2018 election series, Blog, Education, National Politics, Uncategorized

Part 4 – 2018 Election Series: Political Participation and the Future of Education in Latin America’s Largest Economy

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This article is part of Brazil Talk’s 2018 Elections Series  and is intended to give our readers a deeper understanding of the Brazilian political system, its complex electoral process and gather diverse perspectives and opinions on what the world should expect from Brazil in the upcoming months and the future of the country at the beginning of 2019. 

by Pedro Sarvat

[6 min read]

This year, when I finished teaching my last class of the semester in Campo Grande, a city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, midwest region of Brazil, I left the school noticing a certain anxiety from students and fellow teachers, not knowing whom to vote for in the next presidential and regional elections this coming October. Despite all the recent corruption scandals involving politicians (e.g., Operation Car Wash) and general discouragement, exercising our right and duty to vote is still one of the tools that allow us to affect change. In this article, I wish to present some of the challenges faced in the public school system and possible solutions on how to overcome them, all of which will demand political action.

Education has a long way from becoming a national priority, despite its capacity of reducing inequalities since there is a direct relationship between years of study and an increase in productivity and income. Assuming its importance is urgent for the country has enormous issues to solve such as an unemployment rate of 12.4% (13 million workers); over 57.000 murders a year (28.5 per 100.000 inhabitants) and a social inequality (51,3 on the GINI Index) that persists since 1960, even with the implementation of public policies aimed at distributing income and fighting hunger (e.g., Bolsa Família Program). In addition, looking at the political landscape also makes Brazilians realize the complexity of the current scenario.

In a country as plural as Brazil, our Congress has a worrisome composition of mainly white men, averaging 58 years old, and a low representation of women and minorities among the political leaders. Women make up only 10% of the House of Representatives and 16% of the Senate. In Brazil, voting is compulsory for citizens 18 years and above, and optional for those between 16 and 18 years old or older than 70. Therefore, promoting opportunities for political participation in school is especially relevant in a country marked by extremes in income levels and opportunities.

Nowadays, as a teacher, I have the privilege of participating in the guidance of young people from public schools who have the potential of achieving the same level of proficiency as the most brilliant minds in the world. However, a significant portion of those who complete primary education in Brazil can’t understand basic information in a world that is ever more complex, interconnected and digital. Around 27% of Brazilians between 15 and 60 years are functionally illiterate, being able to deal only with short and elementary texts. Our students currently rank 66th in Mathematics in the PISA ranking (2015), the primary evaluation of educational systems, behind countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Moldavia, nations much poorer than ours.  

Standardized tests are of great importance, but as a teacher myself, I often wonder if the current educational system in Brazil can develop our students’ non-cognitive competencies. The debate has become more present since the approval of an unprecedented National Common Curriculum Base (BNCC) in 2018. The guide stresses the rights of apprenticeship and the competencies and abilities that students throughout the country should develop during each school year- reinforcing the idea that learning mathematics and Portuguese are just as important as forming resilient, creative, communicative human beings that are capable of working together. In a world where the ability to solve problems and challenges will be more required than ever, remaining with a fragmented and decontextualized teaching in schools may end up privileging wealthier kids who have the conditions to pay for extra-curricular activities that boost such skills, which could considerably contribute to increasing inequality of opportunities for these kids in the future.

Brazil invests in public universities like European countries; however, the investment that goes into primary school is only half the average amount of OECD countries, once again increasing socioeconomic inequalities through an inefficient college admissions system. Those students who were born among the 25% most impoverished Brazilians have less than 7% chance of attending college, while the 25% richest have a 41% chance, a rate closer to those of developed countries such as Finland and Australia. My desire to be closer to the Brazilians who face this inequality daily was the reason why I decided to become a teacher in the first place.


Foto 1
Pedro and his 9th-grade students in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

Coming from a business background, I began my trajectory in the public education system two years ago through Ensina Brasil, an organization whose mission is to guarantee that “every child has a quality education.” Their program forms a network of people who want to lead changes in the country’s education and is linked to the American “Teach for All”. Having completed all my education in private institutions, I had until recently ignored that the vision of guaranteeing a quality education for all, however inspiring, is not enough to attract young professionals to an increasingly challenging and less attractive career.

Recent research shows that less than 3% of young Brazilians wish to become teachers, which evidence the lack of prestige of the teaching career. Furthermore, of the existing teaching body, a very small number come from the best universities in the country. In addition, 49% of the teachers don’t recommend their profession: they are overworked and underpaid (a secondary education teacher earns on average US$ 928 per month), and they lack opportunities to continue educating themselves. How can we expect improvement in the learning process if one of the main actors is not recognized by society (and the market) anymore?

In the coming elections, all of us should be thinking about how can local and state governments advance the supply of a quality education where the demand for professors is high, but their geographic distribution is unequal. How can those who obtained a quality education find enough incentives (moral, intellectual or financial) to become teachers and support the rest of the population in their journey as citizens? Given the low appreciation teachers in the country receive, as of now, individuals, families, entrepreneurs, and governments do not recognize education as one of the most important tools in reducing poverty. In 2018, Brazil risks going back to the Hunger Map since there are currently more than 14 million Brazilians (7% of the population) living with less than $ 1.5 per capita a day.

In order to change this scenario, the 13 presidential candidates will need to face this enormous challenge head-on. Currently, the responsibilities in Education are shared between the Federal government (Higher Education), State government (High School) and municipalities (Middle and Elementary school), making the allocation of resources and the cost per student in the different stages in the educational system a complicated matter. The three crucial points for the coming years are the implementation of the National Common Curriculum Base (BNCC), the reform of secondary education and the urgent reformulation of the teachers training policy.

Regarding BNCC, the challenge lies in reworking the State and Municipal curricula in the face of the new national guidelines. The Middle School reform has received little public support so far. It needs to gain legitimacy and make the school a more attractive place for the young Brazilian, who is now dealing with the choice between staying in school or entering the job market early.

Teacher training policies in Brazil, which have privileged theoretical over practical knowledge, are in dire need of change. The new curricula require skills and competencies for which many teachers have not been prepared. Because of that, it is essential to advance in strategies to attract, develop and retain the most talented students in the teaching career; and lastly that the teaching systems, both public and private, rethink their strategy of continuous training and that other agents complement the offer of teacher training courses.

Against all odds, I still hope that my students, fellow teachers, and families realize their importance in becoming political/social agents in their communities and that they feel empowered to engage in the struggle for a more participative, equal and just society. We have the opportunity, this October, to begin a process of political renovation – a necessary path to initiate a new cycle based on representation, diversity, and dialogue between political parties and society. Only then will we have a chance of developing long-term public policies based on the idea that quality education can generate, amplify and distribute opportunities for all.


Brazil Talk

Pedro Sarvat is a member of Ensina Brasil and teacher at E.E Élia França Cardoso and E.E Teotônio Vilela, both schools are in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.

Education, National Politics

What We Can Learn from Google

by Laura Ribeiro, MPA Candidate 2018

The news of Google’s downturn this past trimester shocked the world and raised serious questions about effective management and product delivery. Indicators on employee performance and financial returns tanked in an unprecedented way. When interviewed, the CEO argued that he wasn’t to blame for the bad outcomes, and that the government or the community should be held accountable for not supporting the enterprise.

Of course, the previous paragraph is a lie (don’t worry, Google is very much alive and well), but why don’t we see the same standards of efficiency and employee performance being set for our public education system? Why are our “school CEOs” so exempt of responsibilities? (more…)

Blog, Economy, Education, National Politics, Society

Saving the Lost Generation

by Isabela Messias, MIA candidate 2017 at SIPA

Brazil has been going through a lot lately: an impeachment process, a corruption scandal and an economic crisis that has plunged Brazilian GDP by 3.8 percent in 2015. Worldwide, a number of newspapers and TV channels have been discussing the crisis and its negative consequences for the country. Media outlets have mentioned the possible effects the crisis may have on Brazilian democracy, on the future economy, on investments, and on many other areas and sectors. (more…)

Education, Society

Bullying and Education: Do Schools Make Students Angry?

by Ana Carolina C D’Agostini

We all know deep in our hearts that wearing uniforms is a method of control. One of the aims of school is to get you used to the idea of obeying orders and to make you biddable. Sitting in rows, getting there on time, changing activity every 40 minutes, were useful if you were going to cannon fodder of factory fodder or office fodder. But it isn’t so useful these days, when there is more call for creativity.[1]

Bullying embodies a common phenomenon which can be extremely damaging for students’ mental health and academic accomplishment. Bullying is centered on a “subset of aggressive behavior that has potential to cause physical or psychological harm to the recipient”[2] and it includes “noxious and constant actions by one individual against another that can be even not so easily recognizable, as it comprises exclusion and repudiation from a group”[3]. A range of existing work and theories depict bullies and victims as part of childhood and adolescence, especially in schools. In addition, common sense seems to dictate that “few individuals navigate their way through adolescence without being teased and bullied”[4].

This phenomenon has not been well investigated in research in Brazil as the predominant assumption is that bullying within relationships between children is inescapable. A closer examination of this matter can broaden our understanding that it might not be mere coincidence that bullying, as a form of violence, frequently occurs in schools. The current findings and theories on bullying bring to light the difficulty of explaining bullying behavior, particularly when addressing why would bullies act violently against their victims in an environment that was supposedly created for their education, development and well-being.

