Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives: the Best Way to Tackle Education Quality?

Access and Inclusion May 02, 2016

This article is part of a series on innovative solutions to tackle the main challenges of Latin American education (part 6 of 7).

Across Latin America, there is broad agreement on the region’s education challenges. Everyone from corporations to unions point to poor early childhood development, high school dropout rates, worryingly low student performance even as enrollment rises, reduced college acceptance, and a near total lack of vocational and technical training options. All of these factors feed into a broader problem: the widening “skills gap” between what is learned in schools and what is needed for jobs in the real world.

The first problem is that children are not finishing what they start. Data from the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) finds that while school retention rates have improved to 88 percent for primary schools, graduation rates at the high school level are just 60 percent.  

Even for those who do finish their studies, the overall quality of learning is lacking. The OECD’s international rankings, the PISA exams, revealed Latin American countries to be in the bottom 20 percent of global educational achievement. Chile, the best-performing nation in the region, ranked only 51st of 65 countries.

While there is debate over how to fix this, it does seem clear that more money alone isn’t necessarily the answer. Education budgets have been increasing around Latin America, without much to show for it. The Argentinean think tank CIPPEC found that overall education spending around the region increased from an average of just over 4 percent of GDP in 2000 to 5.4 percent in 2011—an increase, however modest, that exceeded average economic growth. Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay led the pack in increased spending.

The truth is that, looking at the recent data on educational achievement, high impact improvements have been few and far between. There is still much to be done to make sure that all students, no matter their socioeconomic background, can get a good education. 

And where there have been improvements, they have come not from traditional approaches, but rather from innovative partnerships between the public sector, civil society, and corporations. In these “multi-stakeholder initiatives,” different sectors bring different competencies, and often use pilot projects to demonstrate initial success that can then be scaled up to the rest of the population. 

One example is the Colombian Ministry of Education, which has launched a program called “Ser Pilo Paga” (meaning, roughly, “It pays to be a nerd”). It has become one of the cornerstones of Colombia’s efforts to turn its educational outcomes around, by striking at the heart of the country’s entrenched socioeconomic inequalities. The program offers university grants to promising low-income students, reaching more than ten thousand students directly. The result? An eight point increase in the average scores of the college entrance exams.

Mexico, which is undergoing a significant educational reform under President Enrique Peña Nieto, is betting on increased school autonomy. Secretary of Education Aurelio Nuño recently presented a program that devolves more authority to the local level, strengthening the leadership of school principals, parents, and local technical councils. Some twenty thousand schools, starting with the most vulnerable, will be able to decide themselves how to allocate their budgets, the number of school days, and other key aspects of their daily management. 

In Argentina, Education Minister Esteban Bullrich has sought what he calls an “education revolution” by focusing on technical and vocational training. The National Institute of Technical Education (INET in Spanish), through the National Council on Education, Labor, and Production (CONETyP) is empowering local schools to build bridges with the private sector. The goal is to improve the school-to-work transition for students across the country, in turn boosting employment and competitiveness. 

And then there is the Brazilian SENAI (National Service of Industrial Training), a network of non-profit professional schools aimed at providing specialized training for workers. Along with the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI), the Industry Social Service (SESI) and the Euvaldo Lodi Institute (IEL), SENAI is well known for a high quality of instruction, which has been key for developing Brazil’s industrial sectors. 

Currently, SENAI, with over eight hundred branches throughout Brazil, receives more than 2.5 million applications for around three thousand courses that prepare workers for twenty-eight industrial areas. Courses range from high school degrees to vocational trainings, and even include college and graduate degrees. In a country of two hundred million people, over fifty million professionals have graduated from SENAI since its inception. 

SENAI, along with the other examples from Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, demonstrate the power of collaboration between policymakers, businesses, and local civil society. When it comes to education reform, repeating the same tactics and focusing on top-down solutions won’t bring the change we need. It is time to try something new—and governments across the region are starting to rise to the challenge.