Michael Shifter

By:Allison Salisbury Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Enormous Potential and Enormous Obstacles in Latin American Education

Michael-Shifter You are holding in your hands, not just a magazine, but a collection of words. Presumably you will read these words, digest and disseminate the content and share with others. Over 700 million people around the globe cannot do that: they are illiterate. Not by choice, of course, but due to circumstance. Many live in developing countries where there is a lack of access to quality education. According to Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), the main challenge in Latin American education is finding and keeping the best educators, and improving the overall quality of the education system. Those of us in the United States tend to believe that issues facing our education system are unique to our country. A lot of common challenges exist, says Shifter. These challenges - access to quality healthcare, pervasive poverty and lack of access to quality education - are prevalent not only throughout the Western Hemisphere, but throughout the world.

The Inter-American Dialogue is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis in Western Hemispheric affairs. The center brings together public and private leaders from across the Americas to address hemispheric problems and opportunities. To that end, IAD formed the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas (PREAL). It has become one of the strongest private voices on education and education reform in Latin America. The goal is to “improve quality and equity of education by helping public and private sector organizations in the hemisphere promote informed debate on education policy and monitor progress toward improvement.” This is, according to Shifter, “Very slow. Things have been tough.” Mr. Shifter was in Denver to moderate the fascinating discussion on countries succeeding, and countries still struggling to provide quality education to all their citizens. The overall sentiment was one of hope, but a realistic acknowledgment of the enormous amount of work ahead to prepare the vast population for success in the 21st century.

Extensive education monitoring programs in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Brazil are now more common. “Progress is very slow, as you have heard. If Latin America is going to get better, educators must subject themselves to these high standards of evaluations. They must be willing to have their educational systems evaluated and graded.” Shifter explained, “We have something called the 'Report Card' at the Dialogue that looks at the quality of educational systems in various countries. Once you are graded, you tend to want to improve. If you are not graded, you are not as tough on yourself. We have to be demanding!” he said.

“Although progress is slow, we are seeing change. There is more of a willingness to be evaluated that didn’t exist even five years ago. Latin America must move fast to be able to compete in a global society. They are way behind countries, like Asia, which have moved so far ahead,” Shifter said.

Statistics provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Oxfam and the World Bank show how Asia has surpassed Latin America in providing high quality education systems. In fact, forty years ago, the levels of economic development were nearly the same in Asia and Latin America. Since then, the growth of Asia’s economy has far surpassed that of Latin America and their high quality education systems have given them the advanced skills necessary to work in technologically sophisticated industries. Governments can play an important role in trying to shape programs and direct where the resources are needed. However, private companies will play a vital role in funding economic and educational growth.

Shifter was asked about the connection between home and school, and how important that relationship is, particularly in a society where the parents themselves may not be educated. “It is a big issue, very big. Latin America has a long way to go. There hasn’t, historically, been that involvement from the home, from the community, that we see here in the U.S. Parents must understand how important it is to have that awareness. The schools must be held accountable, and parents must be the ones who hold them accountable.”

He also said that a close relationship between home and school is imperative, making parents aware that they have to be involved. Until now there has been a real separation between home and school. There has to be a change in culture, a change in thinking, and in mindset that we do not see very often, yet.

How do we get higher quality, better educated teachers, and keep them there? “That is the main challenge. We have statistics that are not very encouraging. Kids are in school, but in school with teachers who themselves have serious problems, learning problems. Give them the right incentives, higher salaries and train them more effectively. Education cannot be an afterthought. It’s not just training, but the quality of that training,” said Shifter.

“Latin America has shown it can do a lot of things: it can grow; and they have great democracies, but they are still way behind in education. They have to bring together all these elements if they are going to be successful. It must have priority attention by all of the players, not only governmental, but non-governmental as well as the private sector,” Shifter continued.

And if guidelines remain in place, with leaders looking into the future, Latin America certainly has enormous potential to become a global leader in education.

Allison Salisbury is a free-lance writer, living in Centennial, CO. She works with children with Autism and behavioral disorders for the Cherry Creek School District. Allison and her daughter, Katherine, are currently working with the Somaly Mam Foundation (www.somaly.org) to provide outreach and awareness of Human Trafficking in the United States.