In Argentina's Pampa Province, where the high school dropout
rate is nearly 40 percent, school officials have come up with a way
to bring in parents to talk about their children's needs: Serve
"When you fail the very children you're supposed to serve,
you're impelled to try new things," says Miguel Angel Tanos, the
Pampa's assistant education secretary.
Creative solutions, not just more money, lie at the heart of
Latin America's new focus on one of its oldest weaknesses:
education. The average child receives only five years of schooling,
and without progress in the classroom, the region's recent moves to
democracy and economic growth may falter.
That's why education was Topic No. 1 at the Summit of the
Americas in Chile April 18 and 19.
For the United States, it's important that a stable Latin
America use better education to extend prosperity to more than a
small elite. And many of the problems facing Latin America - from
high dropout rates to school violence - also affect the US,
especially in cities with large minority populations.
Despite annual economic growth of about 4 percent in many
countries, Latin America has the world's worst income disparity
between the few very rich and the many very poor. "Education in
Latin America is in a critical state; it's a serious problem that
could endanger the other 'macro' reforms" in the region's economy
and political systems, says Jeffrey Puryear, an expert on Latin
American education at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Adds Beatrice Rangel, senior vice president at New York's
Cisneros Group of Companies, "Two hundred million Latin Americans
have such limited education that they cannot even access the
prosperity that free markets are creating. That poses a risk not
just for the region's economy, but to its democracies as well.
Democracies require literate, informed citizens who feel they have
a stake in the system."
Yet like the perennially failing teenager who one day shows
everyone he can make the grade, Latin America's schools are showing
signs of "waking up."
Part of the pressure for the awakening is coming from
businesses. Old state-owned companies that lived off closed
national markets didn't care much about an educated work force.
Private enterprises that must compete with international
competitors do. Pressure is also coming from teachers, parents, and
an array of nongovernmental groups. Most Latin countries have
passed the test of getting children into school, and they're doing
better at keeping them there longer. …