Basic education in Brazil is in chaos. A little more
than 30% of students ever finish elementary school. Teachers’ salaries
are a joke with some receiving as little as $1.30 (that is one dollar and
thirty cents) per 45-minute class. Nobody is happy. There are islands of
excellence in some private schools, and higher education is reasonable.
But that is too little for the eighth largest economy in the world if it
wants to make any difference in the next millennium.
By Émerson Luís
Since the Dr. José Borba Elementary School in the small town
of Santa Maria da Vitória in the interior of Bahia had its inaugural
class given by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995, the 395-student
institution has not only gained notoriety, but also a series of benefits.
In the wake of the presidential visit, the state elementary school has
received new equipment, plenty of instructional material with a satellite
dish and a top of the line videocassette system on its way.
However, when the new school year started last February, Necy Braga,
Dr. José Borba’s director, was dealing with a serious problem: she
had no teachers for several classes and students were at risk of missing
an entire school year. The teaching staff, which was already small, has
shrunk to six after the recent retirement of five teachers. And the six
remaining instructors were working 40 hours week with each one in charge
of 16 classes. The Escola Estadual de Primeiro Grau Dr. José Borba’s
story is emblematic of the sorry state of education in Brazil. With a philosopher-sociologist
in the presidency, meaningful and lengthy discussions have been made about
the subject, and there have been constant promises of improvement. Reasonable
money is even being spent, but the results have been dismal.
On paper, Brazil offers the best education in the world. The constitution
assures free and compulsory education for every child from age 7 to 14.
In the South and Southeast, there is plenty of educational opportunity
for everybody, and 95% of children enroll on first grade when it is time
to do this. Even in the poorer states of the Northeast, enrollment for
beginners can reach 80%. The problem starts in second grade, since a quarter
of students never reach that level. On average, children frequent school
for 8.4 years, but are not able to move beyond the fifth grade. The differences
between the South and the Northeast are striking. While in the South the
illiteracy rate is 10% — a number close to that in the First World — in
the Northeast, the situation is much closer to that of Africa.
There are around 40 million children attending primeiro grau
(equivalent to an eight-year elementary school) and segundo grau
(secondary school including grade 9 to 12) in Brazil. Statistical data
from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)
show that only 33% of students who enter first grade stay in school until
the end of eighth grade, taking an average of 11 years to complete the
8-year series. In basic education, Brazilians are in last place in Latin
America. Eleven million students fail the grade every year.
Official data just-released by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund)
in its 1997 report on the situation of children around the world show that
5 million Brazilian children from ages 5 to 14 are already working, despite
the fact that it is illegal to work in Brazil before the age of 15. The
study was done in 1995 and 1996 with working children from São Paulo,
Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais state), Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul),
Goiânia (Goiás), Recife (Pernambuco), and Belém (Pará).
One third of these children started working before they were 10 years old.
Generally they have to work to help their families make ends meet. Among
them, the rate of repeating the year in school is between 60% and 70%.
Since the beginning of the century illiteracy in the country has been
decreasing at a rate of 6% a decade. While in the first decade of this
century, 65% of the population was illiterate, this number had fallen to
39% in 1960, 33.1% in 1970, 25.5% in 1980 and 20% in 1990.
Waste and Fraud
Despite the fact that 1996 was the Year of Education in Brazil, teachers
had a tough year. Almost anyone in the country — including household servants
— has a good chance to earn a better salary than a school teacher. Alfredo
Bosi, a professor of Brazilian literature at USP (University of São
Paulo) did a study of the compensation paid elementary teachers across
the county and found that a teacher makes an average $2 per class. To make
$500 a month, a teacher would need to work from 10 to 12 hours every day.
In some states such as Paraíba, a teacher earns $104 a month,
or $1.30 per class. In Minas, where a supposed revolution in education
is going on, monthly salaries are $255, or $2.70 per each class. São
Paulo, the richest state, is also the one that pays the best: a miserly
$2.98 per class. By actually teaching, it is impossible for a teacher to
earn the monthly $790 that according to DIEESE (Departamento Intersindical
de Estatística e Estudos Sociais/Inter-Union Department of Statistics
and Socio-Economic Studies) is the minimum a family of four needs to survive
The federal government has proposed a modest minimum $300 a month salary
for teachers across the country. Congress approved the measure, but the
pressure by governors and mayors has delayed the implementation of the
legislation. In a recent article on daily newspaper Folha de São
Paulo, Bosi commented: "The primacy of things over people continues.
