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Unequal improvement

Improved access to basic education has been accompanied by an increase in learning gaps, hindering black and pardo students, and all students from lower socioeconomic levels

Augusto ZambonatoElementary education in Brazil can be considered universal today, with 99.2% of children between the ages of 6 and 14 attending school. This figure represents 26.5 million students, according to the Continuous National Household Sample Survey: Education (Continuous PNAD), published at the end of December by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). At the same time, another survey using PNAD data, produced by the Brazilian unit of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO), found that while in 2002 only 10.7% of the country’s poorest youth started high school at the appropriate age, today that figure has risen to 39%. While recognizing the importance of these advances, the numbers indicate that the inequalities that were once apparent in simply gaining access to public schools are now revealed to exist within them, with growing disparities in learning levels that can reach the equivalent of three years of education between children of the same age. The Center for Research on School Inequalities (NUPEDE) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) confirmed the finding by analyzing scores from the Prova Brasil (Brazil Test) between 2005 and 2013, which included about 23 million students and 70,000 schools in all 5,570 Brazilian municipalities.

“The inequality in education between groups from different socioeconomic levels has grown. Students subject to more than one characteristic associated with social marginalization perform much worse than others,” says statistician José Francisco Soares, retired UFMG professor, former president of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP), and one of the authors of the study, which was supported by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Minas Gerais State Research Foundation (FAPEMIG). Soares points out that although the average school performance of students in public schools has shown an improvement of almost 20 points, which corresponds to a difference of about one school year, the learning gap between some groups can be as much as three years of education. Such is the case of white boys with high socioeconomic status (SES) and black girls with low SES when assessing their math skills (see graphs). The results of the study were summarized in the article “Educational inequalities in primary education from 2005 to 2013: Gaps between social groups” published in the Revista Brasileira de Sociologia (Brazilian journal of sociology) in 2016.

The Prova Brasil—part of what is known today as the Basic Education Assessment System (SAEB)—is an educational evaluation carried out biennially by INEP. Composed of mathematics and Portuguese language tests, it assesses students in the 5th and 9th grades of primary school on a scale from 0 to 500, and is one of the factors used to calculate the Index of Development of Basic Education (IDEB), which evaluates the quality of basic education in Brazil. In order to classify the students of the schools where the tests were taken, the NUPEDE researchers used an SES indicator that relates criteria such as the education and occupations of the student’s parents, major material possessions, hiring of domestic servants, and household income. In the study, the learning disparities are assessed separately according to students’ SES, race, and gender, and also through cutouts that relate the three categories, forming several subgroups.

“Learning problems in primary education create a barrier to access to higher levels of education. Lower proficiency by black and pardo students—the latter generally understood as mixed-race or an intermediary category between black and white—as well as students with lower SES, puts them at a disadvantage when pursuing further education,” says Maria Teresa Gonzaga Alves, a professor at the Department of Applied Sciences for Education (DECAE) ​​at UFMG, and NUPEDE coordinator. Alves explains that by analyzing the data from five editions of the Prova Brasil, advances in proficiency during the initial years of primary education were identified. However, the social groups that made progress were those that were most advantaged. Alves notes that, with the expansion of basic education, the inequalities that previously had impacted school access and academic advancement are now being seen in the growing increase of educational inequality.

When assessing differences in learning related to student gender, the research identified that for 5th and 9th grade reading, the averages had improved. However, girls achieved higher proficiency and the differences had increased in relation to the boys’ levels. In mathematics, the averages also went up, but in this case it was the boys who were learning more.

Regarding race differences, the study assessed that students who self-reported as black improved in overall proficiency. However, they showed poorer performance when compared to white or pardo students. In addition, the learning gap between blacks and pardos is less when compared to the differences between white and black students. The survey also shows that black students, even though attending the same grade as white students, had learned the equivalent of one year less of formal education.

Learning gap between some groups of students can be up to three years of education

The greatest disparities were identified in relation to SES. Overall learning averages increased, but students with low socioeconomic status did not show significant variations in their scores. In this context, one of the most significant data points can be observed in 2013 in the 5th grade students, both in reading and math tests. At this grade level, students with low SES demonstrated a disadvantage equivalent to more than two years of education when compared to students with high SES.

