Pamela Cox, Contributor
If education were simply a matter of attending classes, Latin America and Caribbean would have already done its homework. Most regional countries have made enormous progress towards achieving universal access to basic education. There is also clear progress at the secondary and tertiary levels.
But more than access, the key goal of education is learning. Making sure that children and youngsters perform according to the requirements of the day is a necessary condition for the advancement of society. In that respect, the region still has some unfinished business.
This is a critical issue that must surely be a source of concern for the chiefs of state and government gathering this weekend in Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the Ibero-American Summit.
Year after year, Latin American countries show poor academic performance levels in international tests. With the exception of Uruguay, regional countries perform much poorly than expected at their per capita income levels.
In 2006, a handful of countries in the region (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay) participated in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD's) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). All of them ranked among the 20 lowest-performing countries in reading, math and science, well below the average for almost 60 countries.
It is thus evident that improving education must become a priority for politicians, educators and families in the region. Furthermore, it should be so because Latin America is still an unequal region and education is the most important levelling factor in achieving social mobility.
For many years, this simple idea could not permeate through some sectors in society. Both governments and elites were afraid that better-educated workers could affect productivity by increasing labour costs.
Nowadays, it is clear that the issue of competitiveness demands workers with the necessary skills to confront the challenges of the 21st century. An investment that focuses on improving educational opportunities among the poor is justified both in economic and social terms.
Although the gap between rich and poor has narrowed in the last few years, it is still part of the region's reality. While four out of five children in high-income households complete secondary school, only one in five children can accomplish this task among the poorest families.
In order to reduce these inequalities, governments throughout the region have emphasised diverse educational aspects, from early-childhood development programmes to lifelong learning initiatives. The World Bank provides technical and financial support for several of them.
Diverse studies indicate that the most cost-effective human capital investments take place in the first five years of a child's life. Seeking to equalise opportunities for the poorest children, the World Bank and Shakira's ALAS Foundation launched a US$300-million early-childhood development initiative in February 2010. More than US$100 million have already been approved for this purpose in Argentina, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and Peru.
Most countries assess their pedagogical systems through standardised national tests, but few of them make the results public or use them as diagnostics tools to improve quality. Colombia, which took part in PISA for the first time in 2006, is assessing these results and seeking a national consensus around the necessary educational reforms.
Educational quality must be assessed by its capacity to provide skills relevant to the labour market. Mexico, backed by a US$700-million World Bank project, is reforming its educational system so that secondary schools can easily adopt a more competent national curriculum in at least half of the country's public schools.
In Argentina, the World Bank supports a US$200-million government programme that seeks to consolidate and increase the coverage of training courses, thus improving labour opportunities for low-income adults.
Without these and other efforts, the potential to create equal opportunities for youngsters becomes much more elusive.
In order to achieve a more inclusive education, the Summit's motto, supporting a results-based approach to high-quality education, will be essential. This course of action will contribute to the expansion throughout society of the economic and social advances achieved in the past years.
Pamela Cox is the World Bank's vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean.