Education in Latin America Research Paper

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Major trends in Latin American education research reflect wider developments in academia, including its increased responsiveness to the concerns of powerful actors. The eclectic present includes echoes from once-dominant modernization and dependency perspectives on education’s role in society. Substantive interests continue to encompass such matters as expansion, inequality, identity, quality, and efficiency. Despite this continuity, the past overarching political emphasis on education for social transformation has yielded ground to research that aspires to more modest improvements through education policy. In these newer approaches, while social science methods and theories are widely invoked, most work is written by and for those interested in advocacy and reform rather than in social scientific theory per se. Several tendencies have been evident in research on compulsory primary, noncompulsory secondary, and higher education. While these levels are usually discussed separately, their investigations have much in common.

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1. Major Trends And Tendencies

Three key tendencies in research on Latin American education are internationalism, intra-national localism, and a humbled but hopeful sense of progress through the application of research to practice.

There has been a widening international exchange of scholarship among those concerned with the commonality of educational problems in Latin America and beyond. In the early 1970s, Ernesto Schiefelbein and his colleagues established the REDUC database (now available on the worldwide web), summarizing country-specific projects (Schiefelbein 1982). Numerous applications of research from one area of Latin America have become available to other nations, although there is doubt about how faithfully researchers read one another’s work (see Briones 1993 for a critical review). The Inter-American Dialogue projects and the Program to Promote Educational Reform in Latin America (PREAL) illustrate how cosmopolitan educational research has become. So does the impact of women’s movements in Latin America. United Nations conferences on population and women’s status have led to evidence for gender as an independent dimension of educational stratification (Bourque and Conway 1993). The new internationalization has blurred boundaries between research concerns and methods across countries of Latin America and other areas of the world, where common questions are posed and pursued. Nor does Latin American research today serve only to illuminate problems in other loweror middle-income countries. For example, both advocates and critics of vouchers in England and the USA read evaluations of Chilean school vouchers (see Gauri 1998). Alongside the expansionist tendency of internationalization, however, is a tendency to localism, at least at the compulsory education level. With the end of the Cold War and decline of socialist–capitalist debate, many commentators have noted a resurgence of intra-national tensions. In education research, this has been accompanied by the emergence of research questions that were long left on the back burner. Often shifting the focus from the national and legal to the postmodern construction of the group, this research has legitimated a new emphasis on grassroots change agents who, though formally without authority, use education to pursue their ends. One growing view (at least for the compulsory level) is that not only individuals but groups have rights, and this view has advanced research into the status of linguistic and other ethnic minorities (see Stavenhagen 1990 for examples in English).

The third research tendency holds that even the best social scientific research usually has limited utility for policy-makers. Some (Farrell 1995) argue that North American researchers offer little guidance for Latin America, given the intractability of Canadian and US problems, and the disagreement among academicians in wealthy countries about how to improve education. The new humility among researchers is exemplified by the work of Harbison and Hanushek (1992), in one of the most sustained and rigorous social science experiments with interventions to promote achievement, student flows, and access among the poor (in north-eastern Brazil). These researchers concluded that they were unable to say definitively whether their interventions worked as intended, though their findings suggested some positive impact. Nonetheless, the tenacity of educational problems has not led researchers to abandon explorations of how schools and universities promote progress in students or society. Rather, one narrowed focus aims to improve students’ learning, and as a consequence, to transform the societies in which they live. Nor does all contemporary reform research aspire only to incremental change or increased efficiency (though much does). Whether or not it is related to a neoliberal agenda, such research pays considerable attention to such matters as policies to promote private institutional growth, private funding of public institutions (including tuition), vouchers, and substantial decentralization of public-sector activity (on higher education, see Balan 1999, Levy 1986). One underlying impetus for policy-oriented research is the near consensus that educational performance is poor. While negativism is exaggerated in many comparisons, international tests do show Latin American countries trailing counterparts at similar levels of economic development.

