Brazil v. Mexico: Tackling shins and inequality in education

Tonight’s headline match brings together two Latin American big shots. Brazil and Mexico have the region’s largest economies and populations. Both won their opening group games against Croatia and Cameroon with some great tackles. And both urgently need to tackle inequality in education.

ImageBy the time Mexican students turn fifteen, the learning gap between rich and poor equates to about 1.5 years of schooling (62 PISA points in maths in 2012). In Brazil, the gap is almost two years (77 pts). Their World Cup competitors Chile (108 pts) and Uruguay (99 pts) do even worse.

The Inter-American Development Bank finds that, across Latin America, more than half of all students failed to reach the so-called PISA baseline. This means that they can’t, for example, use basic maths formulas (let alone basic football formations). In two of Brazil’s struggling regions, Alagoas and Maranhão, only about one student in seven reached this baseline!

Happily, Brazil and Mexico appear to be making progress. Between 2003 and 2012, the gaps between rich and poor have closed (by 23 points in Brazil and 30 points in Mexico). Both countries have reduced their share of poor performers in maths (by 8 and 11 per cent respectively). With fewer poor performers, their overall results have improved too.

These improvements have come after major education reforms. In Brazil, schools have been set ambitious targets (a.k.a. golazos!) and need to account for the performance of their students. Teachers have been given more incentives to improve their methods and practices. Clever public spending programmes (like Bolsa Familia in Brazil and Oportunidades in Mexico) have helped families send children to school.

Nonetheless, it would be good to see more poor students overcome their socio-economic disadvantage – what the PISA folks call “resilient” students. The OECD and UNESCO agree: to achieve this, both Mexico and Brazil need to send more and better teachers to disadvantaged schools in rural areas.

Garrincha came from the poorest of rural families to become one of the greatest and most-loved footballers of all time. A resilient life of ups and downs.

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