Brazil: Poor Education System Major Economic Problem

September 27, 2010Marketsby David Caploe

Brazil: Poor Education System Major Economic Problem


27 September 2010. By David Caploe PhD, Chief Political Economist,

From a strictly economic point of view, the structural change in the world economy is summed up by the term

for the most “advanced” “emerging” nations, BRIC: Brazil / Russia / India / & China.

It is certainly true that these four do stand out as economic powerhouses whose potential is both huge and a long way from being tapped.

At the same time, there are significant differences among the strengths, weaknesses and approaches of each.

By far the most dynamic is China, which began by following the standard East Asian “export products at a low price” strategy,

and in so doing, became the “workshop of the world” and its second largest economy,

albeit still trailing far behind in the per capita realm.

At the same time, as we have pointed out numerous times, China is now embarked upon a “high value added” strategy:

to become the global leader in advancing sectors like clean / green high-technology,

and all its various subfields, most notably energy production and hybrid / electric cars.

And the key to this new, radically “disruptive” approach is the high educational level of its populace.

So too in India, which has taken a completely different approach:

insourcing high-skilled, high-value added jobs and industries from the West

an approach that has ALSO depended on the high educational level of at least a large part of its population.

Similarly in Russia, where growth is powered by tremendous raw material wealth

AND a highly-education population that excels in Information Technology,

even if its activities in that sector aren’t always strictly positive or legal.

While the growth of these three is clearly not limited to high-education sectors,

the fact nevertheless remains they are important now and becoming ever more so, especially for China and India.

So it’s with great sadness we report here how

the LACK of education is quickly becoming an economic problem for Brazil,

both now, and more disturbingly in the future.

This is especially upsetting because the Brazilian elite is extraordinarily WELL educated, not just in a “local” but global context.

The previous President referred to below, Fernando Henrique Cardoso

 whose record as such was deeply mixed, to say the least –

was nevertheless, before he become President and “sold out”,

a well-respected activist scholar,

who wrote a book that became a classic in several branches of the social sciences, Dependency & Development in Latin America.

Even more impressive is long-time Harvard Law School faculty, Brazilian Roberto Mangabeira Unger,

a powerful interdisciplinary intellectual who was one of the leading theoreticians of Critical Legal Studies,

one of the few academic “movements” that actually had a real-world effect

via its power as a key framework for professors at leading law schools for decades.

Like Cardoso, Unger is an active participant in his country’s political life,

not, interestingly enough, under his fellow academic Cardoso,

but under his current, and much more radical, successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, usually known as Lula,

who, when sworn in as Brazil’s president in early 2003, emotionally declared that

he had finally earned his “first diploma” by becoming president of the country.

One of Brazil’s least educated presidents — Mr. da Silva completed only the fourth grade —

soon became one of its most beloved, lifting millions out of extreme poverty,

stabilizing Brazil’s economy and earning near-legendary status both at home and abroad.

But while Mr. da Silva has overcome his humble beginnings, his country is still grappling with its own.

Perhaps more than any other challenge facing Brazil today,

education is a stumbling block in its bid to accelerate its economy

and establish itself as one of the world’s most powerful nations,

exposing a major weakness in its newfound armor.

“Unfortunately, in an era of global competition, the current state of education in Brazil

means it is likely to fall behind other developing economies

in the search for new investment and economic growth opportunities,”

the World Bank concluded in a 2008 report.

Over the past decade, Brazil’s students have scored among the lowest

of any country’s students taking international exams for basic skills

like reading, mathematics and science,

trailing fellow Latin American nations like Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.

Brazilian 15-year-olds tied for 49th out of 56 countries

on the reading exam of the Program for International Student Assessment,

with more than half scoring in the test’s bottom reading level in 2006,

the most recent year available.

In math and science, they fared even worse.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves,”

said Ilona Becskeházy, executive director of the Lemann Foundation,

an organization based in São Paulo devoted to improving Brazilian education.

“This means that 15-year-olds in Brazil are mastering more or less the same skills

as 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds in countries such as Denmark or Finland.”

The task confronting the nation — and Mr. da Silva’s legacy — is daunting.

Here in the dirt-poor northeastern town of Caetés,

where Mr. da Silva lived his first seven years,

about 30 percent of the population is still illiterate,

a figure three times higher than the national rate.

When Mr. da Silva was a boy here, his father used to beat some of his older siblings

when they went to school instead of working,

said Denise Paraná, the author of a biography of the president.

Today, teachers say that many parents send their children to school

only because school attendance is a requirement of the Bolsa Familia subsidy program

that Mr. da Silva has greatly expanded under his watch,

which provides up to about $115 a month per family.

But even with the added incentive, reading levels vary so greatly here that

in one eighth-grade classroom, students from 13 to 17 all read aloud from the same text.

“A lot of parents say, ‘Why should they study if there are no opportunities?’ ”

said Ana Carla Pereira, a teacher at another rural school here.

