Assessing Brazil's Common Core Proposal for Literacy

The National Education Plan for Brazil, approved by Congress in June 2014, established that the country should adopt a National Common Core Curriculum (Base Nacional Curricular Comum), to be prepared by the Ministry of Education in consultation with states, municipalities and other sectors of the education community. The work started in 2015 and went through several drafts before the Ministry finally, at the end of 2017, submitted it for revision and approval by the National Council of Education, which approved it on December 15, 2017. This document refers only to primary education, for ages 6-14; another document covering secondary education, for ages 15-17, is still in progress.

From the beginning, this work was surrounded by strong controversies. According to the Ministry of Education, it received more than 12 million contributions by individuals, organizations, academics and specialists, which were analyzed and incorporated in the final version. Some specialists argued, however, that the work was done in secrecy, with no information about how the different proposals and contributions were handled, and no real opportunity for an open discussion about its main assumptions.

One of the more contentious issues in the common core curriculum is its prescriptions about how schools should deal with child literacy. Access to primary education in Brazil is universal, but a large number of children—perhaps a third in the public schools, according to some estimates—never acquire fluency in reading and writing, remaining functionally illiterate.

A group of educators and researchers who had access to the latest version of the common core proposal published a letter intended to alert authorities at the Ministry of Education and the National Council of Education about the “grave mistakes” in the way the proposal treats this issue, with serious consequences for the acquisition of literacy by the children in the country. According to them, the recommendations are incorrect, incomplete, and inadequate. They note that:

It bears very little resemblance to other countries’ literacy teaching programs—notably that of Portugal—that would be most directly relevant to Brazil. In particular, the use of the phrase “It is in the early years (first and second years) of elementary school that students are expected to become literate” recalls the unfortunate theories that advocated inaction and pedagogical passivity, and the myth that “the child should acquire literacy by himself.” It is the responsibility of pedagogues to take responsibility for teaching, and the success of pedagogy is assessed by the child's degree of competence in reading and writing. In the specific case of literacy, this consists of reading and writing with efficiency, fluency, and phonotactic correction, in order to free up the central resources of attention and memory for semiotactic processing.

Their full comments and criticism of the common core proposal on literacy (in Portuguese) are available for download here[1]. The authors also point to an extensive national and international bibliography on children's literacy, available here, which they say was not was not considered in the preparation of the document by the Ministry of Education.

This letter was followed by a reply from the authors of the section on literacy, who argued in favor of the constructivist approach and mentioned the difficult social conditions faced by many children in Brazil’s public schools, saying that “expecting these children, when they get to school at all, be subject to intensive and accelerated training for the acquisition of phonological awareness, and worse still, [expecting] this at six years of age or younger, is surreal.” This text is also available for download here [2].

You can read Simon Schwartzman's original piece on the common core proposal in Portuguese on his blog.