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Traditional Educational Systems perpetuate Inequality in Latin America 

Inequality in Education

Are kids who go to a traditional school in a better position than those who, due to financial limitations, stay home helping around or working during the day and going to high school at night?

Perhaps it will be surprising to know that of the top 7 billionaires in the world today, only one of them went through the formal, traditional education system. The other six did not.

How did they become wealthy if they did not go to school, you may ask? The truth is that the reasons vary and in many cases, it was due to a combination of factors.

Two things are true in all cases: none of them belonged to poor families and none of them ended up living on the street as a result of not completing high school or college.

One more thing needs to be highlighted: all of these people who are billionaires today lived and still live in developed nations. This is very important to point out because living in a developed country versus living in a poor country does have some advantages even when you are poor or belong to the middle class.

Having access to formal, traditional education is not necessarily a requirement to be successful and to accumulate wealth, but having the opportunities to grow professionally and personally is a must. This is the difference between living in a developing nation while you are a member of the middle class, compared to being part of the middle class in a wealthy nation.

For example, in many developing countries, wealthy people send their children to study abroad once they reach the legal age to do so. The wealthiest of them are able to afford college education abroad for them, so they often study at places like Harvard or Stanford. Meanwhile, members of the middle class and the lower classes can barely afford to send their children to public schools.

The children of wealthy people in poor countries study abroad for years, have access to technology and other resources, but the most important of all is that they have access to opportunities. I am not talking about job opportunities, since in many cases at their young ages, these men and women often return to their country of origin after graduating from college.

They get the opportunity to move to and live abroad, the opportunity to access all kinds of technological equipment, the opportunity to experience what is like to live in clean cities, the opportunity to have access to first-world transportation means, the opportunity to meet people from all corners of the world and especially, the opportunity to see the world beyond their countries’ borders. But perhaps the most valuable opportunity of all is to learn to do things on their own, to be creative, resilient and strong while living on their own.

Although the traditional education system is sold as the creator and provider of opportunity, as you can see, formal, traditional education does not provide any of the opportunities cited above. Going through 12 years of formal education, especially in poor countries, does not qualify a teenager to access any of those opportunities. In fact, many young adults who come from poor families only get a chance to participate in an exchange program after they have finished college in their own countries.

Leaving aside the fact that traditional schooling kills essential skills while students spend countless hours in classrooms solely to be indoctrinated, not taught, and where grades and not learning determine success, formal traditional education is one of the main causes of lack of opportunity in developing countries because students come out of classrooms unprepared and ill-prepared to face the challenges the world will present.

Different from the billionaires mentioned above, most of whom did not attend college, but who had the opportunity to find what made them tick, to be creative and ingenious, kids who go through formal, traditional education are fed the answers to everything, as in most cases, they are molded into flexible employees destined to work for others for the rest of their lives.

The reason for that is this: formal, traditional education segregates students, but not in the way you think. When it comes to opportunity, segregation in schools -public and private- does not occur in terms of ethnicity, social status or class. Segregation is performed into two groups:

1. Students who are successfully standardized
2. Students who fail to be standardized by the educational system

As you may be aware, traditional education is based on the premise that everyone who goes through its system must meet a set of standards to guarantee that they reach an average level of indoctrination, not education. That is why in the current educational system grades are the most representative sign of what is understood as “progress”, but that, in reality, is just a numerical assessment that in no way represents an individual’s ability to do anything.

Traditional Education: The Case of Latin America

As explained above, the formal, traditional education system is by no means the solution to eliminating inequality. Indeed, it is, in many cases, the cause of inequality.

Once a child has been born poor, no matter how much formal education he is exposed to, he almost never is lifted from poverty. Spending 12 or more years in formal education not only takes away a child’s creative abilities but also falls short from teaching essential skills such as critical thinking, reasoning, the capacity to evaluate and analyze.

According to the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), the problem of equality cannot be solved just by putting large groups of students in one single classroom so teachers can feed them the content of their chronograms and curricula.

