Argentina among worst for education, says OECD report

Country is ranked 57 out of 64 in OECD survey of ‘low-performing’ teenagers

Two out of three Argentine teenagers are classified as “low performers” in mathematics, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that ranks Argentina 57th out of 64 countries in the subject.

The study, which was based on results from the PISA survey between 2003 and 2012, ranks Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia among the worst 10 performers in maths, science and reading.

The report also said that around 4.5 million 15-year-olds in OECD countries, equivalent to more than one in four, “fail to achieve the most basic level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and/or science.”

But in other nations, especially those in Latin America, the share is often much larger.

The number of underachievers in maths — a category that groups students who fail to have even “a basic understanding of fundamental mathematical concepts and operations” — reached 66.5 percent, while slightly improved results were seen in Reading (53.6 percent of underperformers) and science (50.9 percent).

The 212-page report, titled Low Performing Students: Why they fall behind and how to help them succeed, recalled that a worrying percentage of 15-year-old students in Argentina score below the baseline level of proficiency in the three core subjects that PISA analyzes.

Out of 637,603 Argentine students that took the exams, 264,105 scored low in all three subjects.

“There is a general consensus that there is low quality of education in Argentina — specifically, that kids don’t grab the necessary tools to cope with contemporary challenges,” Guillermina Tiramonti, an education expert at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO), told the Herald.

“This seems pretty clear among parents, but it’s even clearer for the different players in the education sector. In other words, teachers know this school model has reached a dead end,” she added.

Students ‘lack skills’

Throughout the last decade, the administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) made a point of boosting spending on education, passing a law that expands mandatory schooling and forcing the government to devote no less than six percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the area.

Even as the added funds help the sector, specialists argue that few efforts were put in place to improve quality.

“On one hand, enrollment has increased greatly, but on the other we continue to see very poor results,” said Tiramonti.

According to the FLACSO expert, there is no point in dismissing PISA exams for its alleged Eurocentric bias — a claim made by media pundits.

“The question we should be asking ourselves is this: why is the entire region underperforming their PISA targets?” the specialist said. “Since those exams evaluate skills more than contents, we might conclude that our teenagers are not only unable to understand a set of basic instructions, but also incapable of solving trivially simple problems.”

Sociologist Cecilia Veleda, a former education coordinator at the CIPPEC think-tank, stressed that there was also a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments in the results. In 1992, the schools’ administration and funding became a provincial responsibility, which further increased inequalities among provinces.

Veleda quoted studies showing that “education quality comes from teaching quality,” suggesting the national government’s proposal to evaluate teachers should be the next move on the agenda. She recently accepted an offer by Education Minister Esteban Bullrich to head the state-run National Institute of Teacher Training (INFD).

Bullrich, a long-time ally of President Mauricio Macri from his days as mayor of Buenos Aires City, has stirred controversy by proposing to tie teacher salaries to test scores — a move that was harshly criticized by teachers unions and some specialists.

“Grading teachers will not solve, by itself, the problems of quality in education,” Tiramonti said yesterday. “Evaluation could help us grasp where we stand, but after that we need to make up consistent public policies. Otherwise, we would just be threatening teachers.”

Widespread problem

in region

The systematically low standards of schools are a common problem for all countries in the region.

Colombia, for instance, is slightly worse off than Argentina, with more than half of its students failing to reach an acceptable threshold of learning in reading (50.8 percent) and science (55 percent) and almost three out of four students (73.8 percent) underperforming in maths exams.

Brazil also showed similar results, but with a slightly better performance in maths (68.3 percent). The country joined the select group of nine countries that reduced their share of low performers in mathematics between 2003 and 2012.

Peru was, by far, the nation with the poorest scores in Latin America, with a stunning 60 percent of students falling below standard in reading and 68.5 percent “failing” their science exams — the worst in the world among the countries analyzed.

Uruguay and Chile showed moderately better results, but far from the OECD average that had 23 percent of students as low performers in mathematics, the report said.

The OECD was formed in 1960, when 18 European countries, plus the United States and Canada, moved to create an organization dedicated to economic development. It now has 34 member countries.

“When a large share of the population lacks basic skills, a country’s long-term economic growth is severely compromised,” Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of Education and Skills said yesterday.

To break the cycle of disengagement and low performance, countries can act on a number of recommendations, including “to identify low performers and design a tailored policy strategy, to reduce inequalities in access to early education” and to encourage the involvement of parents and local communities.

The report stressed that “countries as economically and culturally diverse as Brazil, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Tunisia and Turkey reduced their share of low performers in mathematics between 2003 and 2012.” This led the OECD to conclude that “reducing the share of low performers is possible anywhere, given the right policies and the will to implement them.”

“Countries and economies where the majority of 15-year-old students performs below the baseline level of proficiency in one, two or all three subjects PISA assesses may want to consider comprehensive education reforms,” the report said.

Herald staff

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