Without teachers who are respected and stimulated, computers and TVs by
the thousands are virtual refuse. Didactic books without tutors who read
them and work with vim and enthusiasm are piles of paper destined to the
trash of oblivion."
The lack of schooling has hindered the ability of Brazil to compete
internationally. According to the CNI (Confederação Nacional
da Indústria /National Industry Confederation) a substantial amount
of workers who studied up to sixth grade are unable to properly read and
write and cannot deal with simple mathematical concepts, such as multiplying
or dividing. Hurt by the lack of schooling of their workers — it is estimated
that this is responsible for a 20% reduction in productivity — many companies
are creating their own schools inside the factories to teach courses from
basic education to high school.
Even Bolivia and Uruguay, considered less developed than Brazil, are
in much better shape educationally. For every 100 students in Uruguay,
86 conclude the eighth grade. In Bolivia, a country with a per-capita GDP
(Gross Domestic Product) three times smaller than Brazil’s — $1,531 compared
to Brazil’s $4,951— twice as many students (64%) stay in school until the
end of primeiro grau.
And the main problem is not money. Following Mexico, which uses 5.2%
of its GDP, Brazil is the second biggest spender in education in Latin
America, dedicating 4.6% of its GDP, and 17.7% of the federal budget to
this sector. Why, despite spending $26.6 billion last year, is the education
system in Brazil still so dismal? According to the MEC (Ministério
da Educação e Desportos/Ministry of Education and Sports),
the money applied hasn’t been enough to improve the situation because the
resources have been badly distributed, badly administered, and in many
cases, used for other purposes.
"Money diversion is very common," says Eunice Ribeiro Durham,
MEC’s secretary of education policy. "Municipalities use the money
in their truck fleets, they build roads, they pave streets and so on."
The IPEA (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada/Institute of Applied
Economic Research) estimates that 50% of all resources destined for education
is diverted to something else or is simply embezzled.
Mirror of Injustice
Nobody is happy with this situation starting with Paulo Renato Souza,
the federal education minister, who likes to point out that the educational
chaos is just a mirror of the social injustice that permeates the country.
The minister has repeatedly talked about the need to improve education
and the ways he intends to do it. One of his first measures was to start
a media campaign with the catchy slogan "Wake Up, Brazil. It’s Time
to Go to School," to make society aware of the problem.
Souza says that his main achievement was the creation of the Development
Fund for Fundamental Teaching and Teachers Valorization, which should be
implemented in all states by January 1998. The Fund was incorporated into
the constitution and mandates that states and municipalities put aside
15% of their annual budget for basic schooling.
The ministry has been monitoring the learning of students via SAEB (Sistema
Nacional de Avaliação de Ensino Básico/National System
of Basic Teaching Evaluation). At the end of last year, the federal government
also started to gauge the quality of college instruction thanks to the
so-called provão (big exam), a voluntary test taken by students
at the end of the school year that will give subsidies to the CNE (Conselho
Nacional de Educação/National Education Counsel) in order
for the body to decide on renewal of licenses to offer courses.
"It is important to stress the importance of the approval, after
eight long years, of the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação
(Law of Directives and Bases of Education)," says Souza. "Here
is a law that is clear, direct and that opens new possibilities in all
levels of teaching. Thanks to this law, students will be able to enter
college without a vestibular." Many people are betting on the
new Lei de Diretrizes e Bases to help turn the situation around. Approved
in December by Congress, the legislation gives schools much more freedom
to elaborate their own curricula than before. Very few schools, however,
had the time to adapt to the new rules for the current school year, since
they were approved so late in the year.
