Brazil Posts Low Education Scores, Citizens Take Teaching Into Their Own Hands

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Brazil Posts Low Education Scores, Citizens Take Teaching Into Their Own Hands

Publication Date

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Jacauna Medeiros is a teacher in São Lourenço da Mata, a city in northeastern Brazil. But lately, his work has extended beyond the private school where he teaches. In response to low test scores and a lack of government funding, he has single-handedly taken on the task of educating thousands of adults and children here outside of school.

São Lourenço is known for its reserve of pau-brasil, or brazilwood, the tree that gave the country its name. The country will also host the World Cup in 2014. While many say Brazil’s reputation has changed for the better in recent years, new data about the country’s educational record has been a blemish.

In São Lourenço, a lack of teachers, toilets and sports facilities are among the most apparent problems. Without classroom materials, the majority of students here are testing far below average in Portuguese and math.

“The greatest challenge is related to the lack of material support, adequate places for the students to sit, board [and] airing,” Medeiros says.

So Medeiros says he is trying to spark change on his own by teaching new skills and advocating for more engaged citizenship. With an educational radio program and neighborhood-based language classes, he is helping young students learn basic skills and affording older pupils, like housewives who never attended school, a chance to achieve basic literacy and advanced citizenship skills. For Medeiros, education is a tool that can free people from poverty and encourage them to exercise their rights as citizens.

Although education in Brazil has been slowly improving during the last decade, it still produces low test scores compared with other nations in the world. In the impoverished city of São Lourenço, teachers and advocates say education is sorely lacking. Medeiros says he felt he had no option but to begin his own program. Illiteracy among children and adults in their native Portuguese, program costs and a lack of governmental support are his primary challenges. But São Lourenço’s mayor says the city and federal governments have implemented programs to improve education. Still, teachers say it’s not enough. Medeiros is not focused on blame or politics – just action and solutions.

In 2010, Brazil’s GDP was the highest it had been in 25 years, according to government data. But according to a 2008 World Bank report, the country’s lack of education, especially in rural areas, is hurting Brazil’s ability to compete against other low and middle-income economies for new investments and economic growth opportunities. Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who completed only the fourth grade, set a goal to give young Brazilians the chance he never had. With much work still to be done, his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was inaugurated as the country’s first female president in January, called education “the most important issue facing Brazil,” according to The New York Times.

Data indicates that education in Brazil has been improving, but it still lags behind when compared to other industrialized countries. In 2000, Brazil ranked last in the Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, which aims to test how much children are learning in school. At the time, just 50 percent of children finished primary school and three in four adults were functionally illiterate in Brazil, according to The Economist. In the OECD’s latest PISA in 2009, Brazil showed improvements in all three subjects tested – reading, math and science – but still placed near the bottom. Out of 65 countries, Brazil finished 57th in math and 53rd in reading and science.

And the state of Pernambuco, where São Lourenço is located, has one of the worst educational records in Brazil, according to the 2010 census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE. The majority of kids here attend school, but just 20.6 percent of fourth-graders have reached their grade level in Portuguese and only 16 percent in math. Eighth-grade test scores reflect similar levels. Illiteracy is another problem, as nearly 6 percent of children ages 10 to 14 and 18.5 percent of those older than 15 in Pernambuco are illiterate.

During the week, Medeiros teaches Portuguese grammar, composition, reading comprehension and literature during a 20-minute slot in a radio program on a local station. On Fridays, he teaches English and Spanish. On Saturdays, he presents a culture and entertainment program in which educational content is always present.

“I proposed myself to be in this program in order to offer education in a broader range,” he says.

He also runs a language course on Saturday afternoons for 40 to 60 people who want to learn English or Spanish. Medeiros has a 10-class scheme in which he goes to a neighborhood in São Lourenço and spends 10 Saturdays teaching Spanish and English at a school or church. After 10 weeks, he moves on to a new neighborhood and starts teaching again. But he encourages his students to continue their learning after he leaves their neighborhoods by participating in his radio program and blog, which he says gets 2,000 hits a month.

