Quality, universal secondary education: what will it take?

27 June 2019


Students raising hands at the Municipal School Marcela Paz - La Florida in Santiago de Chile.

By Pablo Cevallos Estarellas, Head of IIEP Buenos Aires 


At the 2015 World Economic Forum, the global education community adopted the ambitious new goal of universalizing quality secondary education as a means to allow everyone to participate fully in the 21st century world. That same year, the Incheon Declaration stated that 12 years of “free, publicly funded, equitable quality primary and secondary education” should be accessible for all, and that at least 9 years of these (primary and lower-secondary education) should be “compulsory, leading to relevant learning outcomes” (article 6). 

To achieve this goal, countries must expand their secondary school systems, which were originally created for the education of just a small university-bound elite, and successfully include those who have suffered from structural exclusion.

The extent of this challenge can be observed in Latin America, a region that has already been trying to universalize secondary education since the beginning of this century. Currently, the entire cycle of secondary education is compulsory in 13 of the 19 countries in the region, while lower secondary education is mandatory in another five. These efforts have resulted in a substantive increase in secondary school enrolment, but significant challenges remain, especially in relation to graduation rates and learning outcomes, which remain low.

Only in one country of the region (Cuba) is the proportion of students completing lower secondary above 90%, while in another seven, completion rates are below 80%, despite this level being obligatory, according to the 2017/2018 Global Education Monitoring Report. In upper secondary education, only five countries have completion rates above two-thirds. In relation to learning outcomes, a comparison between the results of the regional end-of-primary exam (TERCE) and the international end- of-lower secondary test, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggests a decline in reading performance, according to the same GEM Report. Furthermore, in the PISA science test, at least 50% of students in all participating countries of the region scored as low performers. 

Both the achievements and the challenges of the Latin American countries make their reform experiences a valuable resource for other countries aiming to advance towards universal secondary education.

A first lesson that can be learned from Latin America is that universalization requires a broadening of the original purpose of secondary education. Throughout the region, legal frameworks were modified in order to establish that secondary schooling was not just meant to prepare all students for accessing higher education, as it used to be, but also for entering the labour market, for developing students’ citizenship skills and, in some cases, for advancing their moral and personal growth. This formal expansion of objectives recognizes that selecting any single purpose for secondary schooling – such as for preparing for entry into higher education – is incompatible with the goal of universalizing quality secondary education for all.

A second lesson suggests that, if these comprehensive objectives are to be guaranteed for all, their formal adoption has to be accompanied by change in the structure of secondary schooling. In most Latin American countries, in spite of the legal changes explained above, secondary education systems remain fragmented into multiple and separate tracks, each with its own focus and curriculum. Typically, there is an academic track, a technical one, and a vocational one, as well as specific “adaptations” for indigenous peoples, adult, or rural populations. In this diversified context, while all tracks aim at preparing students for at least one of the objectives mentioned in the education laws, none aspires to prepare students for all of them. 

Tracks that allegedly prepare students for university are likely to teach some general content and develop some citizenship abilities, but they rarely cover professional skills for work. Likewise, most other tracks generally do not equip students with the necessary knowledge to have realistic chances of accessing university and graduating from it, focusing instead on specific technical and/or vocational skills. The effect of this diversification of tracks is that students experience a premature specialization, do not share a common core of learning, and see their post-secondary opportunities limited by the specific kind of secondary school they attended.

In societies that are marked by extreme inequalities, such as those of Latin America and of many other countries working towards universal secondary education, this diversification becomes even more problematic because access opportunities to the different education tracks are not distributed equally. Instead, the socio-economic background of students will often determine whether they will access a secondary track that will make it easier for them to access well-paid jobs, or one that will equip them with more limited opportunities.

In view of the global goal of universalizing quality secondary education, the recent experience of Latin America shows how, despite ambitious legal changes, secondary school systems may remain stuck in dynamics of early selection and discrimination, reproducing the very inequalities that they are meant to reduce. The challenge that this and other regions of the world face today is therefore to rethink the very structure of secondary education systems so that they may live up to their objectives and guarantee significant learning outcomes to all students.