out that there are more black and indigenous students among those attending school without learning than among those who are proficient, and that most of them are from families with lower socioeconomic level.

Although not all students achieve the same Reading or Mathematical competences, we can insist that all social-demographic groups be granted the opportunity to learn the same basic competences, each group having students who achieve better results. This is not happening. Many social groups fail to report improved performance results. Thus, the differences regarding the cognitive performance of basic school students are higher than the economic differences.

The Brazilian education system only succeeds in promoting more equity when it produces poor performances. At schools where performance is better, the difference between groups of students from different categories is much higher. That is to say that our educational challenges have two dimensions: the first is concerned with the level of learning, and the second with the social distribution of learning. Overcoming these challenges is crucial for Brazil to achieve a fair and effective education system.

*José Francisco Soares is a retired titular professor of the Education College of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and Paolo Fontani is Education Coordinator at UNESCO Brazil.

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