Bullying is an intense attitude among early adolescents because “students who bully do so to attain social position and maintain control over others”[5]. Moreover, there is a solid relationship between anger and bullying behavior, as there is also the absence of being capable of making use of “nonviolent strategies, such as talking out a disagreement, as well as lack of intentions to use those strategies”. [6]

This initial description about bullying fosters the debate into those aspects related to violence and to hatred. Data shows that more than 20.8% of elementary, middle school and high school students have suffered bullying at school in Brazil[7]. Like other forms of aggression, bullying occurs in a social context. This raises an important point to further investigate what is it so particular about schools that makes this kind of violence arise?

Schools have consistently been the instrument of society’s need to convert children into adults with most definite and objective means and leave childhood behind. As an ultimate goal, children need to have to conform to adulthood that intends “to direct them away from childhood freedoms and toward adult beliefs and practices”[8],  and to follow standards which “have little to do with the child but rather what the child must become”[9]. Along the same lines, schooling throughout history has regularly presented a steadfast battle “between education for control in order to produce citizens and workers who were conformist, passive and politically docile” opposed to educating for “critical consciousness, individual liberation and participatory democracy” [10].

A significant number of students feel unsafe at school due to bullying but do not seek assistance because they have the impression that teachers and administrators will not do anything about the aggression. This piece of evidence calls attention to the fundamental role that school’s staff play in preventing bullying behavior, as victims can “be taught appropriate self-assertion techniques and interactive skills”. Bullies need to be aware of the implication of public policies that should be made known to all students and parents before school begins, such as “bullying is a social process that requires a concerted reaction from teachers, parents and other pupils”[11].

An analysis of how the educational system was implemented and the significance of schools showed that such places have consistently been instruments of control that “clearly our Puritan ancestors utilized schools such as they were to contain the potentially disastrous inclinations of youth”[12].  Similarly, authoritarianism can be seen as a basis on which most schools function, “where pupil’s rights, needs and feelings can too readily be ignored or suppressed and where it is difficult for teachers and pupils to act independently and to critique and challenge dominant social and political orthodoxies”[13].  On the same line of thought, education in a more extensive sense shows the presence of power as a source of symbolic violence, which includes the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power”[14], a pedagogic authority. In a concurrent view, there is strong evidence that most schools function in an authoritarian rather than democratic form, and that “education in democracy, human rights and critical awareness is not a primary characteristic of the majority of schooling”[15].

As an alternative to this problem, a “pedagogy of discomfort” aims to invite students and educators to examine the fear of change in the educational environment that activates emotions and discomforts arising from questioning old assumptions. As a result, adjustments and changes in the educational system are slowed. To solve this issue, a collective critical inquiry from both educators and students, could help them “engage in collective self-reflection regarding the reasons for our emotions”[16].

In addressing bullying, the notions of peace education were implemented in one project in England and the authors concluded that this model offered an interesting perspective to violence in schools as it proposed the acquisition of learning interpersonal skills to reduce violence and hatred. This model points out to the importance of establishing goals to discuss the appropriate “values for the practice of conflict resolution, communication and co-operation in relation to issues of peace, war, violence, conflict and injustice”[17].

Putting things together, there are a number of different approaches to troubling questions about bullying. These questions concern authority and arbitrary power as frequent themes when discussing conditions that can produce violence at school. Authoritarianism and arbitrary power leave no space for discussion and dialogue of student’s learning processes, as the adult-centered perspective yield absolute power and uncontested knowledge. Furthermore, the shortened childhood and the difficulty in addressing student’s feelings at schools are potential roots of manifestations of violence in the educational systems.

Bullying is a prevailing phenomenon that should not be underestimated. Despite the many rather simplistic views in society that bullying is “normal” and expected to take place during school years, the fact is that this complex scenario may contribute to the understanding that students may have reasons to be “angry” with schools.

Ana Carolina C D’Agostini holds a degree in Psychology and Education. She is currently a Master’s student in Psychology in Education at Columbia University. She believes education is the most crucial area to accelerate social change and for the development of Brazil.

[1] Times Educational Supplement, UK,  3/10/2003

[2] Bosworth, Espelage and Simon, 1999, p.343

[3] Olweus, 1991

[4] Leary, Kowalski, Smith and Phillips, 2003, p.211

[5] Bosworth et al.,1999, p.358

[6] Bosworth et al.,1999, p.358

[7] Ministério da Saúde e do Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), 2015

[8] Zucherman, 1997, p.127

[9] Zucherman, 1997, p.127

[10] Harber and Sackade, 2009, p.173

[11]  Batsche and Knoff, 1994, p.80

[12] Zuckerman, p.1997, p.133

[13] Harber, 2004, p.20

[14] Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990, p.05

[15] Harber et al. , 2009, p.172

[16] Boler, 1999, p.192

[17] Harber et al., 2009, p.174

Education, Society

The Hidden Scandal: Corruption in the Brazilian Public Education System

On October 2, 2009, Brazil was announced the winner of the 2016 Summer Olympic bid in Copenhagen, Denmark.