Nowadays, the only way to get into a college in Brazil is via a multiple-choice
test called the vestibular. The government, for the first time this
year, will have a national test for students finishing high school. The
education minister hopes that the results will be used by colleges as one
of the criteria to fill their vacancies. The vestibular practice
has created a very profitable industry that prepares students to pass the
In an interview with Jornal do Brasil in February, minister Paulo
Renato Souza assessed the situation of education in Brazil: "We have
good quality public universities. In the last 25 years we were able to
create the best system of post-graduation of any developing country. But
we also have low quality colleges and very serious problems in the primary
and secondary levels, in public and private schools. I would say that our
big problem is the quality of teaching in the elementary school. The level
of evasion and years being repeated is way too high."
Souza says the problems have been accumulating for decades. "In
1960, we had a good public school system, but only 60% of the children
aged 7 to 14 were in school. Today 95% of these children are in school.
We lost the quality due to the lack of resources that didn’t match the
system’s necessary expansion. We need to break this circle. Our system
is socially perverse because it discriminates. Only 50% of the students
finish elementary school, but those who conclude get a quality education.
We had a closed model in which we had the luxury of taking care of a high
quality little segment and practically abandoning the rest. But today this
is not possible anymore."
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso believes that the measures taken
by his administration are "simple, objective and useful. All we need
is perseverance and a desire to succeed," he declared. "The government
must do its part but education is far too important to be only the government’s
concern. It must be an objective of the society as a whole. The parents
must supervise and stimulate their childrens’ studies at home and not hesitate
to ask for information and participate in school life. The media, which
divulges the problems in the educational system — and that’s good _ should
also report those experiences that deserve to be praised. Mayors and town
councilors need to respect education, and make sure that the funds are
There has been a series of isolated efforts to change all of this. Minas
Gerais, a leading state in the attempt to improve the situation, has a
simple but ambitious goal for the year 2000: eliminate repetition of grades.
Minas is being helped with a $40 million financing package from the World
Bank and is concentrating its effort on training its 90,000 teachers via
Procap (Projeto de Capacitação de Profissionais de Educação/Competency
Project for Education Professionals). Together with these 180-hour reengineering
courses for teachers, the state department of education has created the
so-called Ciclo Básico de Alfabetização (Basic Literacy
The CBA eliminates the notion of grades and repetition of year, creating
a continual course that goes from first to fourth grade. "We will
compensate for the problems of learning with extra attention to the children
using extra-curricular reinforcement," said Education co-secretary
João Batista dos Mares Guia in an interview with Rio’s daily Jornal
The state of Rio Grande do Sul decided that the best way to achieve
excellence in education is through the granting of financial autonomy to
its 3,344 schools. The intention is to eliminate a series of bureaucratic
hurdles allowing directors, who are elected in their own communities, to
program and pay for expenses without government interference. In November
1995, the state legislature approved the Lei de Gestão Democrática
(Democratic Management Law) that put the changes in place, but the legislation
did not take effect until November 1996. However, since 1989, Rio Grande
do Sul has instituted direct elections for school directors and encouraged
democratic participation in the administration of schools through the Conselhos
Escolares (School Councils). The state has become a success story with
a greater than 90% rate of children passing from first to second grade
in the first attempt.
São Paulo state started its escolas-padrão (model
schools) project in 1992. Two years later the state already had 2,225 of
these schools in every municipality. One of their unique characteristic
is the extended school year. While regular schools have 800 hours of classes
a year, the escolas-padrão offer 1,200 hours of courses.
In these schools, teachers have to dedicate 33 hours weekly to the school,
with seven of them reserved for extra-curricular activities. Since 1988,
São Paulo increased from three and a half to six hours the time
first and second-grade children spend daily at school.
One such escola-padrão is Escola Estadual Padre Tiago
Alberione in Cidade Júlia, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Greater
São Paulo. With 2,780 students, the school has achieved some dramatic
changes since the new program started in 1995, such as lowering the rate
of those repeating the year from 25% to 1.67%. The number of children abandoning
school has also decreased from a rate of 27% to 7%. Even the fact that
the school is close to Favela Buraco do Sapo (Frog’s Hole Shantytown),
a refuge of outlaws, hasn’t dampened the spirits at the establishment.
