The importance of basic education, both primary and secondary, has increasingly occupied the academic literature, highlighting its relevance for economic development. Higher educational levels result in higher levels of labor productivity, which in turn, relate to higher levels of income. The universalization of basic education is often pointed out as one of the main reasons for the increase of living standards around the world during the last century. Moreover, basic education is the pillar of social and political institutions, which elevates the concept of development beyond merely economic aspects.
Brazil realized this much too late: the process of basic education universalization started in this country only in the second half of the twentieth century, crossing both periods of democracy and dictatorships. During Brazilian industrialization, basic education was not considered relevant for the process maintenance. Only in 1988, with Brazil’s newest constitution, was basic education emphasized as a universal right which should be enforced by government policies. Since then, important achievements have been made, which have resulted in 93.6% of Brazilian children aged between 4 and 17 attending basic education in 2015, according to the project Todos Pela Educação (Everybody For Education).
Despite this progress, basic education remains a great challenge for Brazil. While recently there have been pushes to improve higher education in the country, similar efforts have not been sought for basic education. Firstly, the majority of Brazil’s primary and secondary schools are still part-time, which means children do not spend more than four hours daily in school. Furthermore, those schools commonly have severe infrastructure problems, like a lack of sanitation and water supply. Finally, from those students who started primary education at age 6, only 56.7% were able to conclude their secondary education when they were age 19 in 2014, according to Brazilian Household Survey Data (PNAD).
The challenge of basic education in Brazil is also reflected in its teachers’ qualifications. A study conducted by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) shows that only 58% of the teachers in primary schools held the minimum professional requirements in 2016, with regional disparities which varied from 26.6% to 70.7% across the country. This is partially a consequence of low average salaries that teachers earn in Brazil: according to the Economic and Social Development Council (CDES), a Brazilian teacher earned the equivalent of 51% of the earnings of another professional with the same qualifications in 2012. Furthermore, in that year, a primary education teacher in Brazil earned the equivalent of 42% of the average earnings of a teacher in the OECD countries, whilst working on average two weeks more yearly.
These constraints irremediably affect Brazilian basic educational outcomes. According to the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which provides an index to measure the basic educational proficiency every three years for a group of 72 countries, Brazil was ranked 59th in reading and 66th in mathematics in 2015. In mathematics specifically, a field which is essential to generate professionals in key areas for a country in need of economic growth, such as engineers and scientists, 70.25% of Brazilian children did not present the minimum knowledge expected for students of their age. The problems of Brazil’s basic education are also reflected in the students who are able to reach higher education. Among them, 38% had difficulties in reading and writing in 2012, according to the Paulo Montenegro Institute (IPM). All these results will definitely harm the integration of these students into the labor market, condemning many of them to unemployment and poverty.
Moreover, the quality of basic education in Brazil is highly unequal across the population. The results of the Secondary Education National Exam (ENEM), in 2015, showed that students from higher income families generally have more access to better basic schools, regardless if they are public or private. Given that basic education during the childhood is strictly related to the level of income in the future, it tends to perpetuate the inequalities in a country which is already one of the most economic unequal in the world.
Contrariwise, within the last fifteen years Brazil has invested massively in higher education, increasing the number of public universities, providing subsidized credit and scholarships, and even implementing racial quotas. This was part of a strategy to reduce the lack of qualified workers in the country, besides promoting social ascension of groups who historically did not have access to higher education, mostly from the poor or underprivileged classes. However, the idea that to expand the higher education would somehow compensate for all the problems of basic education has again just postponed confronting these very important issues: since higher education, in its very nature, is only accessible for those who were successful in earlier education, “upgrading the roof” will not resolve the problem of a “weak foundation”.
This year, the Brazilian government finally proposed a reform of the secondary education system which aims to transform part-time secondary schools into full-time ones, increasing the amount of yearly hours spent by the students in them and offering professional courses to increase secondary students’ employability. It represents only a very small step on a long path that Brazil still has to go through regarding its basic education.
Once, the Brazilian economist Eduardo Gianetti da Fonseca said that basic education was Brazil’s greatest civilization challenge in the 21st century. Indeed, the country can no longer neglect the importance of primary education to shift itself both socially and economically. Otherwise, Brazil will remain stagnant, and will be so for one of the most basic reasons.