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About the Author

Julia Smith Coyoli is a Ph.D. Candidate in Harvard’s Government Department, and a Graduate Student Associate at DRCLAS. She studies the politics of educational reform in Latin America, with a focus on Mexico.

Educational Reform in Latin America After Covid-19

by | Apr 2, 2020

The threat posed by Covid-19 has led to radical changes in how we all live our lives. The cancelation of in-person classes is one of these dramatic moves. All countries in Latin America (as of April 13), with the exception of Nicaragua, have done so, asking students to instead engage in distance learning.

In most of the region, distance learning has combined online resources with television and/or radio programming broadcast throughout the day. Complementing online programming helps ensure a greater number of students can access schooling during this time, given limited internet access throughout the region. While in-person classes have been canceled, teachers and school buildings continue to be used to achieve educational, public health and other policy goals. For example, teachers in Mexico are on call to respond to any parental questions, even from parents not affiliated with their school. Teachers are working with parents to create a health commission at every school in the country, as mandated by the government. Teachers in Argentina and Brazil are helping to distribute nutritious meals from their school buildings.

While the eventual end of the current public health crisis is all but inevitable, long-reaching effects are likely to extend beyond health and the economy. Education reform in Latin America may be changed as a result of this crisis.

As someone who has observed educational reform over several years, particularly in Mexico, I expect three main changes in the field. First, governments will respond to the educational inequalities exacerbated by the crisis with reforms specifically targeting the educational needs of those most harmed by the crisis itself. Second, quality-enhancing educational reforms will be more difficult to pass as teachers and the unions that represent them will be strengthened as the government increasingly relies on their labor to achieve educational and non-educational policy goals. Third, resulting from the same increase in teacher strength, existing quality-enhancing educational reform will become easier to implement.

Throughout Latin America poorer students, as well as students from indigenous and Afro-Latino backgrounds, face lower-quality schools and unequal access to education. Recent reforms, however, have focused on improving the generally dismal results of all students; the specific conditions faced by marginalized students have been addressed less explicitly. However, in light of the current crisis, concerns of equity in education have become increasingly salient.

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Despite plans in many of the region’s countries to provide distance education even to students without an internet connection, accessing distance learning continues to be shaped by existing patterns of inequality. For example, even in countries where television programming is utilized, students from poorer backgrounds may still struggle to attend classes, as they instead will spend their time helping their families earn a living or caring for siblings. Television programing is also less successful in helping students retain knowledge than potentially more interactive internet content provided online. Finally, students already behind may not have the skills necessary to engage in the self-guided teaching that distance learning requires. Therefore, it will be no surprise that when in-person schooling returns, teachers will find existing inequalities have worsened.

Teachers and policymakers throughout the region are already concerned about this possibility. Following the crisis, reforms in this area should be easy to pass. The general public more aware of educational inequalities as a result of this crisis, and policies to improve equity now frequently align the interests of key education stakeholders. Across Latin America, previous equity-enhancing reforms have focused on how to improve the provision and quality of schooling in rural areas. Policies of these sort are popular among teachers’ unions since they improve workplace conditions for teachers, increase both spending on education and sometimes even the number of teaching jobs available. Parents and students also tend to support these reforms, as they improve the visible aspects that they can evaluate.

Finally, these reforms are likely to be popular with the providers of educational technology. Historically, Latin American countries have used technology to expand education to rural areas.

In many countries, governments provide education in rural areas through combining television programming with an in-classroom teacher (see, for example, the Amazonas Media Center program in the Brazilian Amazon and the Telesecundaria program in Mexico and most of Central America). The makers of educational technology will likely leave this crisis with greater importance in the education sector. Thus, the alignment of these three key educational stakeholders should make equity-enhancing reforms both feasible and likely after the public health crisis abates.

Unlike in the case of equity-enhancing reforms, quality-enhancing reforms are and will remain more difficult to pass, as the various stakeholders generally do not align in their positions. Quality-enhancing reforms are those that focus on improving student learning. Previous reforms in the region have attempted to achieve these improvements through decentralization, curricular changes and changes to how teachers are hired or promoted. However, reform has been difficult to achieve, and quality results have proven sticky; standardized test scores remaining stagnant and low throughout the region.

While parents and students clearly benefit from improvements to quality, these benefits are diffuse, take time to show, are uncertain and are not easily observable. Therefore, we do not see parents or students mobilizing in favor of quality-enhancing reforms. In contrast, teachers and teachers’ unions usually stand to bear the concentrated costs of these reforms. In the most extreme cases, quality reforms pose a threat to teachers’ livelihoods. Even in cases where the reform poses a less immediate threat, these reforms frequently require extensive work by teachers, who may feel unprepared to adapt to the demands of the reform. Given these costs, teachers’ unions throughout the region have responded by successfully mobilizing against quality-enhancing reforms on many occasions.

Teachers and teachers’ unions have been successful in blocking quality-enhancing reforms because of their strength. As a result of the current crisis, I expect a strengthening of teachers, resulting from governments utilizing teachers to help achieve public health goals during the crisis. Teachers are a logical choice for these tasks. Not only does using them not require additional expenditure (as they are already on the government payroll), but teachers can increase the state’s reach, as schools are present in even the most remote parts of a country. Historically, governments and political parties in Latin America have taken advantage of this reach to achieve political and policy goals unrelated to education. When governments rely on teachers to achieve goals that are important to them, teachers gain leverage to demand their policy preferences.

The increased role of teachers in the state’s strategy has two potential effects on the future of education reform in the region. The first is that empowered teachers have increasing leverage to block the passage of quality-enhancing reforms. Historically, teachers’ unions in the region have been able to use their position to extract concessions from the government in the form of education policy that aligns with their preferences. A clear example of this comes from Mexico, where the teachers’ union has exchanged the votes of its members (and the parents who these members teach) for an education policy favored by the union. This type of arrangement, while not always as blatant as in Mexico, shows that when governments rely on teachers (whether for votes or for the delivery of public policy objectives that will help garner votes), teachers and teachers’ unions gain power over educational policy and particularly over the passage of quality-enhancing reforms that pose a threat to their livelihoods. Thus, one potential outcome of the increased reliance on teachers resulting from the current health crisis is that future quality reforms will become much more difficult to pass.

At the same time, however, the increasing dependence of the government on teachers does not spell an entirely negative picture for the future of quality-enhancing reforms. In my dissertation I argue that to understand educational quality in the region it is important to look beyond the passage of reforms to their implementation, which is quite rare. In exploring the conditions that allow for the implementation of these reforms, I have found that the teachers’ union can actually serve as an important ally. My preliminary research indicates that public officials interested in implementing quality-enhancing reforms can strike a bargain in which they provide concessions to the teachers’ union in exchange for their support in achieving implementation. The more experience teachers have working with the government to achieve policy ends, the better they will be able to help the government achieve implementation in the future. Thus, the other potential outcome of empowering teachers is that they may help governments implement the quality-enhancing reforms that are currently or will become law.

In conclusion, in response to Covid-19, we should expect important changes to education reform throughout Latin America. The first set of responses I describe relate to reforms that work to increase equity in the system, which I expect will become more frequent. The second set of responses I describe relate to quality-enhancing reforms. I expect that the crisis will empower teachers, meaning they will be increasingly successful at blocking the passage of these reforms, while simultaneously becoming more effective at helping to implement the reforms that do pass. Therefore, politicians and bureaucrats concerned about the future of educational quality should recognize that as a result of increasing reliance, it may be difficult to pass new legislation se. Rather, they should focus their energies on working with teachers to help implement, to the fullest degree possible, existing legislation that has the potential to improve student learning throughout the region.

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