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In Latin America, new urgency to educate stirs up outdated system

Seeking better schools, Latin America  – the world's most unequal region – is trying models like Teach for America.

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    HANDS-ON HELP: Students receive personal instruction from their teacher in a class for first- to third-graders at an elementary school in Tamaula, Mexico.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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At the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz high school in rural Puebla State, some classrooms are so cramped that students take their exams out on the front lawn. That was the case in November, when nine pupils, bundled in sweat shirts, crunched math equations at their outdoor desks, framed by Mexico’s highest peak, Orizaba.

But Fernando Hernández, keeping an eye on the test takers, was not discouraged. A young math and science whiz, he is looking past the power outages and weak leadership that regularly hobble these students to what he sees as a great opportunity: helping Mexico’s dismal public schools produce more graduates who go on to college and become professionals.

 “You have to ask, ‘how can I contribute?’” says Mr. Hernández, who put his PhD on hold for two years to join Enseña por México (Teach for Mexico), a new program inspired by Teach for America in the United States that also operates in six other Latin American countries. “I want to continue my studies one day, but that didn’t have to happen right away. Public education, though? That needs attention immediately.”

Mexico recently passed sweeping education reforms that will inject more funding into the poorest schools and demand greater accountability from teachers. But equally eye-catching are the growing challenges to long-tolerated habits that many say prevent Mexico from firmly joining the community of developed economies.

Teach for Mexico speaks to that new assertiveness, placing young college graduates in public schools across four states. But the program – and Hernández – represent only one part of a larger drive by nonprofits and public-private partnerships to change an institution burdened by patronage and bureaucracy across Latin America, the world’s most unequal region, along with the Caribbean. 

Latin American nations have started to address the problem, directing more public funding to education over the past two decades. But investment hasn’t been enough: The region scores at the bottom of international education rankings, and nearly 50 percent of students on average drop out before finishing high school.

Quality schooling – with proper funding, efforts to raise families’ low expectations, and less teacher absenteeism – is a looming challenge for many countries in the region that, like Mexico, desperately need more skilled workers to work at home-grown multinationals, to tap resources such as oil and gas, and to create innovators and entrepreneurs.

With Latin America’s average growth predicted to fall to the lowest point in five years in 2014, the need is acute enough that the leader of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development singled out education in a recent warning to regional leaders. Results from the most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the most widely watched international gauge for student performance, showed that all eight participating Latin American countries ranked in the bottom third for 15-year-olds in reading comprehension, math, and science.

“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” says Angélica Ocampo, executive director of Worldfund, a nonprofit that works with private companies and local governments to provide training for teachers and principals in Mexico’s and Brazil’s neediest schools. “There is a huge elephant in the room: Public schools throughout Latin America are not delivering,” she says. “[Public education is] the great equalizer.”

For generations, education reform in the region has been the sole purview of governments and teachers unions, says Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, author of “Educación 3.0: The Struggle for Talent in Latin America.” Inviting in new players is vital, he says.

“We need people that innovate and try different solutions to help students learn.... But whatever you do on the margins that brings about change, you need a government willing to adapt aspects or scale up.”

As economies have grown over the past decade, entrepreneurs, nongovernmental organizations, and faith-based groups have stepped in with new training, teaching models, and even charter schools. With more room to experiment, they can set examples for education ministries.

“What has happened over the past several years is that many foundations and NGOs in the region have become more vocal about education,” says Mariana Alfonso, a senior education specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). She rattles off a list of advocacy groups, from Action for Education in the Dominican Republic to Mexicans First to Project Educate 2050 in Argentina. These and many others have created REDUCA, a regional network of social and business movements working for education reform.

“We have seen an increase in organizations trying to position education as a top political priority,” Ms. Alfonso says.

Public pressure succeeds

The pressure appears to be working.

Colombia made waves in August when it announced its plan to create the best public education system in the region by 2025, and to budget more for education in 2015 than for security and defense. That would be a first in the South American nation, plagued by more than 50 years of civil war.

Peru, which ranks last among Latin American countries tested for PISA, recently decided to boost education spending from 3 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product by 2020, resulting in a $7 billion gain. The plan pledges to add 10 academic hours to weekly school schedules, improve teacher training, revise texts, and upgrade infrastructure.

But policymakers acknowledge they are facing a colossal task.

“To assume that the Ministry of Education alone could improve the situation of 9 million students spread over 80,000 schools would be pretentious,” says Javier Eduardo Palacios Gallegos, the Peruvian Ministry of Education official in charge of reforms. “We need continuity and support in order to achieve [change],” Mr. Gallegos says.

