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Improving Brazil’s Public Schools: Nine Recommendations

Brazilian public school In the article, “The Paradox of the Good Student: Race and the Brazilian Educational System,” Marcelo Paixão provides a very detailed and scholarly analysis of the problems confronting the current approach to public education in Brazil. He then provides a series of observations and recommendation.

This report, published by PREAL (Programa de Promocion de la Reforma Educativa en America Latina y el Caribe; Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas), is a highly academic and authoritative document (Paixão, 2009). However, while I lack the academic status of Dr Paixão, and the authoritative support and cache of PREAL, I believe it is badly flawed in many ways.

I will use some of the recommendations – but not all, since there are too many, and some are typically rather vague – to provide my own suggestions for improving Brazilian public education. While I do not have the academic pedigree of Dr Paixão, I have observed, studied, analyzed and debated Brazilian public education since 1996.

The Global Competitiveness Report 2008-2009. published by the World Economic Forum (2008), places the quality of education system at 117 out of 134, behind countries such as China, India, Jamaica, Guyana, Bangladesh and Uganda. For a country with the natural resources, cultural history, and worldview of Brazil, this is simply unacceptable!

Recommendations

I will cite the specific recommendations from the article, in no specific order, and then provide my own reactions and suggestions.

Recommendation 1: Progressively increase public education expenditures from the current 4% to 12% of the gross domestic product by 2012.

As many students of Brazilian government are well aware, much of the federal allotment to schools (and to other social programs) never actually reaches these programs. Further, as students of American education know, there is simply no positive correlation between educational resources and student achievement.

The Brazilian federal government’s funding of local schools must not be increased until there is much better assurance that all the federal money will actually end up supporting these schools. Maybe requiring states and municipalities to contribute a significant percentage of each school’s budget will change the prevailing reality in some places that federal school dollars are simply a cash cow for local politicians.

Another suggestion is for teachers to get paid directly by the federal government. The only possible exception to the recommendation not to increase federal funds for local schools would be to provide additional federal funds to cover the costs associated with providing full-day school programs (see number 6).

Recommendation 2: Improve conditions related to the professionalism, salary, and social status of teachers and other teaching staff in the short-term, and follow up by improving the physical conditions of Brazilian schools.

This recommendation could be achieved by,

* Paying teachers directly from the federal government;

* Providing only one session of classes a day at each school (see recommendation number 6);

* Radically reinventing college teacher training programs. First, these must be a minimum of 4 years long; second, they must include a significant internship, and, most importantly, the content and teaching methods at the university must be radically changed. From my observations and the discussions I have had with teachers, it is clear to me that Brazil’s teacher education is well behind where it should be. (That being said, the US system needs some racial changes of its own; but that is another article!)

Recommendation 3: Broaden polices to combat and prevent child labor.

This is a rather strange recommendation, because one of the main reasons child labor (and the child sex-trade) is so prevalent in Brazil is exactly because these children’s families see no real purpose and benefit for them to attend school. It simply does not translate into better jobs and college degrees. This recommendation also follows the pervasive Brazilian view that one can simply outlaw behavior through passing a law! Only when these children can receive a quality education that translates into good jobs and college degrees will this recommendation be achieved!

Recommendation 4: Create a national program to eradicate racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination within the school environment, including preparing teachers for pro-diversity and multicultural education, activities to raise awareness of these issues, and incentives to adopt pro-equality racial practices in schools

I have written about racism in Brazilian schools (see an article in a past issue of Brazzil.Magazine), but I have also written about the misguided approach to multicultural education that is very popular in US public schools (see http://www.csbchome.org/). `

And, when Brazil’s media and fashion magazines give the entire world the impression that Brazil is an all-white, European-looking country, and when the prototype for beauty in the country and the culture is still a European with blond hair and blue eyes, (despite what Lula said about the world-wide financial collapse being produced by blue-eyed peoples!), I think it is highly unfair to expect the schools to change the country’s entire culture!

Recommendation 5: Give increased emphasis to alternative educational practices that value human rights, diversity, multiculturalism, and equality among ethnic groups, races, and genders.

I strongly disagree with this recommendation! The author seems to be adopting what I call “the American solution” to racial diversity. There are many problems with using this approach in Brazilian schools. First, the entire public education system in Brazil must be changed – simply providing alternative school Band-Aides – regardless of how good these schools are – is not good enough. The entire public school system must be radically changed!

