Double shifts and lousy hours: Are Brazil's schools holding it back?

Primary school quality in the world's No. 7 economy ranks below impoverished Haiti. But galvanizing Brazilians to boost education for all is no easy task.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM/File
Schoolgirls make their way home in Rio de Janeiro. Despite persistent overcrowding, Brazil aims to get more children into schools with full eight-hour days.

At midday, the long, narrow hallway of Marechal Alcides Etchegoyen school in Rio de Janeiro floods with students and instructors jockeying for space. A gaggle of 13-year-old girls sporting bubble gum-pink lipstick and matching side-swept bangs surges toward the front door, a poster reading “knowledge is power” fluttering in their wake.

On the surface, this scene could be from a school in Miami or Lisbon. But it’s not yet noon and these students are finished for the day. Some teachers, just done with five morning classes, are dashing off to repeat the effort in afternoon shifts at other public schools.

Brazil’s economy and its schools are getting precariously out of alignment. The country has boomed its way to becoming the world’s seventh largest economy. Household incomes have grown by a third over the past decade. Though it’s an upper-middle-income country on par with Turkey, the quality of its primary schools ranks below the likes of impoverished Madagascar and Haiti.

Brazil has a highly educated upper class and boasts some of the best public universities in Latin America. Yet school more broadly does not hold a treasured place here. Most students attend class for only four hours a day. Making kids repeat grades is a common teaching tactic, and teacher training lags behind international standards. Teachers often rush from one school to another to cobble together a full-time job.

Indeed, many teachers and politicians have long held the view that all Brazilians didn’t need or weren’t entitled to an education, says Barbara Bruns, an education economist at the World Bank.

Even former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who only completed fourth grade and called the presidency his “first degree,” was prone to bragging about his lack of schooling.

The idea that education can open doors to a better future “isn’t a historically Brazilian story line,” says José Márcio Camargo, a labor economist and professor at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro.

But it’s a mind-set this South American country of nearly 200 million people desperately needs to emphasize, experts say. Brazil’s rapid growth is slowing – and the global economy is becoming more integrated. Brazilians are talking about the need for a workforce with “21st-century” skills.

Yet even as the steady drumbeat about the world’s emerging “knowledge-based economy” has driven efforts to improve education in rich and poor nations alike, Brazil has lagged behind. Improvement, many here say, could ultimately rest on whether the country can create the same sense of urgency around education that it has in driving its economy forward.

“We don’t have time to be slow and incremental. We don’t have this right, because if I’m telling this generation of students ‘wait 16 years, you will then have a better education,’ it’s a calamity,” says Claudia Costin, on her last day as the city of Rio’s secretary of education, a post she’s held for the past five years.

'Good schools for everyone'

For decades, Brazilians undervalued universal education. Ms. Costin points to historical events such as Brazil’s late abolishment of slavery – more than two decades after the United States – and its 20-year dictatorship as contributing factors.

“When we ended slavery [in 1888], almost immediately the previous slaves became the poor of this country,” Costin says. The government “didn’t believe at that time that education was important, and we didn’t have an organized civil society to at least think about good schools for everyone,” she says.

By 1930, only 21.5 percent of children were enrolled in primary school, a rate about one-third that of neighboring Argentina and Chile.

“For many years poor people in Brazil had the idea drummed into them that they weren’t competent to get educated. And that they didn’t have the right to expect [it],” Ms. Bruns says. She remembers visiting classrooms in the 1980s and having teachers tell her things like “João doesn’t belong in school. His dad is in prison.”

“The teachers would say these things in earshot of the kids, and it reflected this elitist mentality,” she says.

Even today, while foundations, teachers, and education officials are pushing more aggressively for improved standards, there isn’t a widespread movement for change. Protests against World Cup spending have touched on education, but so far have stopped there.

That’s left the ability to adapt in the hands of those with means. Families that can afford to often move their child to private school. “The way the middle class expresses its demand for higher quality education is to opt out” of the public system entirely, Bruns says.

“Parents and kids are not as forceful as they have a right to be in demanding that education serve them,” she says.

Passing 'easily'

Rosangela Rosa, a mother of three, is trying to change that mind-set in her household, with varying degrees of success. Ms. Rosa studied until the fifth grade, and was held back at least twice, quitting at age 14. This was typical for her generation: In 1993, around the time she entered the labor force, about 70 percent of workers had not completed high school. A child whose parents hadn’t gone to school, like hers, on average finished four years of schooling.

