Disrupting Latin American education for disruptive technological change

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Estudiantes en Honduras. Jessica Belmont/ Banco Mundial Estudiantes en Honduras. Jessica Belmont/ Banco Mundial

It seems that all we like to talk these days is about the implications of disruptive technology in our lives. Digitalization, robotization, and many other concepts are being added to our lexicon almost daily. In fact, it’s not only very cool to think about a highly sophisticated technological future but it’s also key for policy makers concerned with the development path of their countries. 

Even if it is difficult to anticipate how the future will look in a few decades, we know that it will be very different from where we are today  and that it will have broad based implications. In just a few years we have seen how some industries (photographic film, CDs) and occupations (travel agent, video rental) disappeared almost overnight, and how some economic activities (taxi services) are being disrupted by the emergence of collaborative enterprises. 

To be fair, this is nothing new in history. During the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the advent of steam power and mechanization disrupted the work of weavers and other craftsmen. But the speed of the changes today is much faster than in the past, and it’s accelerating.

Indeed, according to a recent report just released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 40% of the jobs that current students would like to have in the future may disappear in the next 15 years. This is clearly an issue that policy makers must address as they need to prepare for an uncertain future that will demand different skills. This new reality calls for education systems that emphasize critical thinking rather than memorization, teachers that are ready for this challenge, and schools that have the means to host these efforts. 

If this were not enough, the challenge is not only to adapt education systems to the needs of the future, but also to address the fact that they are not even meeting current expectations. According to the World Bank Learning Poverty indicator, more than half of the 10-year-old kids in Latin America and the Caribbean can hardly read or even understand a single paragraph .

The challenges associated with the quality of education in the region are also reflected in the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized comparison of the education outcomes in more than 70 countries. The PISA results show that, on average, a 15-year-old student in Latin America and the Caribbean is three years behind in mathematics, reading, and science compared to a similar student living in an OECD country  such as Australia, Sweden, and the United States.

This is unacceptable if we are to dream about a region that adapts to the technological changes or, more importantly, if we are to dream of eliminating poverty and improving the living standards of all people in Latin America and the Caribbean. After all, to improve the welfare of the population, we need to create more jobs and ensure that they pay good salaries, something that will only happen with a productive labor force that has the required skills and education.

So, what do we need to do to fix the education system? At the World Bank, we are structuring our strategy for the region around four pillars :

  • Investing in early childhood education – we know that by age 15, children who did not go to pre-school are almost a year behind in learning outcomes compared with children who attended.
  • Measuring learning and innovation in teaching, given that it will be difficult to expect children to get familiar with new technologies if their teachers are not.
  • Addressing dropouts by increasing the flexibility of upper secondary education and by emphasizing socioemotional skills to enhance the learning experience, motivation, and employability. 
  • Pursuing best practices in governance through the introduction of quality assurance and financing mechanisms.
Estudiante de escuela de tiempo completo en el Salvador/Banco Mundial
Student of a full-time school in El Salvador / World Bank 

The challenges ahead are many. But the examples of recent improvements are also plentiful, and they should be a source of motivation for policymakers.  In Nicaragua, for example, we have been supporting the reform of pre-school education with a new curriculum and by ensuring that all pre-school teachers are trained to teach at that level. In the Dominican Republic, we have supported the introduction of adaptive technology to evaluate students’ initial cognitive levels so that personalized learning paths can be designed for them. 

In Guatemala, we have introduced models that identify students who are likely to drop out in the sixth grade, enabling officials to target resources towards those who face that risk. In Mexico, a school-based management reform was key to helping students gain 1.5 months of additional schooling per year. 

We also have examples of significant reductions in dropouts, like in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where secondary school dropout rates declined from 14% to 2% between 2008 and 2014. We also have good examples of learning progress in Peru, where the percentage of second grade students reaching level two in reading comprehension, or the ability to actually understand stated facts, increased from 16% to 44%. And we are also measuring and using learning outcomes in Paraguay.

This is a start, but we need to do much more to change education systems that were designed in the 19th century for schools built in the 20th century if we want to prepare kids for the 21st century.


Humberto López

Country Director, Türkiye

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