By intersecting the three criteria (gender, race, and SES), the study identified groups in which the differences are most evident. In the graph showing the reading results, the largest spread appears among white girls with high SES (5th group) and black boys with low SES (1st group). It can be observed that in the 5th grade, the distance between these two extreme groups increased between 2005 and 2013. In the graph that shows mathematical learning (page 19), the biggest difference emerges among white boys with high SES and black girls with low SES. The research identified that students enrolled in the same grade, but differing in relation to gender, color, and SES, may show learning gaps greater than three years.

Léo Ramos Chaves Schools in Reverendo Urbano, in São Miguel Paulista…Léo Ramos Chaves

Differences across municipalities
The UFMG study also sought to measure educational equity among social groups in schools according to municipality. Alves, from UFMG, explains that in a situation of educational equity, characteristics associated with social marginalization—such as lower socioeconomic standing, female gender, and black skin—should show effects equal to or close to zero on learning levels. “For proficiency in mathematics, we don’t find any municipalities in which average scores for black and white students are equal,” Alves says. She notes that in Salvador, Bahia, the effect of color on learning is less pronounced. However, the averages of students there are low in general, which means that equity exists in a learning situation that is inadequate for all groups.

Regarding this second part of the research, José Francisco Soares observes that learning levels in these cities were classified as basic, adequate, and advanced. In Teresina, Piauí, the educational differences are lower, but the average level of the students is below basic. In Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, the general average is higher, but blacks learned less. “Educational inequalities are different in every part of the country. One especially perverse type is the disparity observed in cities whose average performance is high, but certain groups still learn less,” he notes.

Léo Ramos Chaves …and Fernão Dias Paes, in Pinheiros, São Paulo: students in poorer areas tend to have lower average scoresLéo Ramos Chaves

Arnaldo Mont’Alvão, a researcher at the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ), and at Iowa State University in the United States, suggests some reasons that may explain this scenario. Mont’Alvão states that as educational systems expand, inequalities move vertically and horizontally. When access to primary education becomes universal, inequalities move to the next higher level, secondary school, creating bottlenecks that impede the passage of some groups of young people into that educational level. The researcher explains that in Brazil this happens because while basic education is almost universal, in high school the vacancies are scarcer, which creates competition for the available openings, a process that favors students with better scores. “We use the concept of vertical stratification to discuss how inequalities affect successive transitions between stages in the education system,” Mont’Alvão says.

The second explanation given relates to the fact that, as a certain level of schooling becomes universal, new avenues open to ensure that some students continue to have advantages in the competition for the best schools. “Families from the highest socioeconomic strata try to reserve paths through the educational system for their children that will bring greater social and economic rewards,” says the researcher, noting that this phenomenon is known as horizontal stratification.

In the article “The vertical and horizontal dimensions of educational stratification” published in 2016 in the Revista Teoria e Cultura (Theory and culture journal) from the Institute of Human Sciences at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Mont’Alvão writes that students who complete high school and advance to college must choose the type of institution they want to attend and the subject area they intend to study. According to him, these choices are socially constrained, such that students from the higher socioeconomic strata have advantages accessing both the most prestigious institutions, and the educational fields with greater socioeconomic return. Mont’Alvão identifies a similar dynamic in basic education, where some families with better socioeconomic status seek to guarantee placement for their children in the schools given the best evaluations by the Brazilian Ministry of Education.

Amélia Cristina Abreu Artes, a researcher at the Department of Education Research at the Carlos Chagas Foundation (FCC) in São Paulo, states that when public education became universal, Brazil’s institutions began teaching black and working-class students who are less familiar with the culture valued by the schools, which may partially explain the increase in learning inequalities. “Public schools aren’t prepared to deal with the diversity of students or to consider the different intellectual and cultural baggage that children and young people bring to the school environment,” she says.

Augusto ZambonatoCase study
The work developed by UFMG professors is part of a methodological field of educational research that seeks to evaluate learning inequalities quantitatively, based on the answers to surveys that measure the performance of student groups and schools. Another methodology used in the area is qualitative, and uses interviews, participant observation, and other techniques to understand the meanings and networks of relationships that permeate the education process. By gaining knowledge regarding specific contexts, these studies seek to understand the overall reality of the Brazilian educational system.