One of Medeiros’ students, Aleksandro de Paula, 35, says the teacher’s language classes have taught him new skills and have improved the skills he learned in school. He also says learning new languages will make it easier to receive tourists for the World Cup.

“I’d like to see more initiatives like this and even a continuation, with more advanced courses so that we would be able to receive well the tourist[s] and even get a job which requires English or Spanish,” de Paula says. “City hall should support this initiative.”

Even teachers say they’ve benefited from Medeiros’ courses. One teacher, Ella Maria, 24, says the opportunity to learn new languages was important for her improvement as a teacher and also as a university student.

“Those classes were good because, as a teacher from the municipal education network and a university student, for sure, I will always need to know English and Spanish,” she says. “I also take the opportunity to improve what I’ve already known and even apply in the school where I work. I would like it to be a daily program.”

Medeiros says the program aims not only to teach listeners new information, but also to create “opinion leaders” by giving them an opportunity to practice their citizenship. Listeners can participate in the live radio program via text messages, phone calls or the Internet. Medeiros says that as many as 40,000 people here follow the program and provide positive feedback about how they have benefited from the initiative.

He says he hopes to improve São Lourenço’s educational reputation once the radio show airs on the Internet and can be heard worldwide.

But Medeiros says it’s hard to teach English and Spanish when many of the students don’t even know the basics of Portuguese. Plus, teaching materials and radio time can be expensive. He does not earn a salary for his radio program or language courses. Still, students must pay for the materials to participate.

He says he invites the students to pool their money to afford photocopies of the materials but that classes still fall short. He says he makes do with the materials they can afford but asks students to at least bring a kilogram, or 2 pounds, of food once during the 10 weeks to exercise their citizenship by donating to people in need.

The success and interest in his programs have left many here wondering why the government is not offering financial support.

São Lourenço’s mayor, Ettore Labanca, says he has been working to improve the municipal education network since he took office in 2009. He says his government has raised teachers’ salaries by more than 60 percent, improved school facilities and increased student attendance from 11,500 in 2008 to 15,000 today.

He says three federal education programs have also benefited São Lourenço’s schools. The first program, Everyone for Education, has five goals to improve school attendance and the quality of education. The second program, More Eduction, aims to increase the number of hours students spend in school by offering more subjects, such as human rights, culture and arts, health education and sports. The third program, Teach to Read and Write for the Success, aims to keep young children in school by offering training in reading, math, and comprehension of natural and social phenomena.

Still, Medeiros and other teachers say more needs to be done.

“The situation has improved a little in [the] state educational network, but it is still necessary to unify the incentive to the teacher, improve the welcoming conditions to the students – not only to those who spend the whole day in the school, but also to the others as well – besides integrating the parents [more] [in]to the school,” says Milton Filho, 37, a local teacher.

Another teacher, Gabriela Calado, 26, says state schools have improved, but says teachers receive low salaries and are subject to daily verbal abuse and disrespect from the students.

“The respect for the teacher has been lost and to bring it back it’s necessary to have a parental monitoring in the student’s background, another problem that we face,” Calado says.

But for Medeiros, the time for blame has passed. He says he is focused on three concrete solutions to improve education in the city.

“First, it’s necessary to offer support to the people or institutions that want to offer education or leisure on the weekends, giving them not only financial aid, but also allowing [them] Internet access [and] classes with dynamic resources, such as projectors,” he says.

Second, he says there should be more space for young students to participate in educational, recreational and cultural programs during the week. Third, he recommends that the government’s various ministries form a competent and dynamic network to identify the public’s needs.

“The federal government social aid network is only efficient with the honest and competent municipal application,” Medeiros says.

Medeiros says that the population is becoming more aware of the educational crisis here and, in order to get a better response from the government, citizens must start to educate themselves, acquiring more capacity to argue and criticize. He wants students to learn more than just Portuguese, English and Spanish from his programs. He wants them to learn that it is possible to have a broader sense of citizenship and to exercise their rights as citizens to take advantage of the many opportunities in the world.