2. Theory And Practice In Social Science Research

A major wave of study on Latin American education came with the modernization school that dominated social research in developing countries after World War II. Central to modernization theory was the idea that significant positive change was possible. This change could be promoted, indeed directed and accelerated, through research. Most of all, it could be accelerated through education itself. Education was often taken as the key to shaping development. Such beliefs encouraged inquiry into education in the developing world (Coleman 1965.) The main social process studied was expansion. To bring rapid and broad development, education needed to achieve greater coverage. ‘More’ generally meant ‘better.’ Primary schooling needed to achieve universal coverage and literacy; higher education needed to move from a few percent of the cohort group to 15 percent and more. Expansion at all levels was considered crucial to social mobility and decreased inequality. Another concern was education’s effect on spreading modern outlooks and norms, building identity beyond the narrower social units of village and family. Education was to contribute both to the productivity of individual students and their societies’ growth through increased skills and knowledge. Human capital and ‘rates of return’ were considered important, if crude, indicators of this growth. Politically, education was expected to promote democratic values, participation, tolerance, and national identity. A policy concern to expand schooling to the masses guided much research into the reasons why schooling was slow to take off, and how much culture and poverty impeded access. A structural–functionalist assumption in much of this work was that, properly constituted, schools and universities would naturally prepare members of society for enhanced production and creativity. However, neo-Marxists and conflict theorists emphasized the competing interests that underlay the expansion of schooling. By definition, they concluded, state actors could not play a disinterested role in providing schooling to their citizens. Dependency theory argued that the interests of the elites and governments were too often subjugated to the interests of powerful extranational forces. Some on both sides attacked extremes or stereotypes of the other side. But, over time, contributions in certain perspectives and findings from each side gained acceptance with the other.

Today, economists and sociologists continue to be concerned with the importance of schooling for national progress or national dependency. However, if the goal of education is not certification but learning, then growth needs to be accompanied by quality. One emergent agenda for researchers has been how to measure quality. Educational psychologists have developed several international applications of student achievement tests for this purpose, building on the experience of Chile, which has long included mandatory testing as a measure of school quality. Earlier optimism that ‘alternatives’ to the school could work to the interests of the poor gave way in the 1970s to the unenthusiastic understanding that formal education is here to stay. The question is whether the system can be reformed by the state (as in Colombia’s ‘New School’) or perhaps devolved to the constituencies (as in Chile) in order to increase the participation of stakeholders. The 1980s have commonly been depicted as a ‘lost decade’ for educational as well as other socioeconomic progress. Some researchers portray declining quality as the outcome of decreased per pupil spending (as percentages of GDP) at both basic and higher education levels, lamenting such matters as larger class size, and lower teacher salaries and professionalism. In this context, social psychologists have explored the subjective meaning of education to children and families, while anthropologists have looked at the integrating function of these beliefs in fragmented societies (Ansion et al. 1997). Others put more emphasis on public policies that fail to promote professional and competitive incentives for improved performance; in higher education studies this includes the deleterious consequences for quality, equality, and efficiency of overly standardized subsidization, inadequate cost recovery, and insufficient functional and inter-institutional differentiation, autonomy, and accountability (Tyler et al. 1997, Castro and Levy 2000).

A related stream of research into reform investigates the distribution of publicly financed benefits across the levels of education. Some argue that massive public universities direct resources away from primary schools, where the returns to education are greater, and where there is also greater participation by the poor. Debates over the means of higher education finance have borrowed fruitfully from a North American concern with the equality of opportunity. Will decentralized or devolved responsibilities for education tend to promote or to close off the opportunities for upward mobility? Will public universities become more accountable to business, elected government, and the general public (Brunner 1995)? How do efforts to decentralize or even privatize schools and universities expand ‘voice’ as well as ‘exit’ opportunities? Is there greater citizen participation and ownership in local or private institutions?

With regard to curricular reform, vocational training, and adult education, there is no possibility for the ‘manpower planning’ exercises seen in the early 1960s, when central government sought, and accepted, all responsibility for education. Some researchers may wish that an international market for skills and goods did not govern the educational decisions made by families and nations; but even these researchers now acknowledge the reality. Consequent questions include how foreign investment opens or closes educational possibilities, and whether technology transfer to Latin America creates in any predictable way a greater demand for science and math skills and expanded technological higher education and research. This does not mean that government planning is unconcerned with longer-term consequences. Today, how do planners and parents train children and young adults for a future that is impossible to foresee, much less to control? What types of public or private investments will prove most beneficial in the future?

3. Quality And Modes Of Production

The balance of this research paper focuses on the relationship between the substantive concerns considered above and the modes through which they are explored: how well, by whom, and within what institutional structures?

The quantity of research on Latin American education has increased notably in recent decades. Most of that which reaches an international readership comes from the larger countries led by Brazil and Mexico. More US scholars contribute research on primary–secondary levels than on higher education in Latin America. Research quality has also improved and there is a substantial tier, as noted throughout this research paper, of solid work. At the same time, too much investigation documents problems that have already been established (such as inequality in access, treatment, or results in the educational system). Too much still relies on limited data, and too little offers fresh empirical analysis. Much is based on the work of colleagues in the same unit or school of thought. Such weaknesses in educational research are hardly confined to Latin America. Further improvement could come where leading work would simultaneously consider the basic and higher education levels, where subject matter or policy reform is overlapping (as in social stratification or pressures for evaluation and accountability).

