Argentina is regionally considered a country with high levels of human capital and good quality of education. Its history of high literacy rates and a strong emphasis on education in the national budget confirm such a notion.
In the last century, the works of renowned writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Ernesto Sábato were exposed to the world with great recognition, enhancing the country’s reputation as a cultivated nation. Argentina also educated three Nobel Prize winners in the sciences: Luis Federico Leloir, Bernardo Houssay, and César Milstein, the highest number in Latin America.
More recently, during the first week of September, the minister of education released the results of a national survey that states that 90% of Argentines read at least a quarter of an hour weekly, and more than half of the population does it five times a week. International organisations also reveal some impressive figures regarding human development. According to the United Nations Development Programme, Argentina has the second best Human Development Index in the region after Chile, occupying place number 45 in the world ranking. One of its components is the Education Index, which in the Argentine case is the highest in Latin America.
However, if you happen to be an Argentine or to live in Argentina nowadays then you may know about the high drop-out rates and the major disparities between public and private schools, which reflects an increasing educational inequality. You may also have heard about the poor performances of students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, and the on-going confrontations between students and governments leading to the taking over of schools and the suspension of classes.
Argentina might have been ahead of the game in coverage of schooling and development of knowledge. However, today there are several elements deeply affecting the quality of instruction that call into question the traditional view of Argentina’s coverage and quality of education.
Sociologist Guillermina Tiramonti, researcher in education at FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) and professor at La Plata National University gave us her take on this matter in order to shed some light on this contraposition.
“Argentina was one of the first countries in the region to develop a successful public education and, together with the growth of the economy at the time, it was able to incorporate most of the society into the labour market. This gave rise to a middle class that has built a profile of the country somewhat different from other Latin American countries with a polarised social structure. As a result, Argentina reached the end of the 20th century with a well educated population and almost no illiteracy,” explains Tiramonti.
She argues that during the ‘70s there was a great increase in school enrollment rates, which the country did not use in its favour, failing to build a model that could include new social groups and preserve a certain quality in education.
Ever since, Argentina has experienced an educational crisis that makes its outcomes fall short of the desired expectations and with lower results than those of nearby countries such as Uruguay or Chile. This shows a problem in moving forward along the process of incorporating new social groups in the education system successfully.
International statistics may not seem to reflect this crisis. The UNDP Education Index for example, comprises the expenditure on education, the average years of schooling, and the literacy rates of each country. Tiramonti states that the divergence between the numbers and reality lies in the inability of statistics to reveal the broader problems of inequality and deinstitutionalisation, especially in secondary education: “Yes, Argentina’s education budget is very high, 6% of our GDP. However, this has no echo in learning outcomes if we take the PISA examinations as a parameter (international tests that measure reading comprehension, science, and basic math). Our scores there are very low. Yes, we have low illiteracy levels, but this is due to a social habit of sending children to school and because the primary level is much more successful than secondary education. Sometimes statistics are standardised numbers that do not communicate the real problems.”
Certainly, there are no figures that indicate the effects of the deterioration of public education as a result of social inequality or the high levels of absenteeism of both students and teachers due to a growing dissatisfaction with their school experience. The only numbers that more closely come to reflect the impact of these circumstances on learning levels are the PISA tests, whose results, as Tiramonti says, are nothing but discouraging.
A Nation of Readers
In what appears to be a contradiction, recent numbers of national and international surveys confirm that Argentines are regular readers. Every year the halls of the Feria del Libro (the international book fair held yearly in Buenos Aires) are full of people, and who has not seen men and women of all ages reading on buses or while travelling on the crowded subte of Buenos Aires? The National Survey of Reading Habits published on 2nd September provides information about the latest trends in Argentines’ reading habits. It states that 90% of the Argentine population reads at least 15 minutes per week, and 53% reads almost or every day. In addition, a study of the Regional Centre for Promotion of Books in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is part of the UNESCO, ranks Argentina as the country with the highest number of book readers in the region.
But what do these numbers mean with respect to the country’s education levels? According to Tiramonti, they talk about a literate population with a social habit built in the middle class: “There’s a clear social habit of reading that has to do with our social structure made of a very large middle class, and with the presence of education from an early age.”
Reading plays a big part in the learning process but what really matters is the quality of reading comprehension. According to Tiramonti, the PISA tests not only show low levels in this type of skill, but also exhibit a huge inequality among students from different social sectors, which she points out as one of the main obstacles to overcome in order to face the new challenges of education. After all, there is no reason to think that reading alone is the way to achieve significant improvements in education.
After so many optimistic numbers, fancy titles, and encouraging figures we end up with a big paradox between the information presented to the public, the voters, the press, and the world, and the real nature of today’s national education, which is far from positioning Argentina as the best educated country in the region.
“Results show that socially homogeneous societies develop greater social integration, some cultural homogeneity, and greater success in the education system” Tiramonti states.
Instead, Argentina’s education seems not to be providing equal opportunities any more, deepening the pattern of increasing inequality observed in the last decades, in a globalised world where human capital is the key to economic development and quality of life. As a consequence, the country is starting to fall behind the world.
“There is a tendency to think that education can solve all the inequities and failures of the system. I believe that education has a lot to do in terms of improving equality. But when societies are unequal, it is very difficult to build equality only by means of education”.