Secondary, much of the Brazilian population is not only mixed-race, but self-identifies as such. Since the 1500s there has been mixing of Amerindians, Portuguese, Africans, other Europeans (German, Italians, Spanish, Dutch, English, etc), along with Japanese, Middle-easterners, and others. As Alves – Silva et al. (2000) have demonstrated, most Brazilians are, in fact, genetically (DNA) mixed.

Thus to talk about ethnic groups as is they are homogeneous, distinct social and biological entities is simply unrealistic and rather stupid. Even in the US, where racial mixing has historically been taboo, and where the one-drop rule defines anyone with any African heritage a black, the notion of self-contained, clearly defined racial and ethnic groups is being challenged. (And don’t confuse the reality of mixed-race people in Brazil with the myth of racial democracy: they are two distinctly different things!)

Recommendation 6: Operate all Brazilian schools – both buildings and grounds – in a full-time basis to facilitate the full educational, professional, athletic, and artistic development of Brazilian children and adults.

It is not totally clear to me what this means, but I will take it do mean that only one group of children should be served in each school each day. Two of the public schools I have visited operated three school sessions a day. In one, the physical education and athletic facility was a piece of concrete; in another it was a piece of concrete surrounded by a high, wire face. In the latter school the central, covered courtyard, where many projects and activities were conducted, was partly under water due to a leak in the ceiling. This same school had huge billboards on the premises that were used to earn a little extra money for the school.

Each facility should only operate one school session each day; further, these sessions must be expanded in length. But, as mentioned under recommendation number 1, we still run into the problem of the misuse of federal funds to build and maintain these new schools.

Again my recommendation is that the federal government should build these schools, own them, and continue to protect their investment by maintaining them. I know this goes against the Brazilian requirement that elementary schools be operated by the city and secondary schools by the state, but in cases where these local governments have shown themselves totally unable to do so, the federal government should take over. Before and after school programs can be added in the same school building and run by the school or by local NGOs.

Recommendation 7: Set proficiency goals for all students taking the national exams (SAEB, ENEM) in Brazilian public schools

A central reason Brazilian public schools are so bad is because of the vestibular. Now the government is contemplating replacing the vestibular with national exams. This is no improvement. The central problem is,

* Federal/state universities in Brazil are free;

* Entry into these institutions is solely based on tests scores;

* To be able to earn test scores high enough to be admitted into these colleges a student must attend private elementary and secondary schools;

* Poor, mostly minority children cannot afford private schools;

* Public schools are therefore almost exclusively made up of poor, minority children.

A variety of alternative routes to college must be created. A first approach should be similar to the American (US) approach (heaven forbid!): combine school-based grades with test scores. Other approaches are to target first generation students (those whose families have never gone to college), and to provide adult approaches such as allowing the transfer of students to universities from technical colleges. In the US many alternative students enter college by first attending an array of community colleges and then transferring to four-year institutions.

But none of this will work without radically expanding college slots for students. The current federal government has been building and staffing new universities, but this is a very slow and expensive proposition. An alternative is for the federal and state governments to purchase slots in private colleges and universities. In many cases the buildings and human resources already exist.

I know this idea is anathema to many Brazilian academic purists, but the artificial divide in Brazil between private and public institutions of higher learning is obsolete and needs to be changed for the good of the average Brazilian, who should not be held hostage to Brazil’s intellectual elites.

Recommendation 8: Compile statistical data collected by the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics and the Ministry of Education’s Institute for Educational Studies and Research, and ensure broad dissemination (including in micro data format) of educational indicators of the Brazilian population. Ensure that all research questionnaires and registration forms distributed to students, teachers, principals, and other teaching staff include a line for indicating race.

This again is a US approach that is being fully imposed on the Brazilian education problem. It is the wrong solution for a variety of reasons,

* Since the US has been carefully collecting racial statistical data (1965) our public education has radically declined; further, the educational divide (Asian and white students versus Black, Hispanic and Native American students) has continued to widen.

* While we in the US now love to collect all sorts of demographic data and do all sorts of fancy statistical games with this data, we still have not found a way to address the academic divide in our public schools and universities! In fact one could argue that there is a positive (but not causal) correlation between the increased racial data analysis and an increase in the academic divide.

