Two themes connect Brazil and Chile: one is economic success; the other is social unrest. Protests rocked cities across Brazil in June 2013, and in Chile, recent student protests turned violent. Yet living conditions in both nations are better now than they've ever been. Successful economic and social reforms over the last two decades have led to major improvements in the quality of life. Millions of Brazilians and Chileans have joined the middle class, and the percentage living in poverty has plummeted. The quality of public education has also improved substantially in both countries since 1990. So why are citizens in these countries taking to the streets?
The ongoing unrest has different roots in each country. Brazilians railed against rising bus fares, while Chileans rejected higher college-tuition fees. In both countries, new groups have joined in, venting frustration over health care, corruption, inequality, extravagant spending on the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil, megahydroelectric power projects in the Patagonia in Chile, and the remaining failings of publicly funded education systems.
Protests in both countries have been led by the middle class, the very people who have benefited from the reforms and the education and economic gains. "We want schools and hospitals on FIFA's standards," read one sign in Brazil mocking international soccer's governing body. "I'd exchange a congressman for 334 teachers," stated another banner. A slogan frequently employed by protesters in Brazil is "10% of the GDP for education," while banners in Chile read, "Copper sky high and education in the gutter."
These two South American countries have historically had little in common beyond a shared continent and high levels of inequality. The income share held by the top 10 percent of the population in Brazil and Chile is 43 percent, compared to 30 percent in the United States and 26 percent in the Netherlands.
Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and the fifth largest in the world, is a racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse federal democracy, with more than 190 million citizens who live in 27 states. The nation has 51 million students enrolled in 200,000 schools that employ more than 2 million teachers. Chile is a small and fairly homogeneous Andean country, with just over 16 million citizens who live in 15 regions. Chile has 3 4 million students enrolled in 11,500 schools with close to 200,000 teachers.
Over the past few decades, education reforms in Brazil and Chile have been widely celebrated as successful, and most students are much better-off than their predecessors were 15 years ago. National assessments show that achievement levels have risen at a rapid rate. In Brazil, over the last 16 years, math scores for 5th graders improved by 40 percent of a standard deviation, and in Chile, 4th-grade performance in language improved by a similar amount. In a recent report, Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessman estimated the learning gains between 1995 and 2009 for 49 countries (see "Is the U.S. Catching Up?" features, Fall 2012). Brazil and Chile ranked in the top three among nations that significantly improved their educational standing (see Figure 1). Student achievement in Brazil and Chile increased at an annual rate of 4 percent of a standard deviation, which translates over the 14-year study period into learning gains of greater than two years, compared to less than one additional year's worth of learning among American students over the same time span. The strong showing of the two countries is likely related to the aggressive economic, social, and educational reforms adopted over the last two decades.
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Brazil and Chile in the 1990s
In the mid-1990s, Brazil and Chile were by all standards poor nations with low-quality schooling systems. …