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Brazil Has a Model for Reversing the Pandemic’s Toll on Schools

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Brazil’s teenagers have had a tougher few years than most. Covid-19 losses have been heavy. School closures over the past two years have been long even by regional standards, and access to remote learning inadequate, leaving many cut off. When I recently questioned a class of high-school seniors in the country’s northeast, they painted a familiar picture — struggles to get online in the early weeks, constant worries about falling behind, nagging pressure to contribute to falling household income. 

And yet, not long into the new academic year, here they all were talking to me about it — together, in a Friday afternoon geography class, at the Prof. Jeronimo Gueiros School in the hinterland town of Garanhuns, in the state of Pernambuco. Anxious, perhaps, but present.

Given soaring global dropout rates, especially among older students, that’s no small feat anywhere. But it’s impressive in a country that has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, one where government spending on basic education shrank in the first year of Covid-19 to its lowest in a decade. A mid-2020 study carried out by the National Youth Council found that 28% of Brazilian students between 15-years-old and 29-years-old were considering not returning once restrictions were lifted. At the end of that year, more than five million 6-year-olds to 17-year-olds across the country were out of school or unable to access education.

There’s a real-life cost for students: Learning loss translates into billions of reais of foregone future earnings. But Brazil too pays a heavy price. It urgently needs to improve human capital to boost weak productivity, and that’s a problem that improved logistics and simpler taxes alone cannot fix. The country was dealing with high dropout rates and poor outcomes even before the pandemic, with the majority of students finishing without the minimum skills in language and math. Racial and regional disparities have only worsened.

The government of President Jair Bolsonaro, never much interested in education other than as a tool to woo evangelical voters, has offered little. And yet some of Brazil’s regions and cities, leaning on existing successes, are finding their own way out — like Pernambuco.

Under Brazil’s decentralized educational structure, states are generally responsible for the final years of school, and Pernambuco, with monthly household income well below the national average, has emerged as one of the top performers in recent years. That’s largely down to the decision made over a decade ago to bet on expanding “integral”, or full day, high schools like this one in Garanhuns, which provide three meals, activities and homework supervision, a model that is extended also to vocational institutions.

Compared with teenagers studying in the split-shift day more familiar to many Brazilian high schoolers (a system that helped the country cope with exploding demand for secondary places and overcrowding in the 1990s), they get more hours of math, Portuguese language and science. Significantly improved test scores in a study carried out by economist Leonardo Rosa, now at Sao Paulo’s Insper, and colleagues at Stanford University, suggest that the focus works. A separate analysis found students in this form of education have a 63% chance of getting into higher education — 17 percentage points ahead of others — and attainment gaps between racial groups are narrower. 

Investment in converting existing institutions into full-day high schools helped the state’s results for the last year of school jump from among the lowest ranks in 2007 to the third spot a decade later, out of 26 states and a federal district. The percentage of 19-year-olds who completed secondary education went from just over a third in 2008 to 56% in 2014. 

Post-pandemic, these schools are a crucial part of efforts to fix the damage wrought, and more.

The state wasn’t spared during Covid-19. According to Marcelo Barros, Pernambuco’s secretary for education, upper-secondary school dropout rates jumped from around 1.5% to 20%, worsened by the failure of generous pandemic aid from the government to require any form of school participation, though normal assistance does. The state had to use small allowances to support nutrition, something its integral schools had done far more effectively, and to find away around families’ limited internet — making access free for educational content through an app. It had to cope with new children coming in from private schools as parents lost jobs.

Few students and teachers adapted easily. In parts of the semi-arid backcountry, children could not access even classes beamed out on television (they depended on worksheets collected on market days). Many struggled to concentrate. Even in Garanhuns — a reasonably prosperous town by the standards of a hardscrabble district, in a state which moved quickly to provide guidelines, train teachers and support online classes —  one education department official put learning loss at as much as five years.

It fits the national picture, with losses worse for disadvantaged groups and those with uneducated families, compounded by sharp regional differences when it came to reopening. By the end of last year, 88% of students in a national poll reported their schools had reopened at least partially, but in the northeast as a whole the level was 77%, compared to 97% in Brazil’s wealthier southeast.