As president, Mr. da Silva’s own education policies got off to a slow start;

he dismissed two education ministers before settling on one in 2005.

Then the government’s educational program did not start until 2007 —

four years after Mr. da Silva took office.

Now in his last year in office and talking about his place in history,

Mr. da Silva has an “obsession” with the issue,

his education minister, Fernando Haddad, said,

which was plain to see when he recently returned here to his childhood town.

“I want every child to study much more than I could, much more,”

he said while announcing a program to give laptops to students.

“And for all of them to get a university diploma, for all of them to have a vocational diploma.”

The urgency could hardly be clearer.

Brazil has already established itself as a global force,

riding a commodity and domestic consumption boom

to become one of the largest economies in the world.

With huge new oil discoveries and an increasingly important role

in providing food and raw materials to China,

the country is poised to surge even more.

But the nation’s educational shortcomings are leaving many Brazilians on the sidelines.

More than 22 percent of the roughly 25 million workers available to join Brazil’s work force this year

were not considered qualified to meet the demands of the labor market,

according to a government report in March.

“In certain cities and states we have a problem hiring workers, even though we do have employment,”

said Márcio Pochmann, president of the Institute for Applied Economic Research,

the government agency that produced the March report.

Earlier estimates showed that tens of thousands of jobs went unclaimed

because there were not enough qualified professionals to fill them.

Unless that gap is filled soon, Brazil may miss its “demographic window” over the next two decades

in which “the economically active population is at its peak,” the World Bank said.

Dr. Haddad, the education minister, said that while Brazil still performed poorly compared with other countries,

it was improving faster than many competitors.

“Brazil is trying to make up for lost time,” Dr. Haddad said.

“While other countries were investing in education

we were wasting our time here saying that education was not that important.”

The government has had some notable successes,

including a program that has created about 700,000 scholarships for low-income students to attend private colleges,

an effort lauded by education specialists.

Under Mr. da Silva, the government also opened more than 180 vocational schools —

compared with 140 added during the previous 93 years —

and has administered a new test to evaluate student performance.

School enrollment has continued to climb, a trend that began in the 1990s under previous president, Cardoso,

and middle school graduation rates have risen under Mr. da Silva by 13 percentage points to 47 percent, Mr. Haddad said.

But those successes fall short of the urgent thrust for change

that some education specialists were hoping to see from Mr. da Silva, considering his background.

Not nearly enough was done to improve the quality of education and teaching methods,

and the president has not used his bully pulpit to inspire the nation

to demand more from its teachers and schools, they say.

“He has this aura, he has this power, he influences a lot,”

Ms. Becskeházy of the Lemann Foundation said.

“He did not use the opportunity to lift people up.”

It has not helped, critics add, that Mr. da Silva has sometimes used his own lack of an education

as part of a populist discourse to assail the well-educated “elites” who long ruled Brazil,

almost boasting that he got as far as he did without formal education.

“In his speeches, he tended to pit less-educated people against the educated Brazilian elite,” Mr. Pochmann said.

Finding workers with the adequate basic skills for even manual labor jobs is becoming a challenge,

and many companies are not waiting for Brazil’s education system to catch up.

The Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht is one of several companies

that train a potential labor pool for a few months in basic reading and math.

“Education is the big disadvantage for Brazil when compared to China, India and Russia,”

said Paulo Henrique Quaresma, the director of human resources at Odebrecht,

referring to the other three nations that global investors see as the world’s largest developing economies.

In Caetés, it is not difficult to see why.

“The first school my father introduced me to was the handle of a hoe,”

said José Bezerra da Silva, who, like his wife, is illiterate and cannot help his children with their schoolwork.

The couple and their seven children share a two-room house;

the couch’s wood frame is poking out from under a threadbare cushion.

“Lula changed a lot of things.”

Brazil’s first-grade repetition rate is 28 percent, among the highest in the world, the World Bank said,

though the government contends that the number has been shrinking.

Secondary schools contain many older students because of the high rate of failing students in earlier grades,

and many of the frustrated simply drop out.

“Brazil will continue to grow slower than its potential,”

said Samuel Pessoa, an economist at the Brazilian Economic Institute at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

“If it had a better education system, things would be different,” he says in this article from the New York Times .

And this is no small thing, because, as we pointed out at the beginning, and reiterated later,

Brazil’s educational situation radically trails the other BRICs, and is going to fall even further behind,

especially as China and India become even more invested in skill-intensive high-technology.

This is not saying Brazil can’t overcome its disappointing past,

which includes decades of military dictatorships

that also, to say the least, had little interest in educating the population.

But the situation is rapidly reaching a crisis point,

and both Lula and whoever follows him are going to have to use both creative thinking and sustained commitment

to bring the country out of the educational mess in which it finds itself today.

If they don’t, they may find themselves out of the “emerging” nations club,

and back in the “frontier” group – a place they definitely do NOT want to be.


David Caploe PhD


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