Closed to the community on weekdays, the school opens its gates on weekends
so the children from the neighborhood can use the sports facilities.
"This was possible," director Bete Marujo explained to Jornal
do Brasil, "thanks to a program that allows students to
carry to the next grade the classes they failed, as is common in college.
Remedial classes are given on Saturdays." The school has also developed
the concept of the environment-room. Children do not stay in one classroom
but circulate among them every 45 minutes, the duration of a class. Each
discipline has its own room with special decoration and materials pertinent
to the subject being taught.
A new phenomenon in the public schools is the increasing number of middle-class
students. They have been flocking to them in the last few years due to
the soaring price of private education. "This is one of the best news
in education this end of decade," says Minister Paulo Renato Souza.
"This will help the public schools to improve. We have examples that
clearly show that many public schools with the structures they have today
and better salaries are good when the parents participate in the PTA."
This change is more visible in the center and the south of the country.
Between 1970 and 1994, private pre-schools lost almost half their students.
While in 1970, the private schools had 40.8% of the pre-schoolers, this
number had fallen to 27.9% in 1994. In Rio, São Paulo, and Brasília,
the same trend appears in the elementary schools and, to a lesser degree
in the secondary schools. It is estimated that this year, 70,000 students
from the Paulista (from São Paulo) middle class transferred
from private to public schools. For most of them, it was the first time
they had ever entered a public classroom. According to the São Paulo
Department of Education, elementary and secondary private schools lost
10% of their students in 1997. In Rio, at least 15,000 children also abandoned
their private schools this year. In 1995, 8,000 Rio students transferred
from private to public schools and last year, the number doubled to 14,800.
After its TV- School program that only got lukewarm reviews, the Education
Ministry is spending big bucks in another controversial program: $480 million
until March 1998 that will buy 100,000 computers to be distributed in schools
all over the country. Almost half of the money (46%) will be used to train
the teachers how to use the equipment. The South and the Southeast will
get most (58,300) of the machines, with 21,800 staying in São Paulo.
The state of Rondônia will get the least: 200. All the computers
should be in place by the end of next year. Six thousand secondary schools
will benefit from the program. The acquisition of the computers will be
done through international bidding monitored by the World Bank.
Aware that most of the TV equipment from the TV-School plan that included
a satellite dish and a VCR is collecting dust due to the lack of interest
and training — many teachers never learned how to use and program the VCR
— the ministry is doing its homework this time. For two years now the program
has been discussed with experts from Brazil and foreign countries. Technicians
from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and London University
were consulted. By year’s end, 7,500 teachers will have finished their
training. And to receive the equipment, the school will need to have an
adequate and safe space to keep the computers. That means that in the hotter
states of the North, for example, the rooms will need air conditioning,
a rare luxury in any part of the country.
Brazil has more than 10,000 teachers already prepared to help their
students with computers. There are close to 500 computer labs in state
and municipal schools around the nation. Since 1971, when the University
of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos started using computers
in the classroom to teach physics, the country has been romancing the idea
of using computers in education. In 1975, Unicamp (University of Campinas)
in a program developed with MIT pioneered the use of the machines for teaching
children. Educom, the first national program to computerize education,
started in 1984. It was this initiative that gave birth to the research
centers that are now giving technical support to the schools.
Educators do not seem to agree on the so-called programa de informatização
(computerization program). There are those who defend it as a sine
qua non of Brazil’s development. According to American Frederic Litto,
scientific coordinator of USP’s Escola do Futuro (School of the Future),
even if only 20% of the students learn how to operate the computer, the
program can be considered a success. Others are not so sure. And there
are many critics, like Unicamp’s Eduardo Chaves, an expert in computers
in the classroom. "To buy computers is the easiest way the government
has to say that it is doing something for education," he says. For
him the main problem is not the lack of computers, but the lack of what
to say. "It won’t be a computer that will solve the problem of a teacher
who is not able to teach well," Chaves adds. Critics have also insisted
that the Education Ministry spend the close to half a million dollars put
aside to buy computers.to improve infra-structure in the schools and increase
The educational system in Brazil, a Federative Republic with 26 states
and a Federal District, is a partnership between the Union, the states,
and the municipalities. The federal government organizes and finances the
programs. The Union is also directly responsible for several universities,
and schools offering medium-level technological education, and agricultural
and technical schools.
