Education and Social Development in the Americas: The Case of Argentina
Juan Carlos Navarro, Inter American Development Bank; Simon Schwartzman, President, Instituto de Estudos do Trabalho e Sociedade; Daniel Levy, SUNY-Albany; Moderator: Jeffrey Puryear, Inter-American Dialogue
Luncheon Keynote: Alan Wagner, SUNY-Albany
Enrique Morad, Bank of Boston Foundation, Argentina. Juan José Llach, IAE-Austral University, Argentina. José Octavio Bordón, Ambassador of Argentina to the United States. Esteban Bullrich, Vice-President of Recrear in the city of Buenos Aires. Silvia Esteban, National Deputy of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Moderator: Nicolas Lynch, Woodrow Wilson Center and former Minister of Education, Peru
On June 20, 2005, Argentina @ The Wilson Center and the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a conference on educational reform with special attention to the experience of Argentina. The conference drew leading experts and policymakers from Argentina, the United States, Venezuela, and Brazil to analyze questions of accountability, decentralization, standards, and other issues at the forefront of the education debate. In his opening remarks, Joseph S. Tulchin, Director of the Latin American Program, highlighted the urgency of the issue as a key to equity and development in the region.
Juan Carlos Navarro outlined the progress that has been made in Latin America over the last fifteen years in areas of government spending on education, enrollment rates, and years of education, suggesting that the region was on track to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Despite these positive indicators, however, Navarro pointed out that the education systems in Latin America fall short in three important areas: first, the quality of education has remained stagnant; second, the discrepancy between the education provided to the poor and the wealthy is wide and growing in many countries; and third, higher education in Latin America is significantly under-developed. Navarro called for increased focus in these areas, yet cautioned against relying on the education system as the only means of development, noting that many of the determinants for successful learning originate outside of the schools.
Analyzing the debate over the role of education as a social function, Simon Schwartzman explained that education was traditionally conceived as a means of spreading a set of common values and national culture. As the link between education and economic development became apparent, however, the perceived importance of education grew and divergent opinions emerged over who was best suited to administer the system (hence the standards debate, which transfers some control from the teachers to government planners). Referring to the current educational proposal in Brazil, Schwartzman explained how the government is attempting to rebut the ‘mercantilization' of higher education by reclaiming the university as a public institution in order again to foster a sense of national identity and culture.
Daniel Levy's presentation focused on the global "marketizing" of higher education. He noted that there is a worldwide trend towards increased privatization of higher education, particularly in Latin America where roughly 40 percent of all higher education enrollments are held by private universities. This trend marks a shift from the idea of higher education as a public institution for passing on the common values of the nation to the idea of students as individuals competing for the best education possible. The cause of this growth in private education in the region stems from an increasing receptivity to markets over the last two decades and a diminished trust in the state's capacity to manage the system. Even in Argentina, with its strong tradition of the public nature of education, privatized education is expanding. While not explicitly endorsing the privatization of higher education, Levy noted that 70-80 percent of universities are privatized in East Asia and suggested that Latin America's lagging educational development implies a need to study previous successes for strategies in the region.
During his luncheon keynote presentation, Professor Alan Wagner provided a comparative framework for the conference by examining the emergence of the international ‘testing' regime and cross-country comparisons, which allow for setting standards and demanding accountability. Since the early-nineties, improved data (especially that gathered by the OECD) and increased attention by governments and by civil society (due to an increasing recognition of the impact of education on economic development) have allowed for larger and more authoritative comparisons of educational systems. These developments have led to an increased ability to benchmark countries (and measure their progress over time), develop more sophisticated indicators (which helps refine analysis), and begin to measure the ‘outcomes' of student's knowledge and skills globally (through tests such as PISA assessment). Jeff Puryear of the Inter-American Dialogue gave a brief overview of the results of educational assessments in the region, and in Argentina in particular, noting that the region lags behind others in a variety of educational indicators and arguing that such assessments can serve to spur policy-makers into action.
During the afternoon session, the panelists focused on the quality of education in Argentina and shared their personal experiences in the promotion of educational development at the national, provincial and municipal levels. Amb. Bordón stated that the recent economic crisis presented a quality, equity and democracy challenge to Argentina's education system. Amb. Bordón characterized the current condition of the education system as positive, however, he recognized that schools still do not comply with their role as promoters of social mobility where different social sectors can converge on their training. Bordón emphasized the importance of implementing a National System of Evaluation, but warned against its misuse. He warned increasing efficiency in the system of education would not translate into higher levels of competitiveness and social development unless it is accompanied by job creation. For Bordón, the main challenges facing the education system in Argentina are building political consensus needed for reform and building a public-private partnership that will help finance and regulate the system of education.
Drawing upon his research at the IAE-Austral University, Juan José Llach, presented a less positive view of the state of education in Argentina. Llach highlighted the double gap that exists within Argentina and across countries in terms of resources and outcomes. Llach's findings showed segregation is enhanced by internal dynamics of the system. Llach argued that major steps have to be taken in order to reduce these gaps—the government should give priority to the poorer areas, implement a system of incentives for teachers, and grant universal access to kindergarden. He echoed Bordón's comment that there is a need for careful allocation of resources to education where civil society can play an important role in holding local authorities accountable.
Arguing that education is a national strategic priority in Argentina, Enrique Morad recommended that the public and private sectors join efforts in improving the quality of education. The business sector, particularly the television industry, is a key actor in the promotion of values and education. Morad shared the experience of El Grupo Cruz del Sur XXI, an organization formed by teachers, local authorities and television businessmen to reduce marginalization of students by incorporating street pop culture within the curriculum and improving social spending. The project was successful in improving students' social integration, self-esteem, creativity, academic performance in the arts, as well as the public image of schools in the community.
The Vice-President of Recrear in the city of Buenos Aires, Esteban Bullrich, highlighted the importance of local government in the promotion of the quality of education. Although municipalities are legally constrained to pursue certain policies on education, they still have autonomy to perform other functions that can dramatically increase social and economic mobilization. Because Argentina's Federal Law does not include education of early childhood, Bullrich introduced Project Tartagal to provide young children with education and improve teacher training. While Project Tartagal is still in the early stages of development, Bullrich was confident that it holds great promise.
Silvia Esteban, National Deputy for Santa Cruz, stressed the importance of placing the analysis of the education system within the context of the recent economic crisis and the grave social inequality. Silvia Esteban identified as the main challenges, the need to reach political consensus regardless of the ideological differences among actors and the need to have a more inclusive system with equal opportunities for education for the whole society—a system in which poorer schools implement compulsory extended stay in order to increase students' creativity, efficiency, discipline and general performance.
The discussion that followed the presentations raised three important issues. First, the panelists agreed on the importance of establishing standards at all levels of education. Llach noted that achievable goals should be set with regard to performance indicators and that these should be monitored by an independent body. Second, the role of the legislative branch in the promotion of educational reforms was raised. Bullrich contended there is a need to reach general consensus among legislators and civil society actors. Finally, each participant talked about their future role in the promotion of education. Morad argued for putting more emphasis on governance rather than on legislation and encouraging the television industry to provide the correct image of education. Ambassador Bordón asserted that the government's main focus will be encourage Congress to pass the new education financing law that would allow Argentina to have a more equitable education system.