Creating and nurturing a laboratory of innovation and best practices
Brazil, like many developing countries, faces wide-ranging economic and social inequities and major challenges in education. Its constitution provides for mandatory free elementary education and sets a minimum to be spent on education of 25% of state and municipal revenues and 18% at the federal level. But high rates of grade repetition and dropout mean that many children make only limited progress. In PISA 2000, Brazil was the lowest performing country. More than half of its students ranked at Level One or below. Fewer than 1% scored at the top level.
Since then, thanks to wide-ranging educational reform, Brazil's performance has begun to improve. Its students still perform at well below the OECD average, but its experience shows how a country facing major challenges in teacher quality, infrastructure and student commitment, and with a highly decentralized education system, can use national and international benchmarking to identify problems and drive reform.
Under Brazil's decentralized education system, its 27 federal states have primary responsibility for schooling, in association with the municipal authorities of Brazil's 5,561 municipalities. In 2001, a National Education Plan set out guidelines, goals and priorities for the three levels of government at federal, state and municipal level. In 2007, a federal Education Development Plan combined increased spending in classrooms with performance monitoring to drive improvements.
One of the main objectives was to raise the quality of Brazil's 1.5 million teachers, many of whom had only high school education. Low pay and poor working conditions, including teaching two shifts a day (often in two different schools) discouraged potential candidates. Teacher absenteeism was high, partly because of the difficulty of getting from one school to the other in city traffic or along rural roads.
A base salary was introduced for teachers and minimum entry qualifications were raised. At the same time, the government introduced a new indicator of education quality called the Basic Education Development Index (IDEB), in order to track schools' performance. IDEB draws on student test results and graduation rates to provide a nation-wide performance map through which the federal government can identify weaknesses and provide technical and cash assistance.
For states, the combination of monitoring and support provides a real incentive to use effective strategies and improve student achievement. States have to diagnose the problems in low-performing schools and develop an improvement plan to send to the federal education ministry. The ministry tracks progress in order to identify best practices that can be shared with other states. By setting individual quality goals and then leaving schools free to choose how best to achieve them, the Education Development Plan has effectively transformed Brazil into a giant laboratory of best education practices.