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  Number 230 | Septiembre 2000
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Latin America

Educational Reform in Latin America: "It Needs to be Turned Around"

The text of Latin America’s statement on "Education for All" in the World Education Forum, held in Dakar, Senegal, April 26-28, 2000. Hundreds of people from a wide array of countries, organizations, institutions and sectors have signed this statement and more are doing so daily.

Envío team

The start of a new decade and of a new century is an invitation to reflect on past achievements and to prepare a future agenda based on new available knowledge and on lessons learned. This is a moment to evaluate, rectify and renew commitments in education. The year 2000 was the horizon for global programs such as "Education for All" (EFA) launched in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, as well as for regional and national initiatives for educational change and development around the world. Many evaluation activities are going on at the global, regional and national levels, to assess the fulfillment of goals and to define future agendas. At the end of April 2000, the World Education Forum takes place in Dakar, Senegal. The results of the EFA Assessment will be presented and a new Declaration and Framework for Action for the year 2015 will be adopted.
In this context and at this moment, a group of Latin American educators and intellections wish to share with other colleagues and with the international educational community some concerns and reflections from Latin America. Ours is an important region in the developing world. It has its own historical, educational and cultural characteristics. We Latin Americans are proud to have developed innovative and fertile ideas, approaches and experiences in education, appropriate to our particular realities.

Our peoples deserve better and more education

We are seriously concerned with the situation of education around the world, in developing countries and in our region in particular. After several decades of reiterative attempts at educational reform in our countries, the results are questionable. In any case, they are not visible in the field that is at the very core of education and of any educational effort: learning and the full development of the human being. "Emphasize learning" was a fundamental mandate of Education for All and, nevertheless, the indicator for learning (one of 18 indicators that countries had to account for) had to be eliminated from the final evaluation report of the decade due to the fact that most countries had no information to offer. "Improve learning" was the mandate of the nineties in our region. However, learning assessments carried out in the last few years in different countries show results that fall far below expectations. Educational systems have not developed proper indicators nor have they evidences of achievement regarding the full development of learners’ potential and creativity and the consolidation of their values.

Latin America, as other regions in the developing world, has a long history of pronunciations and declarations, of commitments and goals that are not achieved or are cyclically postponed. Often, plans overlap with little regard for continuity, or run parallel to each other without coordination.

• In 1979 (Mexico Declaration), the "Major Project of Education in Latin America and the Caribbean" was approved. It was launched in Quito in 1981, under the coordination of the regional UNESCO office (UNESCO/OREALC). This project set three goals for the year 2000: universal access to primary schooling, eradication of adult illiteracy and improvement of the quality and efficiency of education.

Later, in 1990, in Jomtien, Thailand, "Education for All" was launched in a world conference organized by UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA and the World Bank. This conference was attended by 155 government delegations, as well as by 125 nongovernmental organizations from around the world. Six goals were agreed to in Jomtien, partially coinciding with the Major Project, also for the year 2000.

• Four years later, in 1994, the Miami Summit, convened by US President Clinton, took place. A "Plan for Universal Access to Education for 2010" was launched and later ratified as "Education Initiative" by the II Summit in Santiago, Chile, in 1998. This hemispheric initiative adopted goals for the three educational levels, including tertiary education. The initiative is headed by the US government, and is coordinated by the governments of Mexico, Argentina and Chile, with the participation of several international, regional and national organizations (Organization of American States, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and US Agency for International Development among the most important).

Now, the World Forum in Dakar acknowledges that the goals of Education for All were not met in the defined time span and fundamentally ratifies the same goals, renews commitments and postpones the deadline for reaching these goals to the year 2015.

International agencies and national governments design and approve these global and regional goals and commit themselves to their fulfillment in the deadlines they define, and continually rectify and postpone such commitments and deadlines. Each of these plans implies important investments of energy and financial resources. When goals are not met and results are not evident, social credibility regarding education is deteriorated, and with it the possibility of educational progress and change.

The tradition of educational reform in our countries has been to seek the blame for the problem on the lack of financial resources and to situate the problems on the side of implementation. Nonetheless, it is now evident that there are also severe problems on the side of policy formulation and design. Thus the need for a profound revision and reorientation in the way both governments and international agencies address education in general, and education reform in particular.
Education policies recommended and adopted in the last few years are not responding satisfactorily to the needs and expectations of the Latin American population. They have been unable to reach the education system, particularly teachers, and they have not achieved the expected results. The comparative assessment carried out by the Regional UNESCO Office in 1997 in 13 Latin American countries in the areas of language and mathematics with 3rd and 4th grade students of public and private schools revealed that Cuba is, within this region, the country with the best learning results in both areas. Cuba is precisely the only country that did not follow international and regional recommendations of educational policy in the nineties, and the only one that did not rely on loans from international banks to carry out its education reform. We believe that these facts are sufficient evidence of the need to critically reflect on past actions and to review contents and strategies for education reform currently tried out in our countries.

