JUAZEIRO, Brazil — As 6-year-old Ana Jamil skips up to the school gates, she has a simple question for the principal: “Is there class today?”
Children here are in the habit of asking, because their teachers often don’t show up, as hers didn’t the day before.
When Jose Pereira da Silva Municipal School does hold class, students spend just a little more than three hours a day with teachers who are woefully unprepared.
“Around here, there are teachers who can’t even read and write,” principal Maria Olivia Andrade says. “We’re waiting for the government to install air conditioning. We need a library. That’s essential. But by far the thing we need most desperately is training for the teachers.”
With salaries starting at just $350 a month and their jobs as state workers secure, teachers regularly stay at home. Although more kids are showing up for class, partly because of free lunches and government programs, they still have little chance of leaving with a decent education.
At Andrade’s school, the annual goal is that 70% will learn to read and write before they leave at age 14.
“Last year, we managed to pull it off,” she says, smiling sheepishly at the low expectations. “This is a poor neighborhood, far from the big capitals. The kids simply don’t have the same opportunities. The differences are colossal.”
But schools like Jose Pereira da Silva are easy to find in Brazil. At one in Sao Paulo, a sponsoring company discovered that the high school geography teacher couldn’t explain north, south, east or west. Even most of the shockingly expensive private schools are below international standards.
Ten years after a socially conscious left-leaning party won the presidency and oversaw a spectacular economic success story that helped 40 million people rise out of poverty, this vast country’s education system is still hugely inadequate.
Educational standards are not only too low for the needs of the world’s sixth-largest economy, but also lag behind those other emerging countries around the world, an education crisis that has serious implications for Brazil’s hope of becoming a global power.
The country’s Congress is kicking around an audacious plan to almost double spending on education to 10% of GDP by 2020, far above the average in wealthy countries. Some form of the bill is expected to be approved, but critics question whether the money will be spent efficiently and crucial management problems with the nation’s teachers will be solved.
Among 65 countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s respected Program for International Student Assessment, Brazil came in 53rd, behind Chile and Mexico and just a few spots above Tunisia.
According to the local Functional Literacy Organization, only 25% of Brazilians are considered “fully literate,” and the percentage of those with college degrees who are considered fully literate has actually decreased over the last decade, to just 65%.
“What we’ve seen over the last 20 to 30 years is that Brazil has improved inclusion greatly. We’ve managed to get more and more kids into school, but at the same time quality has dropped,” says Priscilla Cruz, director of the nonprofit organization Everyone for Education.
Long inadequate and underfunded, the education system hasn’t been able to keep up with the addition of millions of new students, she says.
Cruz’s organization believes that educating teachers is fundamental, along with adding resources and creating a national curriculum. Theoretically, Brazil should be able to find the money to fund improvements, and there is the political will.
But it has been difficult to make progress, such as improving supervision of teachers who are comfortable in their class-cutting habits.
Social pressure groups aren’t the only ones clamoring for better educational standards. As the economy has stalled in the last year, the businessmen and women at the top of Brazil’s economy routinely complain about the lack of qualified workers needed to drive growth.
“Our kids are in school now, that is good,” says Andre Esteves, one of Brazil’s richest men. “Now we just have to get them learning something.”
If low education standards tell the story of one of the biggest failures of the last 10 years of Brazil’s left-leaning leadership, a program called Bolsa Familia tells another of real success, which can be seen at the Jose Pereira da Silva school. Participating families receive small payments if children attend school and receive vaccinations.
“If it weren’t for Bolsa Familia, and the fact that they get one free meal here every day, a lot of these children wouldn’t be here,” Andrade says. “Some of the parents even come by to grab dinner for free.”
Like most kids, the students there are irrepressibly curious and energetic, and they do not seem to be in it just for the food.
Ana Jamil has a fairly common dream for a 6-year-old. “I want to be a veterinarian,” she says.
That, of course, would require attending college. When asked how likely that is, Andrade’s face darkens.
“Look,” she says, “I won’t say it’s impossible. We have had two cases of students going on to university before … and things here are improving.”
But at her school, things haven’t turned out quite so well today. Outside their run-down schoolhouse, in temperatures that soar past 100 degrees for much of the year here in Brazil’s dry backlands, a small swarm of hyperactive children are showing off, with each challenging the others on their knowledge of a few words of English.
They are excited. But they’re also unsupervised. Forty minutes after classes were supposed to start, none have. Of 16 teachers, only one has arrived.
Bevins is a special correspondent.