The difference between a successful adult and one who invested 12 years of his life in the formal education system is his socio-economic condition, not his high school or college diploma. Remember those billionaires mentioned before? Many of them did not finish college.

Every time the PISA report is published, all the countries included run to see how they have been in the rankings. It is normal: PISA has gradually become the standard for evaluating student performance.

Through standardized tests performed on representative samples of 15-year-old students in three areas (math, reading, science), it is possible to approximate how well or badly each country in Latin America is doing compared to the others. Thus, for example, we know that the representatives of continental Latin America included in the study are doing much worse than the OECD average.

None of the countries evaluated in the representative standardized tests cited above even approaches the reference point. That is something that seems to be of concern these days, while the latest version of PISA was published last Tuesday.

The concern is understandable and should be addressed: particularly in cases such as Panama or Argentina, where there is a significant mismatch between the level reached in PISA and the GDP per capita.

But this innate human passion for ranking ourselves should not hide a central problem in Latin American education systems. One that is reflected in the OECD data and that is also occupying debates, even leading protests, on the continent: socio-economic conditions.

The countries of the region are simply at the bottom of the social inclusion index of PISA: Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Mexico occupy the last places.

Costa Rica, Argentina and Uruguay are only a little higher. And all of them are markedly less inclusive not only than the OECD average but also the average of all countries assessed by PISA.

So nobody should be surprised that in all Latin American countries there is a clear correlation between the average marks obtained from each population segment and the socioeconomic status, measured by the degree of advantage (or disadvantage) with which that student comes from a determined home.

The case of Peru is particularly dramatic, which is also at the bottom of the social inclusion index. But Argentina is not far behind. In these countries, a socioeconomically successful student is, when he turns fifteen, a small chasm of those who were not born in high-status homes.

The PISA report estimates what percentage of the variance is attributable to what we could define as ‘gold cradle factor’. For all countries, the figure is higher than the OECD average (12%), but again Peru and Argentina stand out, as well as Panama.

The confusion as to whether formal education plays a significant role in student success stems from the belief that a college diploma automatically guarantees that a student is capable of performing an activity. The problem with that assumption is that many bright minds do not get to participate in the system because of their inability to pay for it.

What an adolescent or a young adult needs to be successful in life is an opportunity, and not necessarily to access the formal education system. That opportunity at a young age would be something like learning a skill, thinking critically, reasoning, producing and making himself valuable; not memorizing dates, names of famous people or formulas.

For that to happen, the educational system requires to go through drastic changes; changes that allow students -giving their socio-economic disadvantage- to graduate from such a system only if he is able to apply newly acquired practical skills, to think critically in the midst of adversity, to solve problems, to produce for himself and others and to be valuable to society; not to achieve the standards that the current grade-based system requires.

The traditional education system fails children, adolescents and young adults who manage to get to college for two reasons:

  1. It kills their ability to think critically, reason, analyze, produce and become valuable to themselves, their families and the community.
  2. It fails to compensate for many students’ socio-economic disadvantages.

In fact, the current formal educational system makes society less equal. Schools are the basic transmission belt of everything good and bad that education has to offer, and schools in Latin America are remarkably dissimilar from each other.

The dividing barrier is, again, socioeconomic. Let’s take a basic and accessible indicator: the availability of school supplies. It turns out that the proportion of students in schools whose principals reported to PISA lack of material is significantly higher among those with socioeconomic disadvantage.

If a society aspires to equal opportunities, its educational system should at least equalize the socio-economic caveat, so that most if not all students can successfully read, write and use math, but also become their own men and women, their own examples to follow, regardless of the starting conditions. Clearly, that is not what happens. The Latin American educational structures contemplated here, with the possible exception of Chile, are reproducers of inequality. And they have been for years.

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About the author: Luis R. Miranda

Luis R. Miranda is an award-winning journalist and the founder & editor of The Real Agenda News. His career spans over 23 years in every form of news media. He writes about environmentalism, education, technology, science, health, immigration and other current affairs. Luis has worked as on-air talent, news reporter, television producer, and news writer.

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