There is an increasing tendency for consultancy, contract research, and project evaluation, financed directly or indirectly through international agencies, led by the Inter-American Bank and the World Bank, as well as UNESCO. The results produced under these arrangements contrast with literature that concentrates on social critique. There is less often an assumption that central states must finance education at every level or for every individual. The efficacy of a strong state role is considered an empirical question rather than an article of faith; there is a suspicion that states are naturally poor agents of progress. National scholars sometimes react to perceived dictamens in policy or research agendas by denying the general applicability of positivism to the needs of the region, seeing structural adjustment as a dogma aimed at weakening the state, and seeing ‘North American’ approaches as neo-imperialism.

Today, however, most striking is how far these ‘alien’ assumptions have penetrated the curriculum and the national funding agencies. Even severe critics of penetration recognize its local appeal and institutionalization, sometimes even its pertinence, no longer associating empiricism with imperialism. For example, Imperialism and Education in Latin America, the 1980 classic by Argentine writer Adriana Puiggros, appeared translated and revised in 1999 as Neoliberalism and Education in the Americas, with a postscript not attributing the neoliberal movement to the interests of any particular nation.

Sociological perspectives continue to remain prominent in Latin American education research, but economics is ascendant, given the current concern with both finance and feasible change within the system more than with social transformation. Al- though there are many policy pieces by practitioners, political science per se remains limited (despite the fact that Latin American research seldom assumes that education is apolitical). Exceptions include the spurt of work on university student activism in the 1960s, on the state later on, or on the similarities and differences in educational policy when regimes change, as in Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Historical works have treated such matters as the development of national systems and universities, but much more common are historical sketches within works primarily about the present, and history has often been marginalized in today’s preoccupation with policy study. (On disciplinary mixes and other matters of research production, see Myers 1981.)

For many, the policy preoccupation also comes from the conviction that analysis can lead to improvement. This obviously contrasts to most dependency, neo-Marxist, and other grand theory in that it concentrates not on blaming broad contextual realities but on education factors that can be manipulated. Yet it also differs from modernization’s earlier optimism in that the current ‘can-do’ approach concentrates on feasible change within an accepted (if lamented) reality of the prevailing social structure and political balance of power nationally and internationally. The poor will always be with us, girls will long continue disadvantaged, but progress can nonetheless be made if researchers improve financial efficiency, incentives, teacher qualifications, curriculum, textbook distribution, and the like. These policy trends substantiate this research paper’s theme of internationalization. Educational agendas (for policy and research both) come largely from abroad. Much of Latin Americans’ best work becomes like others’ best work. Along with the influence of funding for educational research is the influence of advanced academic training in US graduate schools, as well as increased collaboration between Latin American and US scholars. Moreover, as in the wider worlds of both policy and scholarship, internationalization has been led by the USA at the higher education level, notwithstanding growing regional contact, and numerous accords with European-based NGOs and universities. Although there is still little empirical scholarship that directly compares Latin American education with that of other countries, increasingly Latin American cases enter broad international volumes and conferences (Kempner et al. 1998).

The policy and international emphases have meant major changes in who does what types of educational research within Latin America. It also could be interpreted as part of the general decline of Latin America’s left. Although a large body of work attacks international neo-liberal research-policy trends, this work appears defensive because neo-liberal projects have achieved greater currency, and funding, for their preparation and dissemination. Criticisms notwithstanding, there is a new age of interaction and even integration with US scholarship in orientation, norms, methods, and substance. Much of the internationally recognized and contract work is done in special research centers (Levy 1996). This contrasts to work done where the greatest number of the region’s professors remain: in the administrative faculties of universities, which try to combine professional training and teaching with research. In research centers, by contrast, investigators need do little teaching and are buffered from the mass student movements, labor conflicts, and political ferment common in public university faculties. Centers have usually been receptive to international ideas, money, and networks. This is true especially of freestanding private centers, but also of certain public centers or government agencies, as well as many centers inside universities. Some longstanding centers are devoted to education, whereas other work on education comes from centers more widely engaged in social analysis; respective and prominent Chilean examples have included CIDE (Center for Educational Research and Development) and FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Science). Downplaying basic and theoretical research in favor of projects aimed at policy, centers often combine research and action on education. Government funding, including that from research councils, tends to be allocated in ways supportive of internationalized orientations. The combination of governmental and international funding for educational research and graduate study abroad is hardly counterbalanced by research spending in university faculties or through teachers unions. In sum, the centers illustrate many of the tendencies identified in this research paper about both the substance and the modes of production of educational research in Latin America.

Several patterns can be identified in the expanding studies of Latin American education. These include internationalism, intra-national localism, and a reconceptualization of the relationship of scholarship to practice. The patterns reflect wider tendencies in social science research, in both substantive and methodological focuses. Notwithstanding considerable appropriate debate about these focuses, and about research purposes and quality, a fair overall assessment is that the field offers more abundant, sophisticated, and practical findings today than in the past.


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