Despite challenges, Brazil strives to achieve its education goals


Perhaps nothing characterizes the recent trend of the Brazilian education system better than Bolsonaro’s attempts to stifle its development. In doing so, the President’s measures encapsulate the system’s past deficits, sustained but moderate growth over the centuries, and possible hopes for the future.

The Brazilian educational system can be neatly divided into approximately six or seven historical periods. Initiated by the Jesuits during the colonial period of Brazil from 1500 to 1822, formal education did not emerge until the Napoleonic invasions prompted the Portuguese crown to settle in Brazil in 1808.

Reflecting the country’s classic deficit in education, resources and structure, these historical developments will have repercussions on the development of education in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

It was not until the 20th century that the true format of the Brazilian education system emerged. With the founding of the Universidade do Rio de Janeiro in 1920 and under Vargas in the 1930s and 1940s, the legal framework of the education system based on bureaucratic control reflected the often conservative and suppressed development that came to characterize attempts to development of basic educational objectives in Brazil. .

After the 1950s and 1960s, during the military regime from 1964 to 1980, the culture began to change. Indeed, the Brazilian miracle of the 1970s and the emergence of a middle class stimulated the demand for education, but in the 1980s the aim for higher goals again stagnated.

It was not until the Cardoso administration of the 1990s that significant reforms took place, particularly in primary education, as well as with the implementation of Provão (national course evaluation) and FUNDEF (primary education and teacher development).

Both added flexibility and decentralization to the system, but overall funding was absent, hampering attempts to improve the system, rooted in a fundamental legacy of imperialism and capitalism.

The structure of the Brazilian education system is relatively simple, divided mainly into basic education (Educação Básica) and higher education (Educação Superior).

Basic education includes Educação Infantil (4-5 years), Ensino Fundamental (grades 1-9) and Ensino Médio (grades 10-12), while higher education (Ensino Superior) is structured around vocational training (Cursos sequenciais), undergraduate (Graduação), graduate (Pós-graduação) and continuing education (Extensão).

While the fundamental objective of primary education is literacy, Ensino Médio seeks to broaden the intellectual horizons of students with courses in literature, history, mathematics and science. After that, admission to Brazilian universities is extremely competitive.

While tuition is free at public universities, private universities remain expensive. Students must pass an entrance exam (vestibular) based on the ENEM high school exam, designed for specific courses after registration.

Since only a relatively small number of Brazilians pursue university studies, the awarding of master’s (generally 2 years) and doctoral (generally 3 to 5 years) degrees (known as programs stricto sensu) are based on the North American model system.

According to the Ministry of Education (MEC), there are more than 2,600 universities in the country, with the University of São Paulo being the main public university.

The Brazilian education system has many notable qualities, but is perhaps no better characterized than by its glaring shortcomings. Ranked No. 32 in the world ranking of skills in education, exceeding the OECD average of incomplete secondary education, 29% of its population can be classified as functionally illiterate, with only 88.7% completing secondary education. base.

Brazil remains dominated by racial, economic and regional disparities, highlighted by the poor Northeast and the more affluent Southeast. Successive administrations under Cardoso, Lula and Rousseff have sought to address these inequalities, with programs such as FUNDEF (a program to reduce disparities in primary education), PROUNI (a plan that offers tax incentives to private universities as well as quotas for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples) and Science Without Borders (a study abroad program), but overall Brazil has not been able to overcome its historical and fundamental structures.

Plagued by issues of access, retention and quality, the education system remains highly stratified, favoring the private elite over the general population. Preparing for the vestibular entrance exam to university reinforces this gap since only half of the working population has completed secondary education. Less than three-quarters of 15-24 year olds have primary education skills, with universities serving only 2% of active enrolment.

Perhaps most importantly, the survival and fabric of Brazilian society, as well as countries around the world, are rooted in the goals of education. Education has a direct impact on earning potential, social and technological progress, and overall economic productivity – therein lies the heart of Brazil’s historic aspirations to overcome centuries of limited social mobility and economic inequality. .

Nevertheless, there is reason to hope. COVID has prompted a reassessment of teaching methods, and a 2021 paper published in Cambridge highlighted the goals of creative problem solving, personalization and retention of teaching, curriculum flexibility, expansion of the school day, blended learning and global citizenship training for young people, as well as the expansion of post-secondary education that could significantly improve the education matrix in Brazil.

But ultimately, reform must come from within the political structure, in a top-down embrace of citizens’ rights. At stake is the fundamental need for a transformation of the culture of education and decision-making that not only benefits the Brazilian elite, but also the entire population.

As described, the future of education reform will rely primarily on political decision-making. As public universities depend almost entirely on the government, Bolsonaro’s ‘war on education’, along with the dismissal of Milton Ribeiro and the recent high turnover of education ministers, point to and contribute to political instability. education under the current administration.

This freeze could end with a victory for Lula in the October elections and the resumption of the leadership of the PT, and a possible reapplication of progressive politics. Change can certainly happen.

As education is a primary determinant of economic viability and productivity, Brazil’s endemic inequality based on a history of educational disparities will require both fundamental overhaul and constant change if society can be transformed for the better. . With a concerted effort, hope is still there.

Peter Sufrin holds an MA in History from Boston University, an MA in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University, and an MA in Portuguese from the University of Massachusetts/Dartmouth. He is an associate member of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC and a regular contributor to the Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor, Brazil Report, US Diplomacy, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and Brazzil.


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