Latin America faces multiple complex challenges in education. Recent reforms in the education systems in Latin America raise multiple challenges in regard to the role of the State. The “traditional” challenges remain: extending coverage and access, creating more equal stages of education, and improving teaching and education outcomes. However, there are now new demands based on social and economic needs specific to the knowledge-based society. Policy response must also serve these multiple objectives.

Expanding secondary and tertiary education coverage is a priority. In the last two decades, most countries in the region have implemented reforms in their education systems to expand coverage and improve the impact of their investment in education. One of the achievements that stands out is the universalisation of primary education. However, Latin America continues to lag behind in terms of coverage, progression and educational achievement, in particular in secondary education. The ongoing improvement of the education system also requires expanding pre-school coverage and extending the school day in state schools.

Latin American education systems must be instruments for equality and social mobility. One of the main problems the region faces is the persistence of socio-economic segmentation in terms of school access and academic performance. Latin America has not managed to transform the education system into a mechanism to promote inter-generational mobility, continuing to lag behind other regions. Education reforms must be aimed at improving equity. A number of educational initiatives have sought to reduce the persistent inequalities in the region related to the quality of the education system (public/private, rural/urban, male/female and those faced by ethnic minorities) and to opportunities for access to the labour market or income. To consolidate a more inclusive system, both demand-side measures (e.g. Conditional transfer programmes) and supply-side measures (such as the distribution of qualified teachers) have been used.

The quality of education in Latin America must be at the centre of a new reform agenda. Today the region is in a particularly favourable situation to increase investment in education, with a favourable economic situation and the existence of a demographic bonus. Despite the growth in public spending on education in most countries, great strides have not been made in learning. The reform of education systems is not only about investing greater financial resources or creating fiscal space. Policies must be framed and defined by a long-term vision in order to achieve greater impact and efficiency in the use of these resources. Thus, prioritising reforms is critical, and the sequence of implementation must balance coverage objectives (e.g. Infrastructure) with quality objectives (e.g. Management of teachers, schools, and central and decentralised bodies).

To maximise the potential of decentralisation reforms and avoid possible negative effects, states must allocate more resources to sub-national and school level management. Decentralisation policies can improve performance, but they can also increase inequalities. These externalities result from a lack of communication between central and local administrations and limited local management capacity.

Certain interventions, such as basic curriculum design, are better managed at the central level. In contrast, it is necessary to provide local authorities with sound management capacity, particularly in more vulnerable and disadvantaged areas, in order to improve the efficiency of policy implementation. However, federated systems remain essential for the proper functioning of the education system. They generate incentives for performance and the development of skills through the exchange of successful experiences among schools.

An active population trained in the use of new technologies is the key to sustaining long-term development. Therefore, the region needs to channel more efforts into increasing the supply of tertiary education (university and technical), especially for young people with fewer resources. In addition, there must be stronger links between the education offered and the productive sectors. In this challenge, it is important to stimulate learning, management and diffusion of new technologies. In this context, tertiary education policies must be geared towards increasing the progressivity of spending at this level; they must also compensate for lack of flexibility and funding resources through instruments such as cross-subsidisation or flexible timetables.

Assessment should not be limited to schools. The implementation of both national and international evaluation systems in Latin America has made it possible to assess the challenges of education, explore mechanisms to address these challenges, find deficiencies in education systems and quantify the impact of pedagogical and management practices. However, assessment schemes must go beyond the school and involve parents more actively. Measuring the skills and competencies of the adult population will provide a clearer picture of the skills needed for integration into the labour market.

Efficient management of faculty is the key to improving the performance of education systems. The professionalization of the teaching career must be a priority. Improving working conditions and hiring systems and offering attractive and flexible career plans can have a significant effect on performance. It is important to increase competition for teaching positions and to improve teacher assessment both when they begin teaching and throughout their teaching careers.