Latin America leader Brazil lags worldwide in OECD education rankings

Brazil's low place in OECD education rankings highlights one of the few blots on the record of outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “I’d fail him," says one education expert.

By , Correspondent

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    Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gestures during a press conference with international media in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Dec. 3.
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Brazil got B for effort but a D for results in the triennial education report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Brazil improved in all three categories of reading, science, and mathematics in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results, which were released Tuesday. But Latin America's biggest and most populous nation remains a long way behind the OECD average and in most cases lags behind most of its Latin American neighbors.

The OECD test has highlighted one of the few blots on the record of outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who on Jan. 1 will hand power to his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff. Some critics question why President Lula da Silva did not seize on Brazil's incredible economic growth over the past eight years to improve public education.

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“I’d fail him," says Simon Schwartzman, a Brazilian researcher into education and development at the Institute of Work and Society Studies in Rio de Janeiro. "He should have done much more.”

The latest PISA test, given to 15-year-old students to measure “young people’s ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges," was administered in 2009 in 65 school systems around the world. In reading proficiency, Brazil placed 53rd. In math and science it was 57th.

Despite the low ranking, the report nevertheless said Brazil had improved markedly on past years, when it was third or second to last in the ratings.

That was a cause for celebration in the capital Brasilia. Education Minister Fernando Haddad called the results “considerable” and said they were evidence “the Brazilian educational system is reacting to stimulus.”

The biggest improvement for Brazil came in math. Science results also improved, and the test showed an “important decrease” in low performing readers.” Brazil increased school enrollment among 15-year-olds, from 53 percent enrollment in 2000 to 80 percent in 2009.

The advances, however, were so miniscule that experts were reluctant to give the government much credit. Lula, as the president is widely known, has done little to resolve one of Brazil’s most pressing problems, says Mr. Schwartzman.

“In terms of quality there is not a lot of difference, the improvements are minimal,” he says.

The survey for the first time included participants from China. Students in Shanghai took the test and shamed their rivals by scoring highest in all three disciplines.

“More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3 percent,” the report said.

Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan were the next best performers.

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