Required revisions

Our analysis of the development of basic education in our region and in the world leads us to propose some rectification that pertain directly to Latin America but that could also be considered by other regions with similar concerns.

1. Policies for educational development should be inspired by fundamental human values and should seek that the educational service contributes to the growth and development of peoples and societies. Indicators used to evaluate progress in education, centered around coverage and efficiency of school systems, do not reveal the contribution of education to these fundamental values: full development of learners, awareness-building, responsible exercise of liberty, capacity of relating to others with respect. Neither do they reveal whether educational systems are responding to the basic needs of the great majorities of the population, or whether these responses are adequate and meaningful.

2. Decision-makers must think ethically. Educational systems are not there only to serve the economy, consumption or material progress, but mainly to serve the development of human potential. In particular, the expansion of knowledge that characterizes the start of this millennium and that is deeply affecting educational systems should be understood within this framework of integrality and responsibility.

3. We are by no means satisfied with what has been done to attain greater equity in the distribution of opportunities of educational access, perseverance, graduation, transition to further educational levels and, above all, learning. Greater equity has been achieved as a consequence of the tendency toward universalization of a given educational level, mainly primary. However, this has not meant increased equity in terms of learning results, which are the true measure of educational policies aimed at social justice. The growing use of information and communication technologies in the field of education threatens to produce even deeper and more serious inequalities if we continue to extend basic education with the same criteria used in the past. The problem must definitely be faced in a different way. Society and governments, but especially the latter, must allocate the necessary resources and make the necessary efforts to equate and to improve the quality of educational services offered to the poor in both rural and urban areas, to indigenous populations and in general to all those excluded from the benefits of basic education. If we are not able to offer improved education to those who need it most, as well as an egalitarian education for both men and women, it will be difficult to progress towards educational equity. And without educational equity, we will not progress toward social justice.

4. Given the cultural diversity that characterizes Latin American peoples, educational quality implies recognizing the need to diversify educational supply in order to insure not only respect for, but also the strengthening of, the different cultures. Each group has a cultural contribution to make to the education of the population as a whole. However, governments and societies must be wary of permitting that diversification of basic education services be used to conceal an impoverished supply. The comparatively lower capacity of some of the disadvantaged groups to demand adequate quality of service and of results should always be taken into account and never be taken advantage of.

5. It is necessary to recuperate the original spirit of Education for All in its "expanded vision of basic education": an education capable of satisfying basic learning needs of all (children, youth and adults) both within and outside the school system (family, community, workplace, libraries and cultural centers, media, modern technologies, etc.) and throughout life. The multi-sectoral view of education and educational policy must be enforced, since problems cannot be explained or solved exclusively from within an education sector, and require a responsible economic and social policy concerned for the welfare of the majorities. Also, only a system-wide view of education will be able to overcome narrow conceptions that fragment education and prioritize education policies according to ages, levels, components or modalities. A long-term vision of educational policy, able to overcome the immediate and short-term-oriented decisions that are often imposed by the dynamics of politics or of international financing, is a must in our region. The emphasis on primary education that characterized the nineties, while important in itself, was done at the cost of postponing the need to face the problems of secondary and higher education, and of practically abandoning education and training of young people and of adults.

Preservation of Latin American values

In the present globalized context, we wish to preserve some values that are essential to Latin American identity:
• The supreme value of the human being and the quest for meaning of human existence. We value the respect for the human being and his/her development over and above material progress based exclusively on the increase of consumption and comfort. We believe in the importance of creating the necessary conditions for each person to find meaning in his/her life and responses to his/her existential questions.

• The community meaning of life, characteristic of our cultures, especially indigenous cultures: sharing and serving, solidarity rather than competitiveness, learning to live together, favoring collective over personal well-being, respecting differences against tendencies toward exclusion, and caring for the weak and unprotected.

• Multiculturalism and interculturalism. Each of our nations is a people of peoples, developed through processes of biological and cultural interaction and mingling. The value of pluralism—of races, ethnic groups and cultures—is essential to our identity and should be reinforced through education.

• The value of ways of knowing and approaching reality that go beyond instrumental rationality: symbolic languages, intuition, sensibility to human vulnerability, as well as a creative recuperation of tradition and the appreciation of beauty.

• Liberty, understood—as Paulo Freire did—as a conquest over our selfishness and that of others, as the building of each person’s autonomy and sense of responsibility, as overcoming all forms of oppression through the understanding of the oppressor and the willingness to share with him or her the task of building a world for all.