President Lula, holding a handkerchief over his watering eyes, famously wept tears of joy, later proclaiming, “The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.”

Brazil is the first South American country to win an Olympic bid, and consistent social and economic growth has helped make this victory possible. From 1980 to present, Brazil’s Human Development Index has increased dramatically from low human development at 0.547 to high with 0.755. The mean years of schooling has more than quadrupled since the mid-80’s, allowing access to education for millions more Brazilians than was previously possible.

Despite the country’s relative economic and social success in the past thirty years, a myriad of issues still plague the upward development of Brazil. One such issue has caste an international spotlight on Brazil, and that is none other than systematic and rampant corruption.

Operation Lava Jato, the federal investigation of corruption allegations from state-owned oil company, Petrobras, has received worldwide publicity. The New York Times estimates that bribes total over 3 billion USD, and news sources note the investigation has resulted in at least 80 individual charges, 117 indictments, and 13 criminal cases with companies. Media coverage has only intensified in scrutiny as allegations purport that Brazilian police involved in Operation Lava Jato plan to investigate over 10 billion USD in corrupt construction contracts linked to Olympic infrastructure. In total, the amount of money lost connected to Petrobras alone exceeds the 2014 GDP of Liberia, and while the world scrupulously watches the scandal unfold, corruption of another kind remains hidden.

In August 2015, Lidiane Leite da Silva—ex-mayor of Bom Jardim, a rural northeastern municipality—fled her mayoral post after allegations of embezzling 4 million USD in educational funds earmarked for school meals and infrastructure. Leite is notorious for governing Bom Jardim from a distance in the capital of São Luis by using Whatsapp to communicate with staff. Parents consistently stated their children did not receive school meals while Leite was in office, leaving children without an important source of daily sustenance for many in rural areas. Instead, Leite flaunted her wealth on Instagram as she used public finances for personal gain at the expense of children obtaining resources for an adequate, accessible education.

Escolas, Bom Jardim, Maranhão
Photo Credit: BBC

Education became dramatically more accessible after 1998 with the establishment of FUNDEF, the Fund for Maintenance and Development of Basic Education and the Valorization of Educational Professionals. Given vast socioeconomic differences between the 26 Brazilian states, the federal government established a pool of funds to equalize educational expenditures nationwide and establish spending minimums. States contribute three-fifths of state revenues to the federal government, and money is redistributed back to municipalities based on need.

Unfortunately, oversight and transparency councils that monitor education spending are ineffective, poorly resourced, and frequently captured by local politicians. A lack of accountability in public education spending allows politicians like Leite to easily embezzle funds, and at least four corruption scandals demonstrate the frequency of corruption occurring within the Brazilian public education system.

São Paulo, Bahia, Amapá, and Maranhão are four states, among others, that have been federally investigated by police and the Comptroller General of the Union, the federal anti-corruption branch, for widespread corruption of educational funds from 2007 to present. Examination of the scandals using local media sources and police documents reveals total losses of roughly 83 million USD. With this money, 103, 750 additional primary school students could have enrolled in school using 2010 federal minimum spending estimates and urban school construction plans. This equates to closing roughly 133 medium size urban primary schools for one year due to these four corruption scandals alone. The scandals vary in severity and dollar amount from 15 million in Bahia and 59 million in Amapá; however, one aspect they all have in common is the potential to decrease educational attainment for children studying in municipalities where corruption is present.

Of the four analyzed states, there is a strong correlation between students studying in areas where corruption occurs and underperformance in schools. Analysis using Brazilian Ministry of Education data shows that of the 31 named municipalities affected by corruption in schools, 68% of the time students did not meet their educational goals.[1] With millions of dollars being siphoned off to public officials for private gain, corruption in education puts children at the risk of being denied access to educational resources that help support their human development. Harkening back to Brazil’s social and economic growth, the government will need to address corruption scandals in all sectors of Brazilian society if it wishes to continue to support the full potential of its citizen base. Ensuring all educational investments reach students and schools and not corrupted public officials is a solid first step to reforming a public education system plagued with teacher dissatisfaction and high drop out rates.

A public education sector permeated with corruption has left the country in a difficult situation. Brazil is equally as successful as it is troubled. From one angle, the world praises Brazil for its rapid development and international undertaking to host the Olympics. From another, international media attention and investigations surrounding Petrobras and mega-events expose corruption scandals, leaving others hidden. While necessary measures must be addressed to resolve publicized corruption scandals, corruption in the Brazilian public education system poses a real threat to the future development of the country.

[1] The Ministry of Education sets educational goals using the Index of Basic Education and Development (IBED). The index is calculated using national test scores and passing rates, and geographical units—such as states, municipalities, or individual schools—are assigned an index goal to meet.