Innovation to leapfrog educational progress in Latin America

Children participate in a computing class at an Innova school in the outskirts of Lima

Over the past decade, Latin America has seen significant growth of its scores on international student assessments. For example, results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2015 Program for International Student Assessment indicate that average Latin American reading scores have grown by 6.6 percent since 2006. On measures of equity, too, Latin America has improved; between 2006 and 2015, all participating countries narrowed the performance gap between the richest and poorest learners.

But, despite these successes, Latin America still struggles to prepare its young people for work and life. Countries in the region continue to underperform when compared to nations with similar levels of GDP and education spending. According to Inter-American Development Bank estimates, Latin America is decades behind from reaching the scores of today’s high-achieving nations. Even the region’s highest performer, Chile, will not be able to catch up to the OECD average at its current rate of improvement.

The education challenges facing Latin America

The region’s learning challenges are compounded by the rapid pace of social and technological change transforming work across the globe. For years, economists around the world have warned global leaders of an impending skills crisis. Employers are increasingly unable to find workers with the diverse cognitive, social, and emotional skills they need to complement an ever-automating workforce. Already, research in Latin America reveals that over 40 percent of Latin American youth feel they lack the skills necessary to thrive in their current positions. For education researchers, this highlights a troubling fact: Even if Latin America manages to close the academic achievement gaps of today, students will still not have the broad range of skills needed for work and life in the coming decades.


But there is reason to be hopeful. At the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, we have spent the past two years exploring how practitioners might leverage education innovations around the world to “leapfrog” education—that is, rapidly accelerating educational progress to ensure all learners have the skills they need to thrive. In our recent report, Can We Leapfrog? The Potential of Education Innovations to Rapidly Accelerate Progress, we, along with our colleague Eileen McGivney, set forth an evidence-based framework for what works in transforming education—our “Leapfrog Pathway.” Against this framework, we cataloged nearly 3,000 examples of education innovation from around the globe and analyzed their potential to help the world’s youth leap ahead.

Our analysis revealed that Latin America is rife with innovation and, indeed, is well poised to contribute to a global leap forward. Roughly 15 percent of all cataloged innovations come from the region, with notable hubs in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile—each home to over 50 documented innovations. Hearteningly, over half of all Latin American innovations have the explicit goal of improving learning for marginalized communities, including low-income learners, out-of-school children, and students with disabilities. We are happy to see that, of these innovations targeting marginalized learners, many are far along our leapfrog pathway—and thus hold great promise for accelerating educational progress.

Examples of innovators in Latin America

Along the first core element of our pathway—creating student-centered teaching and learning experiences—Brazil’s Núcleos Avançados em Educação (NAVE) stands out. A network of public technical high schools, the NAVE system is the result of a partnership between two state governments and the social responsibility arm of Oi, a Brazilian telecom company. To prepare leaners for the creative digital economy, NAVE complements academically-rigorous postsecondary programming with hands-on digital skills specializations. Over three years, NAVE students pursue coursework in one of three areas: digital game design, multimedia design, or digital scriptwriting.

Relying on these digital skills, NAVE uses applied and project-based learning, through which students collaboratively design tech solutions for public consumption. For example, a NAVE game design student in chemistry class might team up with a digital scriptwriting peer to develop a mobile game about fighting viruses using specific chemical compounds. The results of such hands-on, creative learning are promising: NAVE schools scored first place among all public schools in their respective states on the national secondary leaving exam showing that it is possible to master academic subjects while also developing 21st century skills.

Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (SAT) stands out along the second core element in our pathway—recognizing learning in more flexible ways. Developed in Colombia, SAT is an alternative secondary school program offering flexible learning to young people in isolated, rural communities across Latin America. Trained tutors, hired from the local community, guide students through lessons applied to rural life and work. A math lesson, for example, might involve students conducting and analyzing a demographic survey of local farms.

With SAT, learning is flexible and tailored to students’ individual struggles and strengths. Tutors work around farming hours to facilitate heterogeneous group learning; within groups, students’ progress at their own pace, with advanced learners guiding and supporting their peers. Additionally, governments in Honduras and Colombia recognize SAT learners with official certifications, allowing participants to secure jobs requiring a secondary degree or continue on to post-secondary education. Today, SAT is active in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In Honduras, testing data revealed that SAT participants scored 45 percent higher on government exams than peers in non-SAT villages in addition to qualitative studies that showed increases in students’ confidence and ability to shape their own lives.

Of course, these examples only scratch the surface of Latin American innovation. The education innovators in the region are diverse and energetic, producing everything from literacy programs that serve a handful of rural learners to massive e-learning hubs that reach millions. If we can tap the potential of these promising innovation efforts learners across Latin America will be well on their way to the leap they need to thrive now and into the future.