• Work as a means of personal fulfillment and thus as a basic right, and not as an a-critical submission to the interests of capital or as an efficiency-based search for profit.

• The quest of the "other" in the construction of "ourselves" as the basis of the ethical meaning of human life and the continuous presence of hope and utopia.

The values that give us identity should be preserved through education. They are the basis for achieving peace based on justice and on respect for all. We would like these values to transcend toward everyday interaction, the media, laws, philosophies that guide education and, in general, all cultural domains. Within the educational systems, we would like these values to inspire the formation of educators and students, curricular contents and teaching methods, school organization and atmosphere, the distribution of resources, the criteria for planning and evaluating, and the interpersonal relations of all those involved in education.

We strongly state the need for the participation of society, not only in the implementation of plans and programs, but also in policy design and discussion. Education is a public issue and should, therefore, involve all its actors and elicit their responsible participation. This is particularly critical in the case of teachers, who are the key actors in education and educational change. To proclaim the need for participation is not enough; times and spaces must be defined and procured, and criteria and concrete mechanisms put in place for participation to occur as a regular process in education: from the local to the global level, from the school to the ministries and intergovernmental instances where education is defined and educational decisions are made. Valuable initiatives that materialize citizen participation in education have emerged in a number of countries in the region over the last few years, and should be strengthened and multiplied.
We request our governments and societies, as well as international cooperation agencies, to multiply efforts toward equity, prioritizing the more marginalized sectors of the population, and articulating educational programs with wider policies aimed at improving economic and social equity.

We make a strong call for the preservation of cultural and educational diversity at the regional, country and local levels, and against a hegemonic and homogenizing globalization process.

We require international organizations to revise their role in the definition of educational policies and in their implementation at the regional and national levels. We are concerned with the growing importance of these organizations, particularly of multilateral financial organizations, as decision-makers and actors not only in financial aspects, but also in technical assistance, research, monitoring and evaluation of education policies and programs in our region. We are concerned with the dominant thinking about education that has spread over the last few years, which is characterized by a strong economic bias and by an overwhelming predominance of administrative aspects in the understanding of education and in the implementation of educational reform. The need for reviewing the traditional model of international cooperation, especially in the field of education, is acknowledged by scholars and specialists the world over, and by the cooperation agencies themselves. The role of international organizations must be that of facilitating, promoting, communicating and catalyzing.

We convene our governments and national societies to regain initiative and leadership in the definition and conduction of educational matters, to develop a critical mass of professionals and specialists of the highest level, and to consolidate an informed citizenship able to significantly participate in educational debate and action. After a period of strong homogenization of educational policy uniform and of simplification of educational processes, we must regain the ability to think and act on the basis of accumulated knowledge and of the particular characteristics of each national and local context.

We invite the international educational community, and in particular those participating in the Dakar Forum, to ponder on these reflections that we fraternally wish to share.

One Reaction to the Statement

Many people have accepted the invitation to comment on this statement.
Among those commentaries, we offer the one below, by Sonia Montaño,
director of the Women’s Unit of the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

As this is a moment of evaluations, we cannot forget the set of commitments assumed in Cairo, Rio (1992), Vienna (1993) and especially Beijing (1995) in relation to the education of women. I am concerned that this century will also be marked by the forgetfulness we have seen in the past and that we feminists will have to continue playing the disagreeable role of reminding people that gender equality is still a pending objective in educational issues. I share a major concern about the notions that tend to minimize the gender gaps in education, arguing that the rural-urban gaps or the mestizo-indigenous ones are more serious. Though it is true that these inequalities are grave, that is no justification for not adopting measures specifically geared to overcoming discrimination against women. I share the declaration’s humanist focus, but among the challenges mentioned I would have liked to see themes as crucial to equality as the struggle against poverty associated with the lack of civic education and of education on sexual and reproductive rights in these times in which their absence leads to death and affects women disproportionately.

When we talk about a gender focus, we are not alluding to specific or complementary aspects but to the core of the reform. The gender focus alludes to the basis on which difference is constructed, including racial and ethnic difference, which serves to underpin various forms of social and political exclusion. It has to do with the devaluing of non-remunerated work, community life, the universal values of respect and tolerance, etc. It has to do with ethics, but also with the efficiency of the reform. It is both more just and more efficient to incorporate the gender perspective in educational management, teacher training, curricula, the democratization of access to technology and other aspects. Above all, it is necessary to be explicit about it because its omission provokes inequalities that are difficult and very costly to surmount, as is being demonstrated by all the existing evaluations.

Specific mention of the non-neutral elements of education revealing a concern with the biases affecting women would have made it easier for me to sign a declaration that, while critical, is not critical enough to reflect my concerns as a woman.

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