Rethinking secondary education in Latin America

27 June 2019



At the beginning of the 21st century, most Latin American countries initiated ambitious reforms of their secondary education systems. Various motives drove these reforms – which aimed to universalize secondary education by making it obligatory – such as preparing students to navigate a knowledge-driven society, increasing productivity and competitiveness in global markets, and for improving the quality of democracies. More generally, the reforms followed the global trend of ensuring equal education opportunities for all.

Almost two decades later, the results of these reforms have been mixed. By 2015, just over 50% of the population between 25 and 35 years old had completed secondary education on average across Latin America (IIEP SITEAL, 2018). While more recent enrolment rates suggest that these numbers will be rising in the future, low finalization and high dropout rates continue to slow down the progress towards universal secondary education. What is most worrying, however, is that successful completion of secondary education in Latin America seems to be correlated to students’ social and economic background. Disaggregated data is not always available, but when they are, they suggest significant challenges in relation to equity. In Mexico, for example, enrolment rates for rural and indigenous populations are far below the average (Weiss, 2012), and in Uruguay, the lower secondary finalization rate of students who experience poverty is less than half the rate of students who do not experience poverty; in upper secondary, the gap widens even more (De Armas & Retamoso, 2010).

To tackle these equity problems, several countries have initiated programmes designed to help disadvantaged students access, remain in, and complete secondary education. These programmes can take different shapes, but when they aim at attracting students who left the system without completing secondary education, they usually constitute alternative tracks that run in parallel to the regular secondary school, have an accelerated pace so that they can be completed in a shorter time, or allow for graduation without completing the full curriculum. While such programmes may appear to be a good strategy to increase equity by assisting students who struggle to gain a foothold in an education level that was originally designed for a small university-bound elite, they are problematic for two reasons. First, the creation of special education programmes for a specific profile of students suggests that it is these students’ characteristics – such as being disadvantaged or vulnerable – which are responsible for their failure to complete the “regular” secondary education track, instead of the education system itself (Nobile, 2016). Consequently, these programmes are band-aid policies, which tackle inequity by its symptoms, instead of dealing with the sources of exclusion that emanate from the very format and structure of secondary education systems.

Second, these programmes worsen one of the core hurdles for equity that came with Latin America’s secondary education reforms: the existence of various secondary school tracks, each with its own purpose and its own curriculum. This variety contributes to the reproduction of inequalities as different tracks tend to be attended by different strata of society and, in some cases, are even explicitly aimed at specific population groups. While most of Latin America’s secondary education laws establish holistic and all-encompassing learning objectives for secondary education, the paragraphs describing tracks designed for specific populations state less ambitious objectives in a number of countries. Tracks for rural populations in Brazil and Colombia, for example, have an agriculture-focussed curriculum that may even be further specialized depending on what is considered most relevant learning content for a specific geographic context, and for national economic growth, while access to tertiary education is not even mentioned among the objectives. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the students of the rural track, the distance-education track, and the track for indigenous populations scored worse than the rest on the 2009 PISA test (Weiss, 2012).

Overall, in the same way that the over-diversified tracks of secondary education systems pose a challenge to equity in education, offering additional “alternative” tracks for students struggling to complete secondary school does not take into account the fact that the high diversification in the educational offer – not only in thematic content but also in quality and scope of learning goals – is precisely what helps to reproduce inequalities in Latin American societies.

It is difficult to imagine a primary school system in which some schools would teach social studies, natural sciences, modern languages, and mathematics, while others would eliminate some of these subjects in favour of teaching a more specialized curriculum. This is because, as a universal, compulsory level of education, we expect all schools to equip all students with the same, basic knowledge and skills. As secondary education becomes compulsory around the world, it is essential that the notion of a common core of learning outcomes, independent of the additional specializations that students may choose, become just as self-evident as it is in primary education.