Reflections on LAC’s profound education crisis and our role as development partners
An estimated 3.5 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) dropped out of school during the pandemic. The statistics are mindboggling and unsettling. The consequent sense of urgency, while overdue, is an undeniable opportunity.
Education in LAC is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, impacting millions of children and youth who have dropped out of school or experienced massive learning losses as a result of the pandemic. While countries across the world grappled with the same disruption, the impact is particularly acute and concerning in LAC, which saw some of the world’s longest school closures with some countries still in the process of reopening.
Low connectivity, lack of teacher training and tools, and poor caregiver engagement exacerbated the region’s historically weak and inflexible education systems which were unable to respond to the disruptions generated by the pandemic. Consequently, a huge portion of LAC’s students, and more often than not the most disadvantaged, were left behind as schools and teachers could not pivot to blended and remote learning in ways that were accessible for all learners.
LAC’s education system failure has deepened the region’s severe inequality, widened urban-rural gaps, reduced recent gains in gender equality, and worsened the social discontent with public institutions. Despite commendable efforts made by governments, donors, and other development partners, the most vulnerable populations suffered the most.
That is – the impact was dramatically unequal. LAC’s more affluent children continued to be engaged in learning through private schools that have better trained, equipped, paid, and motivated teachers, while their educated parents were able to support them and provide meals, devices, and connectivity. Meanwhile, most poor and vulnerable children and youth were in households where concern about economic losses and uncertainty prevailed, unable to access much needed school meals, and incapable of paying for data or accessing devices.
The result? Sobering. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that the massive drop outs which occurred during the pandemic will result in an average cumulative learning gap that is 2.5 years higher for students from low-income versus higher-income households. The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) warns that the probability of completing secondary school will fall from 56 percent to 42 percent because of the pandemic, while the World Bank cautions of a staggering increase in learning poverty that could reach more than 20 percent or roughly 7.6 million learners, suggesting that about two out of every three primary school students in LAC will not be able to read or understand age-appropriate texts.
Learning losses will translate into reduced opportunities for social mobility – one of the primary causes of irregular migration – leading to economic costs of foregone earnings, further exacerbating the region’s inequality, and obstructing its growth. Finally, the pandemic’s substantial negative effects on students’ physical, mental, and emotional health may increase youth’s vulnerability to adopting risky behaviors, such as gang affiliation or radicalization by online misinformation.
OPPORTUNITIES TO TRANSFORM EDUCATION
Despite these challenges, there are silver linings. For example, the pandemic forced educators to create new and different ways of teaching that ultimately resulted in pedagogical and curriculum innovations.
Creative’s Global Advisory Board member Fernando Reimers, Ed.D, Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice in International Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, testified to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee about insights from 45 case studies in the LAC region that explored how educators, communities, parents and students were able to pivot to offer some level of instruction during COVID-19 closures.
Forward to minute 20 to watch Professor Reimers testimony.
“To some extent, the case studies illustrate the possibility of true collective leadership, in which various stakeholders come together to collaborate for the purpose of improving the performance of the education system,” Professor Reimers outlined in his Sept. 15 testimony, Learning Loss in Latin America and the Caribbean: Building Better Education Systems in the Wake of the Pandemic. “The challenges of achieving effective leadership are well known, one of the reasons the ‘system’ aspect of the education system is broken, and it is somewhat counterintuitive that in a context in which each of the stakeholders who came together in service of the greater good was in turn more challenged by the pandemic, that this would create the occasion for out of the ordinary collaboration.”
A second witness, Gabriel Sánchez-Zinny, Senior Managing Director of Blue Star Strategies and ex Minister of Education of the province of Buenos Aires, echoed the opportunities brought about by the pandemic, as the region takes a closer look at overdue reforms. These include improving teaching careers and measuring performance more effectively, evaluating schools and teachers in modern ways, generating precise information systems, building a better transition from high school to the working world, and advancing public-private partnerships to invest in the connectivity of schools and families and to strengthen local online learning ecosystems.
In this vein, a third witness, Leandro Folgar, President of Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal, gave first-hand testimony of the virtues of having long-term, consistent policies and programs in education. Plan Ceibal, which has promoted school connectivity and digital skills in teachers and students in Uruguay for the past 13 years, enabled the country to seamlessly pivot during the pandemic and support learning continuity. Folgar emphasized the key role that technology plays in creating resilient education systems, and that even though “technology is not the solution to all education challenges, there is no future in education without technology.”
Speaking to seizing emerging opportunities, the effectiveness of collective leadership evidenced during the pandemic and emphasized by Reimers in his intervention represents an important collective opportunity. And here lies the role of development partners, like Creative, as we too are driving innovations and transforming education through our locally led approach to strengthening education systems and not just education projects.
Creative’s systems strengthening approach is fit-for-purpose, as we take into account the systemic relationships and leverage the power of students, teachers, school directors, communities, local and central governments, private sector and civil society.
It behooves us – and all development partners — to involve these actors in a sustainable way. A commitment to locally led development must intentionally develop leadership capabilities in local partners for sustained local direction. We must also continue to strive for and develop technical excellence; use evidence to inform and develop community-focused initiatives and support the inclusion of groups in situations of marginalization or vulnerability, especially in a region like LAC.
THE U.N. TRANSFORMING EDUCATION SUMMIT’S ROLE
More silver linings? The world is paying attention to the education crisis. As Professor Reimers noted in his concluding remarks: “Solutions to the crisis require a whole-of-society effort and collective leadership: government, civil society, and the private sector.”
Reimers further emphasized the relevance of the Sept. 16 to 19 U.N. Transforming Education Summit — organized to address learning loss during the pandemic and the need to reach the Sustainable Development Goal Number 4, Quality Education – not as a one-off event, but as a point of departure that sets a collective path to overcome these challenges through transformational change for all children and youth – everywhere.
Speaking at the opening of the Summit, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged world leaders to take action. “We know education transforms lives, economies and societies, but we also know that we must transform education because it is in a deep crisis. Instead of being a great equalizer, education is fast becoming the great divider,” Guterres said Sept. 19.
Professor Reimers emphasized that the Summit places education at the top of the agenda for governments, educators, students and communities as they attempt to deal with issues beyond the classroom.
“The challenges of democratic backsliding, social fragmentation, increasing social conflict within and across nations, growing poverty, inequality and climate change – none of those challenges can be addressed without education as the bedrock,” concluded Reimers.
It is a privilege and a responsibility for Creative to be part of this great team of partners that seek to work together to transform education and through that transformation drive a more prosperous, safe, sustainable, and equitable future in Latin America and the Caribbean and the rest of the world.
Claudia Salazar Suarez is a Senior Technical Manager, LAC Specialist, Education for Development Division and Rebecca Stone is Technical Director, Education for Development Division.