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LATIN AMERICA: Quality of Life at School Boosts Learning

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jun 24 2008 (IPS) - The school environment is the factor that makes the greatest difference in student learning in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to UNESCO’s Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE). Equality in the education system, however, is still a distant goal.

The results of the study, carried out from 2004 to 2008 by the Latin American Laboratory for the Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE) in coordination with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), were presented simultaneously in the Chilean capital and the other participating countries on Jun. 20.

A total of 196,040 primary school students in the third and sixth grades were assessed, from 8,854 classrooms in 3,065 urban and rural schools in 16 Latin American countries and the northeastern Mexican state of Nuevo León.

The subject areas reviewed were reading comprehension, mathematics and science, focusing on "life skills." Student performance was evaluated, as well as factors that might contribute to the differences between their scores.

According to the study, school ambience explains between 40 and 49 percent of the variation in students’ learning attainments, while characteristics of the students themselves explain most of the remaining difference.

When comparing schools, the "school climate" is the major factor determining student performance, followed by the average socioeconomic and cultural level of the institution.

Through questionnaires given to the students, the SERCE established the extent to which they felt at ease at school, their sense of belonging, their relationships with other students and with teachers, the degree of order in the classroom, and any physical or verbal aggression at school, all of which contribute to the overall climate.

Generating a welcoming and positive environment where individuals are respected is key to improving learning, while segregation of students with different socioeconomic backgrounds in different schools has a negative impact, the SERCE says.

"The importance of the climate in the classroom and in the school is a recurrent research finding, and it’s time that education systems pay attention to it, on the understanding that feelings about school must also be worked on," LLECE coordinator Héctor Valdés told IPS.

In his view, this finding is a source of "motivation and optimism, because it means that the school itself can make a huge difference."

According to the SERCE, Cuba is the country with the best student scores, while the Dominican Republic is the least successful.

Cuba was the only country whose third grade pupils attained mathematics and reading scores more than one standard deviation higher than the regional average, that is, over 100 points above the 500 points representing the average of all the countries studied.

Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and the state of Nuevo León had scores higher than the regional average but with less than 100 points difference. Argentina, Brazil and Colombia had scores equivalent to the average for the region.

The lowest placed group was made up of the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, which had scores less than 100 points below the regional average.

The sixth grade results were fairly similar. Cuba led in mathematics, reading (although absolute scores dropped slightly) and science, while in countries like Argentina there was a greater subject variation: in mathematics, Argentine scores were less than 100 points above the combined average, in reading they were average, and in science less than 100 points below the regional average.

The levels of performance of the students, by grade and subject, are more informative. These were designated Levels I to IV, from lesser to greater complexity.

Cuba was the only country in which over half the students attained Level IV in mathematics and reading at both grades. In Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and the Mexican state of Nuevo León, more than half the students attained Level III or above.

In Brazil and Argentina, most students achieved Level II or III, while in the rest of the countries, most children were at Level II or below.

Taking the students from all the countries together, in the third grade math and reading comprehension tests, only 11.23 percent and 8.41 percent, respectively, reached Level IV. In math, reading and science at sixth grade, the situation was not much better: only 11.44 percent, 17.56 percent and 2.46 percent, respectively, attained the top level.

"If you look at the distribution of students between performance levels, from the most basic to the most complex, we have very few students achieving excellence, except in Cuba. In fact, in some countries 50 percent of the children are at Level I or below, and that is a really serious situation," the interim director of the UNESCO Regional Office, Rosa Blanco, told IPS.

To measure the variability of students’ learning within countries, LLECE calculated the dispersion (the difference between the 10th and 90th percentile scores) of students’ scores for each country.

For third grade math, countries with dispersions of less than 200 points (two standard deviations) between the upper and lower percentiles of student scores were Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay and the state of Nuevo León had a variation of 200 to 250 points (two to 2.5 standard deviations) between the 10th and 90th percentile scores. Paraguay, with a variation of over 250 points, and Cuba, with over 300 points, were the countries with the widest dispersions.

The study examined the relationship between a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and its Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality), and the test scores.

It reports that between 28 and 45 percent of the differences in reading and math scores in third and sixth grades can be explained by GDP variations, although in many cases schools out-perform what GDP predicts. Inequality of income distribution within a country explains between 12 and 32 percent of score variation.

There is a clear gap in learning between rural and urban schools, with the latter doing on average one standard deviation (100 points) better. The study also found that 75.4 percent of children enter primary school at the expected age, but only 43.9 percent finish their primary education in the expected number of years.

The SERCE conclusions were released just as the Chilean parliament is debating a draft General Education Law (LGE), introduced by the government of President Michelle Bachelet to replace the controversial Organic Constitutional Law of Education (LOCE) decreed by the late former dictator General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Students and teachers, who have been protesting for over a month, oppose the LGE because it is not, in their view, a corrective to the privatisation and decentralisation processes instituted by the LOCE, which have guaranteed coverage, but not quality or equity in education.

Amid the criticism and protests, including some from members of the centre-left governing coalition in Congress, the draft LGE was approved in the lower house on Jun. 19, after the president promised to send a draft law on public education to parliament in July. The LGE will now be debated in the Senate.

The UNESCO Regional Office, which was on the point of being taken over by a group of students just before the launch of the SERCE study, urged the legislators to listen to the protesters’ grievances and demands.

"The LGE is an improvement on the LOCE, but more efforts are needed to address aspects that are not sufficiently covered, in order to guarantee quality education for all, without anyone being excluded," such as strengthening public education, Blanco told IPS.

"Private education that is financed with public money should not be discriminatory," said Blanco, referring to the selection of applicants by private, state-subsidised schools, and to the monthly fees they charge the families, a situation which the LGE will not modify.

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