A host of projects is under way within or on the fringes of Peru’s public school system, including low-cost private schools such as Innova, which integrates technology into the classroom. Eighty-six percent of Innova students passed national reading tests in 2013, nearly three times the number of public school students and nearly double the number of traditional private school students, according to the Ministry of Education. “We believe most schools still give lessons in the way schools did 20 years ago, before our information boom, so we were interested in reinventing education,” says Jorge Yzusqui Chessman, general manager of Innova Schools.

Mr. Yzusqui Chessman says the Ministry of Education has taken note as it tries to bring more technology into its own schools.

The ministry has also recognized the work of Fé y Alegría, Jesuit charter schools that have long served poor children in areas where public education is weak. These schools have more autonomy to raise funds and choose teachers, and multiple studies have proved that they generate higher test results than their public school counterparts.

Teach for Mexico expands

Erik Ramirez-Ruiz, Teach for Mexico’s chief executive officer and cofounder, says his team designed the program with feedback from the secretary of education. The group has expanded in its second year from two to four states and operates in 65 rural and urban schools.

“We wanted to find a way to help teachers and principals already in schools, without being confrontational,” Mr. Ramirez-Ruiz says. “We try to complement the schools with things they didn’t have before: Maybe they are understaffed or they don’t have anyone properly trained to teach English. It’s a collaboration.”

At first, many teachers were skeptical. “They thought we were spies for the Education Ministry,” says Mineko Matsumoto, who hails from northern Mexico and is in her second year with Teach for Mexico.

But most participating schools now say the two-year placements are a gift. “[The teachers] may be young, but they are motivated and well prepared,” says Eloy Octavio Martínez, a social studies teacher at Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz high school. “We’ve learned a lot from them, and I think they’ve learned something from us.”

Teach for Mexico hasn’t been in classrooms long enough to have robust data. But in Chile, the first Teach for America spinoff in Latin America is now in its sixth year. It was evaluated in 2012 by the IDB, which found a “strong correlation” between Teach for Chile classrooms and better outcomes in math, Spanish, and skills such as motivation or self-control.

Farther north, EnseñaPerú (Teach for Peru) – which targets rural schools that struggle to attract state-hired teachers – has started documenting its success after five years in public classrooms, gaining financial backing from large mining companies, the banking sector, and private foundations.

 At the start of 2014, nearly 50 percent of students in first-time Teach for Peru classrooms were behind by one or even two school years, as measured by national standardized test scores. That fell to 10 percent after one year in a Teach for Peru classroom, according to the group’s data. The Education Ministry has acknowledged the group’s success, though it hasn’t confirmed those results.

Franco Mosso, cofounder of Teach for Peru, says alumni have gone on to join Peru’s Ministry of Education, while others have created education nonprofits. That is an enormous shift in countries where many in power have never set foot in a public primary or secondary school.

“Their size ... is small,” says the IDB’s Alfonso. Just 56 Teach for Argentina members work in public schools, for example, out of some 600,000 teachers nationwide. “But they are doing very notable things, and in some cases the public sector has tried to incorporate their innovations or work.”

The need for high energy

Back in Mexico, in San Pedro Cholula, about two hours from the school where Hernández works, Ms. Matsumoto is gesticulating left and right and even overhead as she mimes English words and phrases. 

Her energy points to a key skill: the ability to command the classroom. In Mexico, about 70 percent of public school instructors failed their teaching exam in 2012, according to the Ministry of Education, and it shows.

“You know how they tell you that there is a gap between private schools and public schools?” asks Matsumoto, who worked as a private school teacher. “Numbers can’t tell you what these kids are going through.” Many of her high-schoolers can’t read numbers with more than three digits, and struggle to distinguish between a city, country, and a continent, she says.

But in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, as well as the cities of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, officials have stepped up evaluations. In Colombia and El Salvador teacher-college graduates must now pass exams to work in a public school.

Much like Teach for America in the US, however, programs like Teach for Mexico face criticism for putting individuals with little professional training into classrooms.

“We need obligatory professional trainings for everyone in the public school system,” says Luisa Figueroa Morales, a principal at a technical high school in Veracruz who previously taught public school English for more than 30 years.

Ms. Figueroa understands the value of professional development: She’s wrapping up her third year of a principal training program called Listo, or “Ready,” run by Worldfund. The program has given her confidence, she says, and the communication skills she needed to get the 70 teachers she manages to show up at least 10 minutes before class, a huge feat.

 “I’ve learned that I have to help my school forward, and that I have to create the habits and the values to do that,” she says.

That is what drives Matsumoto: being part of a positive movement. “As I walk [to work], I think about all the others walking with me to make this change,” she says – teachers, government employees, and Teach for Mexico members. “We all want better public education,” Matsumoto says. “I’m not alone in this.”

– The reporting from Peru was made possible by a grant from the International Reporting Project. 

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