Chile, Latin America, and Inequality in Education

By Levin, Ben | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Chile, Latin America, and Inequality in Education


Levin, Ben, Phi Delta Kappan


Chile is often cited in education policy circles for its embrace about 30 years ago of a choice and market system in education, instituted by the military government and very much based on libertarian economic ideas. For example, each Chilean student received the same amount of funding regardless of background or need. As a result, in Chile today, public schools enroll only about half of all students, with the rest mainly in private schools that receive public subsidies, and about 8% in unsubsidized private schools. Chile now has some 11,000 schools for fewer than 4 million students, which means that the average school has only about 375 students; in the United States, the average elementary school has more than 470 students and the average high school more than 700 students.

Chile's market system did nothing to decrease inequalities in education. Indeed, by 1990, it was clear that almost all very poor children were attending public schools, which also had much lower student outcomes (Raczynski & Munoz, 2007). Public schools are also less well-funded since they can't charge tuition, which subsidized private schools can.

Also in the early 1980s, Chile moved much of the control over schooling from the national government to the 350 or so municipalities and to some 4,000 owners or operators of private schools that receive public subsidies (in most cases, owners operate only one school). Municipalities, for example, are responsible for hiring teachers and appointing principals, even though many municipalities may have virtually no education expertise in their staffs. In private schools, each owner hires and controls its own policy within broad national limits. Such decentralization makes it more difficult to address systemic quality issues in education because of the challenge of getting all or even most school managers moving in a common direction, because management skills are weak, and because schools don't want to share their successes since they compete with each other for students.

Nonetheless, over the last 20 years, since the restoration of civilian rule in Chile, successive governments have been making efforts to improve education outcomes and decrease some of the inequality in the system. Overall spending on education increased substantially. The national government worked closely with teacher organizations to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession, including significant pay increases, and to develop a rigorous process for evaluating teachers with links to additional pay. Various programs were put in place to try to improve schooling outcomes in poor communities and in rural areas--many of which are also quite poor.

These efforts have had some success. Chile has improved the qualifications and retention of teachers. More students go to school, stay on into secondary, and many more are graduating from secondary schools. According to Avalos (2010), outcomes improved and inequalities shrank in schools that were part of the improvement initiatives mentioned, but because these initiatives only involved relatively small numbers of schools, national results didn't change much.

Chilean outcomes

Education outcomes in Chile are not at all where they need to be. In the 2009 PISA results, Chilean students scored well below the OECD average, and inequalities related to students' background were substantially higher than the OECD average, though in both regards performance in Chile is better than its Latin American neighbors such as Brazil, Colombia, or Argentina. While Chile is wealthier than its neighbors, it has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Latin America. Chile's own internal student assessment also reveals both inadequate outcomes and high levels of inequality, with poor and rural students well behind their more advantaged urban counterparts.

In the last few years, a nonprofit organization, Fundacion Chile (www.fundacionchile.

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