Between 2011 and 2013, one survey sought to assess how levels of social vulnerability in outlying areas affect the distribution of educational opportunities, with the aim of explaining in part the dynamics reflected in broad assessments such as the Prova Brasil. To this end, it focused on schools in the subprefecture of São Miguel Paulista, a district in the eastern sector of the municipality of São Paulo that houses about 250,000 inhabitants. Using geo-referenced maps that showed the locations of schools and poverty rates in the area, the study “Education in areas of high social vulnerability” found that in the poorer regions of the district the schools’ overall results were lowest. To understand the reasons for this dynamic, the researchers covered five schools located in both central and peripheral areas of the district. The study was funded by the Tide Setubal Foundation and FAPESP, with technical coordination from the Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture, and Community Action (CENPEC), and support from the Itaú Social Foundation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Mauricio Ernica, a professor in the Department of Education, Knowledge, Language, and Art (DELART) of the School of Education at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), is one of the team’s researchers. He notes that one of the study’s conclusions is that schools in vulnerable areas are more isolated from other public services and often function as the only government presence in the area. An example given by the researcher is that in these areas mothers take their children to school not only to study, but also to have other social needs attended to, such as access to health services. “A whole range of problems pours into these institutions. In these schools teachers are constantly being displaced in order to send children to other services. And so the school’s basic operations are affected,” Ernica adds.

Léo Ramos Chaves Students in the lab at E. M. Tancredo Neves Middle School, in Ubatuba, São Paulo: in schools with adequate educational spaces, the risk of marginalization decreasesLéo Ramos Chaves

Economist and demographer Haroldo Torres, a member of the Tide Setubal Foundation’s Advisory Board, developed a survey at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM) between 2006 and 2009. It showed that teachers with better education and more experience worked in schools in the center of São Paulo, while schools on the periphery of the city usually employed temporary or substitute teachers. “Many of these professionals requested a change of school over the following years, which detracts from the development of an educational system,” he says.

Best practices at schools
Maria Alves of UFMG states that data from the Prova Brasil suggests that schools in which administrative and pedagogical leadership issues are better resolved, in which teachers, students, and families all participate in decision-making processes, schools where educational spaces are adequate and provide audiovisual and computer resources, and schools with fewer human resource problems result in students with a lower risk of marginalization and a higher chance of being at the appropriate level of education. The researcher came to these conclusions as a result of a study conducted in 2016 with funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Diverse pedagogical activities enable learning levels to improve

Another practice that would reduce inequality in basic education, according to Mont’Alvão, would be investing in the development of full-time schools with a diversity of activities. “More integration of the school with health teams, as well as policies against racial discrimination, would also be effective,” he says.

Alessio Costa Lima, president of the National Union of Municipal Public Education Leaders (UNDIME) and a municipal leader in Alto Santo, in the state of Ceará, recalls that in 1997 more than 40% of the students who finished primary school in the state did not know how to read and write. In order to reverse this situation, sustainable public policies were implemented, including teacher training, the development of teaching materials focused on the problem of student literacy, investments in early childhood education, and the creation of resources for controlling student attendance. In addition, the state identified the 150 schools with the best and worst performances. The highest-scoring institutions sponsored those with negative performances to help them remedy teaching problems, and the following year received a cash reward if the low-performance schools’ indicators improved. “Schools in cities far from urban centers tend to present greater difficulties, and with this system we give privileged schools a part of the responsibility for improving education in the state,” he says. As a result of these measures, Lima states that today 80% of students in the state learn to read and write as early as the second year of elementary school.

Education in areas of high social vulnerability in large urban centers (No. 10/20245-0); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Maria Alice Setubal (CENPEC); Investment R$43,806.95.

Scientific articles
ALVES, M. T. G. et al. Desigualdades educacionais no ensino fundamental de 2005 a 2013: Hiato entre grupos sociais. Revista Brasileira de Sociologia. Vol. 4, pp. 49–81. 2016.
MONT´ALVÃO, A. A dimensão vertical e horizontal da estratificação educacional. Revista Teoria e Cultura. pp. 13–20. 2016.
ÉRNICA, M. and BATISTA, A. A. G. A escola, a metrópole e a vizinhança vulnerável. Outros Temas. Vol. 42, no. 146, pp. 640–66. May/Aug. 2012.