A review by Marcela Gajardo
In Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century. Educational Goals, Policies and Curricula from Six Nations, Fernando Reimers and Connie K. Chung examine some policy issues in educational development, particularly the contemporary status of curricular change and the challenges of equity. They take a hard look at issues of quality and relevance gaps both as global challenges and national debates about policy options to improve public school systems.
By reviewing instructional priorities in various national curricular frameworks and analyzing how and whether these frameworks reflect the skills students need to thrive in the twenty-first century, Reimers and Chung use systematic analysis to address subjects that sometimes involve emotional arguments rather than thoughtful comparisons and analysis. The editors look at case studies: China, India and Singapore in Asia, Chile and Mexico in Latin America, and the United States in North America.
Introduced and closed by two framing articles by the editors, the book’s six chapters dedicate a third to analysis of two Latin American countries Chile and Mexico. Although different in size, these two countries share common problems in educational development and reform efforts. Disparities and achievement gaps are still huge in both countries. Children from poorer households tend to begin school later, repeat more grades, drop out sooner, and score lower on tests than their better-off peers, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or area of residence. Although progress has been made, both in Chile and in Mexico, access to quality education remains unevenly distributed. Children in poorer households are vulnerable to exclusion. Those who did not attend school at all tended to be poor, female, living in rural areas as social minorities, either refugees, displaced peasantry or indigenous groups. Although more such children and youth attend school today, indicators such as secondary school enrollment, school attainment, participation in higher education and outcomes of the educational system reveal disparities among children coming from wealthier and poorer families.
Developing countries have been trying to lead educational change and devise various policy reforms since the mid-sixties onwards, always trying to catch up with the skills employers want and cognitive communities demand, particularly in the twenty-first century. However, not until the past two and a half decades has there been an effective and sustained effort aimed at improving learning achievement and learning outcomes. As a result of a long-term movement of educational change, virtually every country has increased public spending; schools have been built; teachers added; and salaries raised. More children are now enrolled in pre-school, primary and secondary education, and efforts have improved attendance. Nonetheless, little progress has been achieved in terms of improved learning environments and quality of learning outcomes, teachers’ professional development and school management and effectiveness. In curricular terms, Mexico has attempted to develop citizenship competencies in the subject of civics, while Chile has tried to promote learning objectives across various disciplines. In Chile, the national curriculum reflects a broad range of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills seldom aligned with standards and performance evaluation, while Mexico, after recent curriculum reforms, continues to emphasize cognitive learning outcomes over interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and competencies.
The editors analyze the issue of educational quality in Latin America, with achievement gaps reflecting the fact that Latin America remains one of the most unequal regions in the world in terms of wealth distribution. While Chile and Mexico have managed to reduce poverty since the early 2000s, only Chile managed to lower poverty rates consistently since 1990. Mexico, together with other countries in the region, has mixed records and outcomes. Although enrollment may be almost universal, poor students are much more likely not to complete school, as are children in rural areas, children from ethnic and linguistic minorities, children with disabilities, and children affected by armed conflict. Ethno-linguistic diversity creates serious challenges, and it has been proved that vernacular language barriers have a significant impact on access to education, especially for girls in rural areas, where local languages predominate.
Cristian Bellei from Chile contributed to the book with an essay on twenty-first century competencies in the Chilean educational system, while Sergio Cárdenas, from México, focused on recent curricular reforms and their alignment with standards and teaching materials. Reviews were conducted and national curricular frameworks examined to identify whether skills necessary to survive in globalized societies had been achieved by the reforms. Based on the twenty-first century skills classification proposed by Pellegrino and Hilton, including cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, both Bellei and Cárdenas concluded that, although significant in terms of social investments, policy reform efforts have not had a significant impact on the quality of learning outcomes. Both Chile and Mexico participate in international testing systems and perform below what would be predicted given their national expenditure per student. Even relatively well-off students fail to excel by world standards. In fact, few students from any background receive a high- quality education. In Mexico just 0.29 percent of students scored at the advanced level in the PISA mathematics exam, which tests the capacity for advanced mathematical thinking, reasoning and ability to interpret complex information about real-world situations, compared with 6.5 percent of U.S. students. Wealthier countries in the region perform better than poorer countries, and countries that invest more per primary school student have higher average scores. Nonetheless, in overall terms, student achievement in Latin America overall is definitely low. On average, students perform below expectations in math, reading and science, and quality varies from country to country. PISA scores reveal significant gaps among 15-year-old students in the region and their peers in OECD countries. Roughly, the same proportion scored at the lowest level in science, and a third scored at the bottom in reading. Girls perform better in reading while boys perform better in math and sciences. Adults and youngsters have relatively high levels of literacy rates. Literacy rates ranked 89.6% by 2000 and increased steadily, reaching 92.9% by 2010. At tertiary level, disparities relate to the career options taken by men and women, with women often choosing humanities and men engineering and business.
Relevance to modern requirements is a fundamental premise in the book and its major contribution to ongoing policy debates and emergence of research agendas in the field of global education policies. Reimers and Chung send a clear message that 21st-century skills and knowledge depend on the quality and relevance of teaching and learning. Educational quality is framed as the amount of skills and knowledge that learners gain through schooling and training. Quality is multidimensional and context-specific, and evidence suggests that learning improves when teachers understand the subject matter, know how to teach it effectively, have incentives to teach and motivate learners towards learning. Moreover, teachers and teaching are more effective when performing in supportive policy environments that provide standards or curriculum that includes specific knowledge and skills relevant to students’ current environment, as well as knowledge and skills that students will need to deal with new challenges created by economic, social and cultural changes. Access to appropriate workbooks and other learning materials support, complement and reinforce teachers’ efforts.
Lately, various reports on the teaching profession have highlighted four strategies to improve teaching and learning performance in Latin America. These include new criteria and policy options for improved teacher recruitment, initial and continuous training improvement, new rules and incentives for the teaching career, and assessment or evaluation of teaching performance. As pointed out by the editors, despite ongoing reforms at the primary and secondary levels, both in Chile and Mexico improvement in teaching practices and classroom processes have not changed much in decades. Institutions in charge of recruiting, training and assessing teachers’ performance have been unfamiliar with the intended goals of institutional and curricular reforms and remain far from pedagogical practices needed to support a twenty-first century education. In Mexico, two key challenges prevail: inadequate curriculum design and lack of demand for twenty- first century skills, both hard and soft, among parents and teachers. In Chile, pedagogical practices, at the school level, do not seem to have changed in any ways that reflect the efforts made by past curricular reforms and assessments.
Compared to Singapore, India, China and the United States, Mexico and Chile are lagging behind when introducing reforms to strengthen critical thinking, innovation, creativity, scientific thinking, self-knowledge and self-directed learning, competencies identified as necessary for the twenty-first century. As the editors point out, addressing these issues by means of policy improvement or educational reforms requires new thinking and new ways of doing, both in theoretical and practical terms.
It also needs knowledge- sharing and learning from best practices in countries facing similar challenges throughout the world.
L. Marcela Gajardo J., DRCLAS Luksic Visiting Scholar (2015-2016), is a Senior Researcher and Professor in Chile, co-founder and former director of PREAL, a joint initiative of the Inter-American Dialogue and a broad network of associates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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