It is necessary to stop boasting about the shame, bragging that
95 percent of Brazilian children are in school, instead of apologizing
because, five percent of our children have never attended school.
We have no right to manipulate the data to give
the impression that things are going well.
Brazil was shocked that the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ranked it as
one of the worst countries, among 41 others, in the area of education. This result is even sadder and more shameful when
three facts are considered.
First, the UNESCO analysis takes into account only children and young people who are in school; it did not consider
the millions who do not even attend classes. This year, 5.6 million Brazilian public-school students are in first grade and
only 1.8 million are in the final year of high school.
That indicates that about 30 percent of our children between the ages of 6 and 17 are not in school. They do not even
appear in the UNESCO report; if they did, our situation would appear much worse.
Second, we are the worst of all, if we consider our wealth, our revenue, our social organization, and the strength of
the Brazilian public sector. The countries that occupy rankings similar to ours are poorer, without governmental revenue
or universities at the level of ours.
Third, upon analyzing the shame of ranking among the worst countries of the world in terms of education, we forget
to analyze those ranked among the first. Three decades ago, at least three of the countries with high rankings were in a
situation similar to that of ours. We did not make the same improvement because we set other priorities.
Thirty years ago, Ireland was a poor country with a high rate of illiteracy and a poorly educated population: its
ranking was among the lowest in Europe.
When the possibility of entering the European Economic Community arose in 1973, the three Irish political parties
at that time brought together a group of people, chosen from national figures and political leaders, to answer a question:
what should be done to transform Ireland into a developed country facing the future?
Instead of investing in more economic infrastructure and wasteful public buildings, the country decided it would
concentrate its investments for the decades to come, independently of electoral results, upon three objectives: free, quality
healthcare for all; excellent education for all; and state-of-the-art science and technology.
Since then, Ireland has continued to prioritize investments in education for its people. The results can be found in
the same report that shamed Brazil: today Ireland is one of the countries with the best education in the entire world.
But not only Ireland has done this. In the beginning of the 1970s, Spain had an illiteracy index almost equal to that
of Brazil today. Its schools were for the few and had a quality inferior to those of almost every other country in Europe.
In those years, Spain reoriented its priorities, making education a central project. Since then, the country has
changed governments many times, but the education sector has remained a priority. Today Spain does not have adult illiteracy;
every Spanish child is in school and learning; the country has a high-quality university system and has one of the first rankings
in the UNESCO classification.
But not only these two countries have done this. South Korea, which was ranked ahead of Spain and Ireland, began
the 1960s with all the scars of a long civil war: it was a poor, rural, uneducated country. Forty years later it occupies the
first place in some categories. This was accomplished thanks to a systematic policy of investing in education.
The results were not only evident in education. By means of it, these countries managed to make an immense
economic advance, increasing their revenue, exportations, employment rate, and international respect.
Brazil can do the same. When these countries decided to give priority to the educational sector, they had economies
that were poorer than Brazil’s and governments with revenues lower than ours. The difference is that they could count on a
coalition that went beyond party politics, one capable of building the political will necessary to set the national priority. Like the
one that Brazil has had, since the 1950s, in favor of industrialization and the construction of a powerful infrastructure.
Little would be needed so that Brazil, in the next 30 years, could become a world leader in education.
First, it is necessary to put an end to the pretense that the country is educating its children only because it is
succeeding in matriculating a few more students. Education is so important that no government has the right to manipulate the data
to give the impression that things are going well.
Second, it is necessary to stop boasting about the shame, bragging that 95 percent of Brazilian children have
matriculated, instead of apologizing because, although it is the
21st century, five percent of our children have never attended school.
In other words, we must set the goal of matriculating 100 percent of Brazilian children and guaranteeing that they finish
high school, something that does not happen today for the one-third of Brazilian children and young people who abandon
school before graduating.
Third, it is necessary to guarantee that the children not only stay in school but that they learn, and the principal key
to this, beyond investments in equipment, is the teacher. It is necessary to ensure that the teacher becomes a well-paid,
well-prepared, dedicated professional: to invest in the teacher’s head, heart, and pocketbook.
This would cost much less than was spent to create an economic infrastructure; it would not cost more, over 15
years, than the equivalent of two Itaipu hydroelectric projects. Above all, it would cost much less than what will be needed in
20 to 30 years to correct the disasters stemming from the lack of education.
This demands a preliminary step: a large national coalition of political parties, states, municipalities, and the
federal government, as well as leaders of nonpolitical groups, all focused upon the objective of reaching 2022, the bicentennial
of Brazilian Independence, without the shame that we experienced from the UNESCO rankings.
The extensive press coverage given to the UNESCO rankings is proof of the importance that Brazil is beginning to
give education. In addition, we have a president, a government and a political party with a commitment to the educational sector.
For these reasons, change is possible and the time is now.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senator (Workers Party
– Federal District) and the
Brazilian Minister of Education.
Translated by Linda Jerome
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