School & District Management Opinion

The Challenges of Brazilian Secondary Education

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — October 29, 2013 3 min read
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This post is by Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro.

Brazil continues to face serious problems in terms of child and youth education. These problems are reflected in the figures on educational performance and grade lag as indicated by the national evaluation tests such as SAEB/Prova Brasil and by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While the provision of elementary education has expanded significantly and is now approaching universal coverage, access by young people to quality schooling remains a major problem.

Secondary education, in particular, presents clear signs of stagnation in both attendance and quality. First, students arrive to secondary education without the skills and competences they need to follow the heavy academic curriculum of our system. Besides the low level of students’ performance in national and international assessments, Brazilian secondary schools are facing serious problems.

Between 1999 and 2011, the proportion of students who dropped out of secondary school more than doubled, from 7.4% to 16.2%, only partly explained by the increased numbers entering this level. The proportion of students attending evening classes in public schools is declining. In 2012, evening students represented 36% of all secondary students. Only 51% of 15 to 17-years olds are enrolled in high schools. As in other countries, the substantial number of young people who are neither working nor studying (up to 24% of 18-year-olds) is of particular concern. In Brazil, this group is mainly concentrated in the poorer sectors of the population: 58.3% of those who do not study or work come from households receiving fewer than two minimum wages.

Despite considerable institutional activism over the last few decades, public policies directed at secondary education have failed to make substantive inroads into this situation. Many of the changes introduced in recent years have had no impact on classroom reality, as issues of safety and quality persist. Teacher absenteeism is very pronounced and, coupled with infrastructure problems and excessively prescriptive and cumbersome school curricula, the school environment is rendered generally unattractive, frequently engendering among students a perception that school makes no sense and serves no purpose.

This scenario reaffirms the continuing crisis of the system, and its implications for the education and training of our young people. The past 15 years have witnessed an avalanche of federal level reforms. These reforms reveal an abysmal gap between policy formulation and actual implementation of the much-needed changes. The upshot is that the secondary education crisis continues to baffle governments, managers, and teachers alike and, most crucially, to thwart the introduction of new educational opportunities more in tune with the aspirations of the majority of young people.

The recent reforms have not resulted in significant curricular changes in the state systems. Regardless of the expansion of secondary school enrolment, the structure of the system has remained rooted in the past. Since 2009, with the introduction of the National Exam of Secondary Education/ENEM curriculum as the benchmark, it became more difficult to change the system. Given the model as it stands at the moment, it is virtually impossible to think what a more diversified and flexible system geared to satisfy different demands and aspirations of young people could look like. In addition to selecting students for admission to higher education in the whole country, the ENEM has become an obligatory requirement for access to federal student scholarships.

In this context, it is essential to encourage serious debate about secondary education reform among authorities, teachers, and civil society representatives. And, whatever direction the reform takes, it is vital to pay attention to the concerns of an organized society and those of young people themselves, who are generally absent from the debates on education that can have a direct effect on their future lives.

If you had a chance to reform secondary education system, given the breadth of issues, where would you start? Do you think that secondary education system should be more diversified and flexible to attend young people’s needs and aspirations or not? What kind of curriculum reform should be more attractive and inspire young people to lifelong learning?

Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro is a retired professor of political science at the State University of Campinas/Brazil; an associate researcher of the Center for Public Policies at the State University of Câmpinas, São Paulo, and the executive director of SEADE, a public foundation of the state of São Paulo responsible for the production and analysis of social and economic data.

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