There are two education levels in Brazil: basic or elementary and higher.
The first level goes from first grade to eleventh and the first eight years
are obligatory. Creches (nursery schools) deal with children from
0 to 3 years and pre-schools attend to children from 3 to 6.
Primeiro grau also called ensino fundamental: for children
from 7 to 14. Close to 70% of these schools are administered by the municipalities,
25% belong to the states, 6% are private and a mere 0.1% are federal.
Segundo grau also known as ensino médio: for youngsters
from 15 to 17. Close to 70% of these schools are administered by the states.
24% are private, 5% municipal and 2% federal.
Level ….Duration..Hours/Year ..Age/Requir.
Nursery ..variable …….variable…………0 to 3
Kinder… 3 years……… variable……….. 4 to 6
Elementary.. 8 years ……720 …………….7 or +
Secondary ..3 years …..2.220 ……..Elementary
University ..2 to 6 years variable …..Secondary
Post-Grad.. variable.. variable …to be a graduate
Mobral (Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização/Brazilian
Literacy Movement) was created amid great fanfare at the beginning of the
1970s by the military regime during the so-called lost decade. Their lofty
goal was to eradicate illiteracy from Brazil in 10 years. For that, the
whole society was called on to make its contribution. Churches, prisons
and private houses became schools for those who had already passed their
school years and still couldn’t read or write.
Every municipality in the country was reached by the action, but in
a few years the enthusiasm had passed and many of the new readers had already
forgotten the little they had learned. Studies have shown that 90% of the
people who participated in these courses ended up becoming functionally
In November 1985, President José Sarney, the first president
after the military surrendered power in 1980, signed Mobral out of existence.
There were still 20 million adults incapable of reading or writing at the
time. Today, Brazil has 40 million people who barely know how to write
their own names.
Why was Mobral a failure? "The movement didn’t work because it
dealt with illiteracy as if it were a campaign. Teaching literacy is a
continuous process and cannot be solved with magic," says Silvia Telles,
an expert in alphabetizing adults.
Commenting on the demise of Mobral, Vicente Barreto, the last president
of the movement, said: "As with almost everything else in the military
regime, Mobral suffered a deformation of its activities. At the end, the
literacy project had been forgotten, but the movement was sheltering even
groups in defense of the golden lion tamarin."
Since the demise of Mobral other projects to teach adults basic literacy
were started with little success. President Fernando Collor de Mello created
the PNAC (Plano Nacional de Alfabetização e Cidadania/National
Literacy and Citizenship Plan). The program did very little and was abandoned
for lack of interest and money. The plan was put in place by Education
Minister Carlos Chiarelli. His successor in the post, physicist José
Goldemberg, scrapped the whole project, calling it a waste of time. Goldemberg
started the trend to put more effort and money into elementary education
and this way avoid another generation of illiterate adults.
In 1993, Itamar Franco, who took over the presidency when Collor was
impeached, joined UNESCO and 70 other countries in a ten-year plan to stamp
out illiteracy by the year 2003. The Fernando Henrique administration,
however, seems to have reneged on this commitment. For the first time,
basic schooling gets the lion’s share of the available resources while
colleges get the rest. Illiterate adults, however, get nothing.
Why was Mobral a failure? "The movement didn’t work because and
it dealt with the illiteracy as if it were a campaign. Alphabetizing is
a continuous process and cannot be solved with magic," says Sílvia
Telles, an expert in alphabetizing adults.
Brazil, like many of its neighbors in Latin America, has concentrated
its resources on the university level. Every year, the country turns out
10,000 new doctors, masters, and post-graduates. Close to $1 billion is
used yearly to help the small universe of colleges. While Brazil spends
$140 a year on each elementary-school student, it lavishes $8000 — 57 times
more — on each college student.
There are close to 2,000 courses in post-graduation and doctoral studies
in the country. But in this case quantity is definitely a foe of quality.