Now, Pernambuco is getting back on track, and its efforts are worth noting — beyond Brazil.

Among the successful programs here is “busca ativa,” or active search, which tracks down and brings back missing students, using mothers or people within the community. It’s a model that UNICEF and municipal leaders, normally responsible for younger schoolchildren, have used nationally. Pernambuco’s post-pandemic high-school version has been a clear success, thanks to administrators, churches, local leaders and classmates — cutting the high-school dropout rate to base levels, Barros said. When we spoke in March, it was already down to 3.5%, and that has since dropped back to 1.5%. Using the wider community, teachers explained, made it possible to reinforce the importance of education, to reassure families that schools were returning safely and, crucially, to use informal networks to find those who changed address and phone number at short notice, often to escape debts. 

Then there is the question of the attainment gaps that widened dramatically during the pandemic. Closing those involves the continued use of hybrid learning, including television — the state set up a handful of simple studios during the pandemic, building on pre-pandemic distance-learning structures. But there’s low-cost intervention at school too, with simple measures like “monitoria,” an initiative through which schools pick a handful of higher-performing students to assist a small number of classmates in exchange for a small stipend. Some 7,000 have been handed out for Portuguese language and mathematics.

And the backbone of recovery here is the embrace of full-day school, which now covers 75% of upper-secondary students — a  level at which the state says everyone who wants a place can access one, with intermediate options for those who cannot do a full five-day week. Officials and teachers use longer hours to fit in extra support. Crucially, it’s also easier to captivate students with personal development options beyond the core curriculum, sport or entrepreneurial efforts for which they would otherwise have little time — one school I visited had set up a working marketing and advertising agency. There’s a hugely popular study abroad program for public high school students too. While everyone suffered learning loss, more vulnerable children are far more likely to drop out as a result, making engagement key.

Pernambuco was not the only bright spot to emerge as states and municipalities scrambled to make up for the absence of a coordinated, national effort to support remote learning or even regulate school closures over Covid-19. Officials in Maranhao, Brazil’s poorest state, focused on supporting caregivers, who are often uneducated, so those relatives in turn could help students under six, leaning on regular broadcasts on television, radio and social media. The wealthier state of Sao Paulo, with one of the largest school systems in Latin America, held near-daily virtual meetings with the state’s education secretary to address questions, and has used rolling assessments to keep on top of changing needs as students return. Meanwhile, it’s also expanding full-time schools: “It should be like the Brazilian approach to football. We need to widen the base, to spend more time playing, if we want to win,” as one Sao Paulo official told me. 

At the national level, the picture is less optimistic. Education hasn’t been a priority for the Bolsonaro government as the pandemic ebbs. Not enough is done to encourage teaching to learning level, rather than grade or age. As Insper’s Rosa points out, there’s a fiscal challenge, given the investments required for recovery efforts that look out to the long term, like expanding full-day high schools.  Inclusion remains a major concern, with the most vulnerable still not accessing even the most basic public services, meaning they are often not even counted as truants. In Ferraz de Vasconcelos, in the sprawling working-class outskirts of Sao Paulo, I found volunteers at Gerando Falcoes, an ambitious social enterprise that promotes entrepreneurial and leadership skills, spending hours simply getting families to the starting blocks. The appearance of homeschooling in Brazilian debate, meanwhile, suggests a worrying willingness to invest in culture wars, not access, let alone improved countrywide standards.

Back in Garanhuns, the job is only starting. Drug-related violence is a problem in this town, surrounded by hills and cattle farms, and money is tight at home — not everyone has been able to stay in full-day school, even if they haven’t dropped out. But the benefits of carrying on, at least in this packed classroom, are clear.

“We want to do better than our parents,” one boy told me from under a thick fringe and a baseball cap, when I ask them about plans for higher education. “So there’s no choice but to study.”

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Brazil’s Messiest Election Yet Puts Democracy on the Line: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Latin America’s Schools Are Flunking Covid: Mac Margolis

• Immigrant Dropouts Are Hidden Covid Casualties: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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