When I asked Harvard University's international education expert Fernando Reimers in which Latin American country does he see the most progress in improving education standards, he responded without hesitation: "Brazil."
"Brazil?" I asked, surprised by his answer. I found it hard to believe that Reimers, the head of Harvard's International Education Policy Program, would find Brazil to be a model on the education front.
While Brazil invests twice what most other Latin American countries spend on science and technology -- nearly 1.5 percent of its gross national product annually, according to the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) -- and Brazilian universities produce a Latin American record of 30,000 graduates with master's degrees and 10,000 with doctorate degrees every year, Brazil's overall education statistics are generally poor even by regional standards.
According to official figures, 10 percent of Brazil's population is still illiterate, only 44 percent of youngsters age 19 finish high school, and only 12 percent of youths go to college. What's more, Brazilian students rank 53rd among those of 57 countries in the standardized PISA tests in sciences and math, and there was no Brazilian university in the 2009 ranking of the world's best 200 Universities of the United Kingdom-based Times Higher Education Supplement.
"What's so impressive about Brazil on the education front?" I asked Reimers. "Brazil is the country with the biggest innovation potential in education over the next 10 years. In Brazil, they have created a partnership called Todos Pela Educacao , or All for Education, which is a major novelty in Latin America. It's a coalition led by business people, which has decided that education is something too important to be left exclusively in the hands of the government," he responded.
Indeed, Brazilian business leaders have concluded that the answer to the region's education problems is not likely to come from governments -- or from politicians -- but from civil society.
Governments don't make long-term investments in improving the quality of education because they need short-term results, which can be shown in time for the next elections. So governments tend to invest in brick-and-mortar things such as school buildings, roads and bridges, which can be ready in two or three years, rather than in training for teachers and principals, which are investments that often render concrete results in the classroom in as long as a decade.
Digging deeper into the Brazilian pro-education movement, I found that Brazil's civil society has been more pro-active than that of other countries in the region. Contrary to what happens in most other countries, where the biggest industrialists each have their own education foundations that rarely interact with one another, Brazil's biggest business tycoons got together in 2007 and formed a coalition with a set of common goals.
The new group, All for Education, was founded among others by the presidents of the DPaschoal car parts chain, the Gerdau Group and major banks Itaú, Bradesco and Santander. With the help of top Brazilian and U.S. education experts, it came up with five concrete goals to be achieved by 2022, the bicentennial of Brazil's independence, and with ways to monitor progress on each of those goals annually.
Once it had defined its five goals -- including that all Brazilian children remain in school until age 17 -- the group recruited the owners of Brazil's biggest media chains, leading journalists, academics and artists to launch a campaign to convince parents of the need to give their children a better education. The campaign was aimed both at raising consciousness among parents, and pressing the government to meet the group's five goals.
Luis Norberto Pascoal, president of DPaschoal, told me that All for Education has enlisted the country's major television networks and about 5,000 radio stations, which regularly air glitzy All for Education ads that often include well-known Brazilian singers and other artists.
"One of our first challenges was to convince the media," Pascoal said. "I met with several newspaper and TV network editors and at first they were skeptical. But we convinced them that education is the only way to make our country grow. . . . After a while, they all ended up supporting us. I can't think of any of Brazil's mass media that is not collaborating with us."
He added, "Education has become a priority: You can see it everywhere, in the newspapers, on television, in what politicians talk about."
And judging from the results, the campaign worked. A poll by CNO/IBOPE in late 2009 showed that the quality of education had become the second biggest concern of Brazilians, after crime. Earlier in the decade, education had scored below seventh place among Brazilians' biggest concerns on most years.
Not surprisingly, the government reacted to the public pressure, and quickly adopted the All for Education's five-point mission statement. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva presented a virtually identical program as his government's own creation, and set a date of 2021 -- one year ahead of All for Education's -- for Brazil to complete it.
"These civil society movements are a positive thing," Education Minister Fernando Haddad told me, stressing the importance of All for Education's media campaign to raise consciousness about education among parents. "Studies show that parents account for 70 percent of the success of teaching, so raising social consciousness about the importance of education is critical."
While completing a book on the most interesting innovations in education, science and technology around the world over the past five years, I found a similar pro-education civil society movement in Israel, called Hakol Hinuch , or It's All About Education. Its founder, retired textile tycoon Dov Lautman, told me that while Israel is the country that invests the most in research and development, and has some of the world's best universities, the country's elementary and high school education levels are plummeting.
Like its Brazilian counterpart, the Israeli nongovernment group has set five concrete goals to improve education standards, and has enlisted business people, well-known artists and soccer players to help spread its message.
"We take advantage of our members' celebrity status to be constantly in the media," Lautman said. "We have set very concrete goals, with clearly defined deadlines, and we are constantly in the media putting pressure on the government to meet them. And when the government doesn't, we unleash our entire media artillery on the government."
Judging from what's happening in countries as diverse as Brazil and Israel, business leaders, journalists and academics are concluding that unless they form coalitions to press their governments to make long-term investments in teacher training and other reforms to raise their countries' education standards, nothing will happen.
Increasingly, people are realizing that education is the key to their personal, family and national future. As we're seeing in Brazil and Israel, they should begin to do something about it.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at email@example.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.