* In the US in 2010 there will finally be a choice on all federal school and university forms allowing students to select more than one racial identify. Further, many colleges and universities in the US, and some school districts, are allowing students to self-identify with their full, complex racial/ethnic identity. In the 2000 U.S. Census over six million people chose more than one race for their identity. This shift is because more and more Americans (US) realize that their racial identity is much richer and more complex than a single government-imposed label. I can imagine that over 50% of Brazilians would select a mixed identity if they were given a real choice by their government.

* In a society such as Brazil, where racial constructs have always been viewed through a multiracial lens, suddenly expecting people to select a single-race moniker makes little sense, and certainly lacks any kind of scientific or social validity.

* Knowing the statistical relationship between race and educational success and lack of success is not the same thing as knowing how to addresses these inequalities. In the US we have known for a very long time that students from the Asian minority group (yes, in the US they are viewed as minority group) statistically exceed white children’s academic performance in school and college. Yet no educational reformers have ever suggested examining why these children are so successful or proposed using this information to address the deficiencies of students from other groups..

* It seems pointless to me to spend so much time, energy, and political and academic capital to count people (and then do all these fancy statistical machinations): why not use this energy and capital to improve the public schools for all Brazilian students?

Recommendation 9: Adopt affirmative action policies – especially through the establishment of special entrance criteria, such as quotas – for African-descendants, indigenous peoples, and people with special needs and disabilities to ensure equal access to the public higher education system.

This recommendation is, of course, not only a favorite of many Brazilian academics (maybe because their own access has already been assured), but is one that currently generates much debate in Brazil (as it once did in the US). I will here address just one issue of this recommendation: its Band-Aide approach.

In the US all sorts of affirmative action and quota approaches to education have done absolutely nothing to improve the quality of public elementary and secondary education in the country. At the same time, access to higher education does not guarantee completion of college. Many minority students who entered college and university through quotas never completed their studies, for a variety of academic and cultural reasons. This was particularly true of students who were enticed to the top-tier American universities.

However, at the same time the US was fighting the legal quota battle (now largely passé), a variety of new ways were created for many students to achieve a college degree (and not just access) in the US. As mentioned earlier, the community college entrance approach is a very popular route for students who struggled in high school or who cannot afford a traditional four-year degree, or both.

This approach allows students to enter college regardless of their high-school record. Usually they live at home (thus reducing costs), and many also work part-time, some even fulltime. In many community college disciplines classes are offered in the evenings and on weekends. I teach only in the evenings and on weekends at my community college.

Conclusion

Brazil’s public schools are in very, very poor shape. For a country with the culture, history, natural resources and current economic prowess of Brazil, this situation is simply unacceptable. The article, “The Paradox of the Good Student: Race and the Brazilian Educational System,” by Marcelo Paixão (2009), is a very authoritative attempt to address this dilemma. However, it falls short in many areas.

The biggest problem with this article is that it addresses the poor quality of Brazil’s schools as a racial issue, as opposed to an economic, educational and class issue. One reason the author makes this mistake is because he assumes that the American solution will work in Brazil.

Contrary to the opinion of many Brazilian educators and academics, this solution never really worked in the US, and has little if any chance of working in Brazil. What Brazilian public schools desperately need are reforms that improve all public schools for all Brazilian public school students.

References

Alves – Silva, J., Santos, M. S., Guimarães, P. E. M., Ferreira, A. C. S., Bandelt, H. J., Pena, S. D., & Prado, V. M. (2000). The ancestry of Brazilian mtDNA lineages. American Journal of Human Genetics, 67, 444-461.

Paixão, M. (2009). The paradox of the good student: Race and the Brazilian education system. Washington, DC: PREAL.

Porter, M., & Schwab, K. (2008). The global competitiveness report. World Economic Forum http://www.weforum.org/documents/gcr0809/index.html. Retrieved July 18, 2009.

Francis Wardle, PhD, is an instructor for the University of Phoenix SAS online program, and for Red Rocks Community College. He has studied Brazilian education and race since 1996. His 5th textbook is in press, and he has authored hundreds of magazine and journal articles on a variety of academic subjects.

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