On the Record

Has Brazil Taken the Right Approach to Education Reforms?

Emily Gustafsson-Wright and Barbara Bruns

Editor’s Note: In an interview with Inter-American Dialogue, Emily Gustafsson-Wright discusses Brazil’s new National Education Plan, which sets forth 20 goals that the country aims to achieve over the next decade. Read the full interview here

Brazil’s National
Education Plan is indeed ambitious. With
20 targets ranging from universalizing
access to early childhood education by
2016 to expanding enrollments at the
post-graduate level, the federal government has set its sights high in an effort to
address the issues of low PISA scores and
large inequalities in educational access
and quality in terms of geography, race
and income. This is not the first time that
the Brazilian government has proposed
audacious education goals, however. 

1998, it adopted a radical reform of education financing (FUNDEF and later
FUNDEB) to equalize spending per student, and the record shows impressive
progress resulted. In 2005, it set the target
of raising learning outcomes to OECD
levels by 2021 and put in place a highquality national assessment system to
monitor and publicize the progress of
every state, municipality and school in
the country. But this time, a disconcerting
factor is the outsized emphasis on spending more rather than spending better. A
target to increase public education
spending to 10 percent of GDP within a
decade is beyond what any developed or
developing country has found sustainable: the OECD average of 5.8 percent
and Brazil’s current average of 5.7 percent are little more than half that. Where
that money will come from, at least in
part, was confirmed by President Dilma
Rousseff when she signed a law that earmarks 75 percent of oil royalties for education. How it will be distributed and
spent effectively is less clear. 

Global education data show no automatic correlation between public education spending
and education results: Singapore and
Japan spend less than 4 percent of GDP
on public education and rank highly on
PISA, and Finland, spending 6.8 percent
of GDP, the lowest of the Nordic countries, far outperforms its neighbors.
Brazil is a hotbed of education innovation at the state and municipal levels and
is making steady progress nationally on
access, attainment and learning. But
faster progress will come not from spending more but from learning more—
through careful tracking of incremental
funding and results—about which programs and strategies produce the biggest
learning gains per unit of spending.