Addressing the challenges and the future of education involves recognizing that we are facing an unprecedented context, which is not solely the result of the pandemic and a complex global geopolitical and economic scenario. It is also a consequence of the structural issues that the region was already facing, combined with other persistent global challenges like climate change, migration, and conflict.
In the wake of the COVID-19 shock, there has been talk of a second lost decade for Latin America and the Caribbean. This needs to be put into perspective: Today the region is not the same as it was in the 1980’s. The region became more resilient, in terms of macro capacity and stabilization, to withstand external shocks through its economic and financial policies. However, it continues to display major inequalities: Its Achilles’ heel is still social policy.
In the 1980s, the region’s economic decline had strong social repercussions. Referring precisely to that period in a recent article (in Spanish), Colombia’s current Minister of Finance, José [M1] Antonio Ocampo, pointed out that “Latin America would only return to 1980 poverty levels in 2004, so in this respect not only a decade but a whole quarter of a century has been lost.”
In this same vein, forty years later at least 5 million people in Latin America joined the statistics of extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, a setback of almost three decades on this front. Poverty has increased, and so has inequality. By 2019, the richest 10% already held, on average, more than half of the national income. As a result of the pandemic some countries experienced increases in inequality of between 5% and 8% on the Gini index.
Not Just a Lost Decade but a Lost Generation
Crises do not affect everyone equally. The region is facing high inflation rates that expose it to increasing levels of nutrition and food insecurity due to rising food prices.
Three characteristics of the regional crisis:
It Mainly Affects Young People.
Recent estimates indicate that 45.4% of people under 18 years of age were [M1] living in poverty in Latin America in 2022. So rather than a lost decade, we should speak of a lost generation. That is why today it is imperative to be concerned and take care of young people, as we stated in a report we published last year.
The Lack of Skills Impacts Productivity.
Over the past 30 years, productivity in the region has grown at a 1% annual rate, which is extremely slow compared with other regions. Latin America and the Caribbean is lagging behind on three fronts: innovation, business climate, and skills. And this is important because we know that what actually makes a difference in terms of growth is the accumulation of skills, not the number of years of schooling. It is the value that we add to every hour spent working. Moreover, we have observed that, even though the region has come a long way in terms of access, over the past few decades there have been limited learning gains on average (the article referenced is in Spanish). With the de facto pandemic we have seen cumulative losses of up to two full years of learning, coupled with heightened inequality.
In other words, any promise of education as a vehicle for social mobility and transformation has been shattered.
- There are scarce opportunities for young people: One in five young people were neither studying nor working long before the pandemic started (2016).
- Youth unemployment is persistent, and it was intensified by the COVID-19 crisis: Latin America is projected to have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, even after the postpandemic recovery, that is, 21%, compared with 8% in North America and 15% in Asia.
Inequality and Social Unrest
Most people in Latin America perceive unfairness regarding not only the distribution of income and opportunities, but also the access to and quality of public services and legal guarantees. These adverse conditions generate social unrest, which translates into greater polarization and dissatisfaction with institutions. Young people in the region are increasingly unsatisfied with democracy, both in absolute terms and compared with other age groups.
The latest Latinobarómetro (a pollster in Santiago, Chile) shows that support for democracy among people under 25 years of age is lower than that of other age groups, and this group indicated the greatest preference for an authoritarian alternative. In other words, there are civic education problems and a disconnect between promises made by a procedural democracy and those of a substantive democracy that offers all citizens real opportunities to exercise equal rights and freedoms. The starting point for deepening democracy beyond processes is providing social services: quality health and education.
Can Education Accomplish What Economic and Financial Policies Did?
I am aware of the troubling picture that I have just painted. However, I choose to look to the future with the belief that we can change this scenario, so I would like to share some thoughts on what we can do in 2023. Our goal: Building more resilient societies.
The key lies in transforming our educational systems. This is not about making marginal tweaks. It is about making structural changes, such as those the region accomplished in its financial and economic policies and stabilization systems.
To achieve this, we must take action in three areas:
- Digital transformation, by providing connectivity for and digitizing educational services. The EdTech sector is among the least developed. In fact, it lags far behind other essential services, such as healthcare. Connectivity is key to ensure educational service continuity (i.e., access) and improve its quality, equity, and relevance. Nowadays connectivity makes a marked difference between rich and poor, or remote and urban.
When most economic, social, and educational activity starts to depend on a broadband cable, access ceases to be a simple alternative and becomes a right. Connectivity can no longer be a luxury item. We cannot envision an educational model that helps young people connect to better financial and quality-of-life opportunities if service does not include connectivity and access to the digital world.
(2) Reinventing the classroom, changing the educational experience for students in and out of school. For this to happen, students need to finish school ready for life and able to continue training in job-ready skills. Reinventing the classroom means that, in the 21st century, it is not acceptable that our young people do not understand a text when they read it, nor know how to handle basic math concepts. But in addition to reading, writing, and performing basic numerical operations, none of them are going to have a real chance of engaging effectively in social and economic life if they do not have digital skills, critical thinking, or the ability to communicate effectively with others, collaborate, and work as part of a team. These are key skills for nonroutine functions that cannot be replaced by machines.
This means that we need to start lengthening the school day and investing in teachers. We cannot provide students with what they need for life or work in four classroom hours which, in some cases, end up being less than three actual hours. And in order to lengthen the school day, schools must meet certain basic requirements, such as school meals and psychological support, because students cannot learn when they are hungry, or when they are suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression.
Lastly, if half the young people are not in school, we have to think about the options we are going to offer them so that they can resume their educational pathways and continue their education.
- Smart spending. Within a high-demand, fiscally constrained context, we need to manage social spending with laser-sharp accuracy by minimizing inefficiencies and maximizing the impact of every dollar invested. There is room for improvement in several major investment areas in order for spending to be more effective and equitable: infrastructure, teachers, school meals, and transportation.
To this end, it is essential to develop, strengthen, and professionalize education management and information systems by digitizing and processing nominal data on students and teachers. This is a major pending task that will help improve the quality of the data we use for planning educational investment, as well as generate a space for understanding and dialogue between ministers of education and ministers of finance. One of the main challenges regarding educational financing is that they do not speak the same language. This problem has a solution and its implementation requires political will.
The region still has unfinished business: social policy and, in particular, education. History shows that after the last great crisis, the region recovered its macroeconomic indicators faster than its social indicators. History seems to be repeating itself, but today we no longer have a margin for error, nor can we postpone investment in human capital and skills any longer. Macro stability is key to achieving more resilient societies and addressing inequality; but intentionally investing social spending where and how it is most needed cannot be postponed.
What are the main social challenges in your country? Do you believe that it is important to transform education in order to address inequality in the region? Leave a comment below!
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