By the Education Ministry’s own admission, more than half of the courses
should be closed for being inferior or plain useless. In addition, there
is an average of 15 professors for every post-graduate class in Brazil,
four times more than in the U.S.. In 1995, the weekly magazine Veja
revealed that the Universidade Federal da Paraíba’s physics
department had a post-graduate course with three students and 33 professors,
consuming $700,000 a year.
The number of undergraduate college programs has also exploded in the
last few years. There were 110 in 1986. Today there are close to 2,000.
Moreover, more than 60% of all college institutions are in the Southeast.
Seventy-five percent of colleges are private, 10% are municipal, 9% are
administered by the state and 6% are federal. Twenty two percent of college
students are in federal colleges, with 59% in private schools, 13% in state
colleges and the rest in municipal establishments. With a few notable exceptions,
private colleges generally have poorly trained teachers and no infrastructure,
when they are not plain moneymaking traps.
A Little History
Brazil’s first educators were the Jesuit priests who began arriving
in the country in 1549. For 200 years, they were essentially the only fulfilling
this role. Interested in spreading Catholicism, they started several missions
to "civilize" the Brazilian Indians, and it was in Jesuit schools
that the most privileged learned how to read and write and were taught
Latin, Greek, and philosophy. These students were being prepared to study
in the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal.
When the anticlerical King José I’s minister, Sebastião
José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782) and the
Portuguese chief minister from 1756 to 1777, decided to expel the Jesuits
from Portugal and all of its colonies, the responsibility for education
was given to the regal instructors who were paid by the Crown. To finance
that effort, the literary subsidy tax was created. But the absence of the
Jesuits was a blow to Brazilian culture.
It would take half a century and Napoleon to reinvigorate national education.
During his stay in Brazil, after fleeing the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal,
D. João VI created the military and naval academies. The first institution
of higher learning in Brazil was the Escola Médico-Cirúrgica
da Bahia, a medical school founded soon after the arrival of the Portuguese
sovereign. Little attention, however, was given to elementary schooling.
Since 1822, when Brazil declared independence from Portugal, the country
has upheld the notion that education is the state’s obligation. The 1824
constitution pledged "free elementary schooling to all citizens".
The 1827 Lei Geral da Instrução Pública (Public Instruction
General Law) was the first legislation ever to deal with elementary schools
and establish that girls also had the right to study. It also ordered the
creation of first-grade schools in every city, town, and village, a mandate
that was not implemented. It was also in 1827 that the Law Academies of
Olinda (state of Pernambuco) and São Paulo were created.
In 1911, the minister of Public Instruction, Post Office and Telegraphs,
Rivadávia Correia (1866-1920), prepared the Organic Law, which introduced
the concept of free teaching without the interference of the state. This
measure made possible the creation of several schools to teach pharmacy,
odontology, and law in the most populated centers of the country. The first
university was created only in 1913. It became the Universidade Federal
In the 1920s and 1930s, inspired by the European New School movement,
several states, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais
and Bahia, promoted reforms to reinvigorate education taking into consideration
the psychological needs of the students. Several great educators left their
marks, including Fernando de Azevedo, Anísio Teixeira, Almeida Júnior
and Lourenço Filho. The changes drew fire from the traditionalists
who were more interested in offering a large number of disciplines to be
studied than quality instruction.
The 1934 constitution dealt for the first time with education as something
owed to every citizen by the state. A new constitution in 1937 emphasized
the professional side of education, stimulating the creation of technical
courses. Still another constitution in 1946 made primary education compulsory
and gave the Union the power to regulate education on all levels. The federal
and state counsels of education were created in 1962. The CFE (Conselho
Federal de Educação/Federal Counsel of Education) was responsible
starting in 1967 for a series of reforms that changed the structure of
Brazilian college instruction. In 1971, the same CFE extinguished the old
primário and ginasial, grouping them together
in the escola de primeiro grau. It also instituted the segundo
grau (formerly known as colegial), which from then on had the
obligation to offer subjects in professional disciplines. This requirement
was struck down, however, in 1982.