Academic journal article Education Next

Scaling Up in Chile: Networks of Schools Facilitate Higher Student Achievement

Academic journal article Education Next

Scaling Up in Chile: Networks of Schools Facilitate Higher Student Achievement

Article excerpt

On international tests, Chilean students in 2006 outperformed those of all other Latin American countries in reading and were second only to Uruguay in math (see Figure 1). But although Chile's educational performance appears to outstrip that of its closest competitors, the country's educational system has become highly controversial among scholars throughout the western hemisphere. By and large, the education systems of most Latin American countries are all but ignored by outside scholars. However, the Chilean system has generated a veritable cottage industry of research scholarship that has yielded a range of conflicting findings.

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The explanation for this odd fact: since 1981 Chile has had a more comprehensive school choice system than any other country in the world, as well as a system of publicly available information on student test performance. Scholars have thus seen Chile as a place to test theories of school choice. Do students with vouchers learn more in private schools or in those run by municipalities? What is the impact of a voucher system on equality of educational opportunity? The answers to these and related questions have been just about as varied as the number of scholars who have inquired into the matter. On balance, the bulk of the research shows a small educational advantage for students who attend privately operated voucher schools rather than municipal ones. But hardly any study looks at differences among the voucher schools, and none has examined differences between private schools in networks and those that operate on a stand-alone basis. Yet interest in school networks has escalated since many operators of charter schools in the United States have begun to expand their operations beyond a single school. Some have argued that this is the ideal way for connecting school choice to school improvement. If effective schools can expand either by setting up or by "franchising" other schools, school quality can gradually improve. But others say that the formation of networks of schools will lead to a standardization that will undermine the vitality of individual school communities.

Chile is an ideal place for exploring these questions. In 2002, only 53 percent of students were still being educated in municipally run schools, which nonetheless received a good deal of their funding from the vouchers paid for by the national government. Another 9 percent of students attended fee-based private schools that were independently operated and received no government assistance whatsoever. For the most part, these were schools with well-established reputations that served the country's upper class. The remaining students attended what might be called voucher schools, because the schools, while private, had been since 1981 heavily dependent on the subsidy that the schools received from the national government for each student they enrolled. This sector is the fastest growing segment of the Chilean educational system.

Like American charter schools (see "Brand-Name Charters," features, page 28), Chile's privately run voucher schools may be part of a larger organization or school network, or operate on their own. Most schools are of the stand-alone or "mom-and-pop" variety: 25 percent of all students in Chile attend such schools. But another 13 percent of students attend schools that are part of a network of two or more schools.

The schools, inside and outside of networks, vary from one another in many ways. Some are operated by teachers who once worked in municipal schools. Others are run by business entrepreneurs. Fifty-nine percent of the network schools are run by nonprofit entities, either religious or secular. For-profit organizations operate the remainder. Some schools as well as some networks are religious. Most networks, and especially those in rural areas, consist of just two or three schools. Only about 20 percent of primary (K-8) private voucher school students attend schools that belong to networks that have more than three schools (see sidebar, page 65). …

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