The Education Entrepreneur's Dilemma: Path Dependence vs. Pathways for Change

Article excerpt


The celebration of two centuries of independent republican life in Latin America is an appropriate time to assess past achievements, current challenges and future opportunities. Nowhere is that critical examination more timely and necessary than for the educational institutions that were created precisely to prepare Latin American citizens for self-rule. Schools and universities in Latin America were reinvented after independence to allow the new independent political order to flourish.

Unfortunately, politics, economics and excessive bureaucratic regulations have failed the original intentions of the region's educational founders and stifled innovation.

It's useful, as a start, to reexamine those original intentions to remind ourselves of what still needs to be done. Francisco de Miranda, Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, Miguel Hidalgo, and José Artigas shared many of the ideas of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers regarding the role of education. They were aware, for example, of the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding the role of education in supporting the legitimacy of a social contract of rights and liberties, and in maximizing human potential.

Such ideas influenced the creation of the public education systems of Latin America, as well as of the education systems of Europe and the United States.1 Over the past 200 years, these systems expanded to provide the majority of the population with the opportunity to complete a basic education and allowed a growing number to proceed to high school and college.

The early leaders not only advocated for public education; they created the institutions that made expansion of access possible, and they advanced the policies and programs supported by some of Europe's leading educators.

During a trip to London in 1810 to request financial support for the independence effort, Andrés Bello persuaded Simón Bolívar to visit Joseph Lancaster, who had invented the "monitorial" system of education, an approach that expanded the reach of tutors by getting them to work with monitors-more advanced students who delivered a curriculum to students grouped by age. This innovation of the early nineteenth century proved effective in educating large numbers of children at a modest cost and stimulated the creation of public education systems. Bolívar invited Lancaster to travel to the new republics once they were independent, and Lancaster indeed lived in Caracas from 1825 to 1827, where he oversaw the extension of the approach he had developed to a number of the newly created public schools. His methodology was further extended to support the creation of public education systems in Bogotá, Lima, Mexico, and Quito.

Ambition Meets Disappointment

Given these auspicious beginnings and the clear alignment of the establishment of public education systems with the political goal of contributing to the consolidation of independent life, we might expect Latin American education systems to be global exemplars. In fact, while there are undoubtedly important examples of significant developments in education in many countries in the region, there is a growing awareness of the deficiencies. The educational systems failed most tragically in their incapacity to prepare all students for the kind of engaged citizenship necessary for effective democratic rule, to contribute to the global competitiveness of the economies in Latin America, or to reduce poverty and inequality.

Global cross-national assessments of student skills, in which Latin American students systematically obtain the lowest scores, justify the widespread disappointment. Latin America's educational failings have been consistently documented in research conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in Literacy, Mathematics and Science or Civics, as well as in studies conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in literacy, mathematics and science. …