Schooling Without Learning

Lemann Foundation
Jan 15 · 4 min read

Finally, Most Kids in Developing Countries are in School. The Problem is They Still Aren’t Learning.

By Denis Mizne

At the beginning of the school year, in what has now become a rite of passage, parents post pictures of their children heading off for their first day of school. Sneakers are immaculate, plaits are pristine, and eyes are teary.

Imagine if that little baby bursting with potential came home from school, day after day, semester after semester, year after year — unable to read a storybook or add up a column of numbers.

This scenario, as preposterous as it seems, happens with shocking predictability in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Brazil, 50 percent of our kids are still illiterate by third grade compared to 4 percent of American students at that age.

Brazil faces from what the World Bank calls “learning poverty,” shorthand for children who’ve reached age 10 and still can’t read. Learning poverty, which lies at the heart of global poverty, afflicts only 9 percent of children in rich countries compared to more than half of all students in low- and middle-income countries.

When you put it in historical perspective, you can see how we got here. Universal education is still a relatively new concept in many countries. In Brazil, it took decades to persuade people that universal access to education was a right and not a privilege. Then came the momentous feat of getting millions of children in Rio’s hilltop favelas and Amazônia’s remote villages into classrooms.

But it turned out getting those little ones seated at school desks wasn’t the biggest challenge; it was making sure they were learning once they got there. Of the 4 million babies born each year, 50 percent can’t read at age eight. That number becomes even more untenable for the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous children in more vulnerable districts where the illiteracy rates can climb to 80 percent.

The World Bank estimated it will take Brazil more than 260 years to reach the rich-country average score in reading. However, if you know even a very little bit about Brazilians, you’ll appreciate that we are not taking that lying down.

Case in point: Sobral, one of Brazil’s poorest cities, miraculously managed to transform itself into the country’s top-ranked district. In just five years, the literacy rates rose from 52 percent to 92 percent and overall test scores surpassed those of their counterparts in the richest suburbs of São Paulo and Rio. It was as if public school students in an impoverished area of the Bronx topped the ones in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

An otherwise unremarkable town of 200,000 in the arid hinterland of northeast Brazil, Sobral made the kind of stunning turnaround that’s pretty much unheard of in education policy circles. The Lemann Foundation, which is dedicated to improving public education, partnered with Sobral’s leadership to learn how they did it so we could help replicate the success across the country.

What we found out, believe it or not, was that it all started with an attitude change. Politicians, school administrators, and teachers in one of the country’s most hopeless places needed convincing that there was hope. A strong communal belief was nurtured that all children, regardless of their origins, have the right to learn. After that, it was all about bringing pedagogy to the center, benchmarking, and getting teachers the resources, training, and support they needed. No magic bullet. But it turns out that magic happens when people who care do the mundane work of getting it done.

Through a program called Fair Future for All, we are now implementing those changes nationally. We also led the movement for National Learning Standards, which are similar to the Common Core initiative in the US. These benchmarks define the knowledge and skills that all Brazilian students have the right to learn, no matter where they live, how poor their neighborhood is, or what color they are.

In Brazil, we cannot afford to lose another generation to the cycle of inequality that has swallowed up every generation before it.

And while we need to measure every single data point to ensure we are making progress, sometimes numbers can get in the way of remembering what we are really talking about here. It’s nothing less than giving children a fair shot at realizing their full human potential.

It’s about sending our babies off to school and knowing they are going to come home babbling excitedly about what they learned that day. And every day thereafter.

Denis Mizne is the CEO of the Lemann Foundation, whose mission is to advance Brazil’s development with equity by focusing on two fronts: high-quality public education and supporting future leaders committed to making the country a more just and equal place.

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