Primary and secondary education coverage in Latin America has been rising in recent years. Enrolment rates for primary and secondary education have now reached levels close to those of OECD economies. In contrast, higher-education coverage remains low (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

Latin America & Caribbean (15 Countries) & OECD: Gross Enrolment Rates by Education Level - 2009 or most recent year available

Latin America & The Caribbean (15 Countries) & OECD: Gross Enrolment Rates By Education Level - 2009 Or The Most Recent Year For Which Data Is Available

The panorama of coverage and performance in tertiary education in Latin America presents multiple challenges. Despite the significant increase in participation at this education level in the last two decades (in particular in Brazil and Paraguay), most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean continue to have tertiary education enrolment rates below 40%. There is also a high level of heterogeneity in the region: in some countries enrolment is over 60% (Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay), while in others it is below 30% (Honduras, el Salvador, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Mexico).2 These percentages are well below those found in OECD economies, where Finland, the united States and the republic of Korea all reach coverage of over 80%.

In the last few decades, the demand for higher education has been increasing in the region, reflecting changes in the economic and social structure. An essential component in this increase in demand has been the rise in per capita income, but also significant is the growing awareness of the importance of scientific and technical knowledge and skills to boost competitiveness and long-term development.3 in higher education, which is aspired to by a much wider section of society than in the past, there is a more important social value, which has contributed to increase its demand. One positive aspect of this increase in enrolment is that in several countries more than half of the university students are the first members of their families to attend university, giving them greater socio-occupational mobility than what their parents had.

Although PISA scores remain low, the performance of Latin American countries has shown a slight improvement in the past 10 years. Recent results confirm two important facts: first, Latin American countries are among those with the lowest scores in the PISA group; and second, the region’s performance is improving in comparison to earlier assessments (Figure 4.2).4 Average reading scores for the five Latin American countries that participated in 2000 and 2009 (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru) reveal that over the course of the decade there was a slight reduction in the gap with OECD economies from 23% to 19%.5 The OECD average increased by 2 points during that period (from 485 to 487), while the average of the Latin American countries increased by 16 points (from 395 to 411). In various countries this progress is the result of improvements among lower-scoring students:

Figure 4.2

Latin America & OECD: Evolution of Reading Performance on PISA Test, 2000/2009

Latin America & OECD: Evolution Of Reading Performance On The PISA Test, 2000 & 2009 (Variation in score)

In Chile and Mexico the proportion of low-performing students fell by almost 15%; in Brazil, the best students improved their performance (with skill levels of 5 and 6), and results among low-performing students remained stable. Chile and Peru showed significant improvements in all skill levels.6 Despite this progress, Latin America continues to be among the countries with the lowest scores on the test. Mexico remains the OECD country with the lowest results, with an average difference equivalent to two years of schooling (114 points) compared to Korea, which had the highest score in 2009. This gap is greater than with other emerging regions, such as South-east Asia.7

As in a number of OECD economies, students in state and private schools in Latin America perform similarly. A first glance at the data on student performance shows that students from private schools perform better than those from state schools. However, this result does not take into account socio-demographic and economic factors. Once these factors are considered, students from private schools do not perform significantly better than those from public schools. This confirms, on the one hand, the persistent effect of socio-economic status as a factor explaining performance (more important than public or private management of schools), and on the other, the strong segmentation of public and private schools by socio-economic status.8

Performance by gender and region continues to show important differences. as with global trends, in Latin America women are making greater strides than men in terms of enrolment, retention and graduation.9 On the PISA reading test, girls performed significantly better than boys in all member countries, including Latin America.10 This gap has at times increased due to improvements in female performance not being matched by improvements among males. On the other hand, geographic differences in performance are also noticeable. Analysis of urban and rural schools reveals higher PISA scores in cities in most OECD economies (after controlling for socio-economic differences) and in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

Box 4.1

The PISA Test: A Comprehensive Assessment of Skills

The PISA programme (Programme for international Student assessment) began in 2000. It aims to assess the capacity of students to use their knowledge and experience in “real world” situations. The emphasis of the test is on understanding concepts and mastering skills in three areas: mathematics, reading and sciences.

Around 470 000 students from 65 countries completed the fourth edition of the test in 2009. Each student spent approximately 2 hours completing the different tests, and in addition, they completed a background questionnaire focused on themselves and their home, their learning habits, their attitudes towards reading and their commitment and motivation. The assessment includes tasks that require students to construct their own answers as well as multiple-choice questions. School principals also complete a questionnaire about the demographic characteristics of their students and the quality of the learning environment.

the PISA test provides three essential elements for the analysis of education systems: first, a profile of the knowledge and skills among 15-year-old students in 2009, with a focus on reading, and contextual indicators that associate performance results with personal and school characteristics; second, an assessment of the dedication of students to reading activities, and their knowledge and use of different learning strategies; third, data on changing trends in students’ knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and sciences and on the impact of different factors (e.g. socio- demographic factors) on performance.

In 2012, PISA will focus on mathematics and will put greater emphasis on evaluating the ability of students to read and understand digital texts and resolve problems in a digital format, in this way reflecting the importance of information technologies.

At the regional level, the results in various Latin American countries show a significant difference in performance across regions, which is explained to a great extent by socio-economic differences. These inter-regional differences involve both performance and performance distribution (performance equity).11

Box 4.2

ICTs in Latin American Education: Better Quality, Greater Equality

The widespread dissemination of information and communication technologies (ITS) is producing rapid change in economic, social and cultural life. Today, developing the potential of young people depends to a great extent on their ability to use ICTs.a The level of ICT penetration has led to the growing importance of new technology skills in the labour market —the digitally illiterate are increasingly unlikely to be employed in high-wage jobs. This has also made digital competency a necessary condition to achieve social inclusion.b

In this regard, the gradual incorporation of ICTs in education systems represents a fundamental challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean. ICTs are important for the curriculum but also for the possibilities they offer to take advantage of opportunities for integration and social mobility and the full exercise of citizenship.

The school is the largest, most effective and most economical institution for reducing the digital gap among young people, in particular for students with fewer resources who do not have these technologies at home. The potential of schooling cannot be reduced solely to its role in digital literacy: ICTs can also be introduced across disciplines in the learning process, facilitating the pedagogical process through didactic tools and lifelong learning.

Thus, an initial challenge is to press forward in expanding access to ICTs. This requires strategies to increase coverage and available technological resources, providing more computers and improving the quality of broadband internet access. In regard to access to ICTs and their use in education, significant differences remain among countries. But there are also numerous success stories: Brazil’s experience with the Broadband in Schools programme; Chile’s Enlaces programme; and Uruguay’s CEIBAL project (educational connectivity/Basic computing for online Learning), which attempts to universalise student access by supplying computers to students.

Differences are also found in the rate of computers per student in primary school systems: While Uruguay had a rate of 1 student per computer at the primary school level in 2008 and Chile had a rate of 13 students per computer at primary and secondary levels, Brazil and Honduras had rates of 83 and 137 students per computer, respectively. Broadband access in primary schools is also quite unequal, as illustrated by the cases of Costa Rica (40%) and Uruguay (100%).

training to give teachers the necessary skills to use ICTs in their professional practice and in the classroom is also an important challenge. Policies to develop digital infrastructure should therefore be accompanied by policies to promote teacher training in the use of new technologies in education.c

a See kaztman (2010) and ECLAC/IYO (2008).
b ECLAC (2010d).
c ECLAC (2010d).