“My mother didn’t insist I return to study,” says Rosa, who works at a hospital lactation center. “I want my daughters to go to college.”

Rosa’s eldest daughter graduated high school and wants to go to technical school, but can’t afford it. Her middle child dropped out after sixth grade. When she became pregnant this year, her plans for night school went on hold. Rosa’s youngest is enrolled at Marechal, just a short walk from their home in the low-income favela, or shantytown, Vila Kennedy.

Marechal was not Rosa’s first choice: It’s rowdy, and most kids aren’t invested in learning, something she attributes to the “attitudes” of other parents more than the staff. And she’s disappointed by the standards: “You pass easily. My daughter doesn’t always have homework. It’s just not demanding,” Rosa laments.

In the 1990s, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso targeted both education resources and attitudes by launching a number of education initiatives. The creation of Bolsa Escola – the predecessor of Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash transfer program that gives families a small monthly payment in exchange for sending kids to school and keeping up with vaccinations – shifted the calculus for poor families when it came to deciding whether to send kids to class or put them to work. The government distributed federal funds more equitably to public schools and encouraged local officials to get kids into class through per capita supplemental spending.

Since 1993, the number of students who have completed primary school has gone up almost 30 percentage points, to 71 percent, according to the National Institute for Education Studies and Research. Those who started primary school over the past 15 years have also been more likely to continue with their schooling. In the same period, Brazil increased education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product by 1.8 percent, reaching 5.8 percent in 2010, according to United Nations data.

Many laud the progress, and note that Brazil – with its oil fields, agriculture expertise that it exports, and firms such as aircraft manufacturer Embraer or mining giant Vale – has done fine in terms of providing the workers the country needs to keep major employers humming. But people are worried as they look ahead.

“There is a feeling emerging that if we don’t improve education, we won’t be competitive,” says Mr. Camargo. “That could force businesses and the government to change priorities for a more productive future.”

Sixty percent of the labor force now has a high school degree, according to the World Bank. But while scores on international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment have improved since Brasília first participated in 2000, Latin America’s largest economy ranks near the bottom of the pack overall: 58th out of 65 nations tested in 2012. And higher enrollment and graduation rates haven’t necessarily translated to quality education.

“We have the kids finally at school, but they are not learning,” says Costin.


But those active in the education movement have hope. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 64 percent of Brazilians consider school quality “a very big problem.” And thanks to the decentralized system – typically, municipalities run preschool through the ninth grade, states are in charge of high schools, and the federal government administers public universities – educators, policymakers, and foundations have the opportunity to experiment.

Sitting in a cramped office at the Bolivar municipal school in Rio de Janeiro’s working-class north zone, principal Jacira Fontes Cerqueira points to a large piece of paper hanging on the wall, covered in scribbled verses. It’s a rap one of her former students wrote and dedicated to her. The young man was, by all stereotypes, bound to fail: a poor family, a bad neighborhood, an alcoholic dad.

But now he goes to the prestigious State University of Rio de Janeiro. Ms. Cerqueira says he got there because Bolivar “allowed him to dream.”

Bolivar is one of 165 eight-hour schools in the city of Rio (out of 1,004 municipal schools), a relatively recent initiative. Most public – and many private – schools hold two to three shifts of four hours each.

“The most promising thing I see is the degree of innovation at the state and municipal levels,” says Bruns. “There are strong incentives to improve the system ... and they are looking over each other’s shoulders and copying good ideas.”

Cities and states are also testing new approaches: having teachers give mock lessons during the hiring process; creating tools such as Rio’s online “Educopedia,” to help with teaching a wide range of students in the same class; or creating pay incentives for teachers. Thousands of new programs are created each year, according to the World Bank.

“We invented the term ‘plan-doing.’ We plan a little bit and we immediately have to start doing, even if you have to correct the route in the process,” Costin says.

Instead of creating education policy the “traditional” way – with heavyweights discussing pedagogical pros and cons for years before acting – her method was much more ad hoc.

“Yes, solid change in education takes decades, but we need to start doing the right things fast,” says Costin. “It has to be incremental, but not as slow as some would think.”

Whitney Eulich reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP). Taylor Barnes contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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