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The Focused Student: Educational disparities between wealthy and poor not limited to U.S.

Educator Bob Frank at St. George’s College in Santiago, Chile
Local educator and columnist Robert Frank visits St. George’s College in Santiago, Chile earlier this month. He notes that although the educational systems in Chile and the U.S. are different, one similarity remains: Wealthy families have better access to high-performing schools.
(Courtesy of Robert Frank)

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Santiago, Chile recently, where my son is teaching English in a private school. It is a K-12 school in which most of the students go on to college. In fact, that is expected.

The school is renowned in Santiago and its alumni include heads of state, chief executives of many of Chile’s top corporations, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

After my son gave us a tour of the school I thought it might be interesting to explore the educational system of Chile.

Over the last 50 years, the country’s educational system has changed drastically and it is once again in a state of flux. When Gen. Augusto Pinochet assumed power through a military coup in 1973, he privatized most all of the schools. The proportion of public support for university budgets dropped from 90% to 10%.


Public schools became the responsibility of the local municipality or district. This meant that the schools in poor areas were often inferior because the municipality was poor and lacked funds to properly support education. Though arrived at differently, the same educational disparities exist in Chile as in many areas of the U.S.

Nearly 90% of the Chilean high schools are private, yet 40% of the students attend free public high schools. By contrast, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that in the coming academic year about 90% of U.S. K-12 students will attend public schools.

There are three types of schools in Santiago. Private schools funded by fees from parents; public schools owned by the local municipality; and hybrid schools where parents pay a small fee and the local municipality funds a portion of the cost.

Schools are definitely divided along class lines. This makes it difficult for private schools, which may want to include more economically disadvantaged students but find themselves facing a backlash from tuition-paying parents with class prejudices, again mirroring a situation seen all too often in the U.S.


Public and hybrid schools in Chile often face teacher strikes and frequent school closures which further widens the gap in achievement on national tests.

Curriculum appears to be defined in large part by a national test, Prueba de Seleccion Universitaria (PSU), which is a test similar to the SAT. It’s given only once each year. The score determines whether or not a student attends university and what or what they might not be able to study in college. This is comprehensive and challenging test, given in the senior year.

From kindergarten to 12th grade, all curriculum focuses on PSU success. Private schools usually have an advantage in preparing their students and they all offer English as a second language which is not always found in public schools. This is another determiner for most colleges.

Chile’s Ministry of Education is charged with assuring that all children have access to basic education, and it sets some guidelines for the public schools. It also sets the standard requirements for high school with specific subjects.

High school is broken up into two two-year-long segments. The first two years are considered compulsory education with specific subjects being taught. The second two years may get into areas of specific interest, with the curriculum changes up a little more, depending on the area of interest.

There are no fees for public schools for kindergarten through eighth grade but public secondary schools may charge a one-time minimal fee. For the semiprivate school, there may be a fee charged each quarter of the school year.

While the education systems are different, some of the challenges and disparities familiar to us here in the U.S. are visible in Chile as well. Wealthy areas and wealthy families have greater access to better education. Their children are more likely to go on to university and enjoy the privileges and benefits that higher education confer. Educational disparities perpetuate social and economic disparities.

It’s a difficult pattern to confront and change.


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