Commentary: Good feelings don't equal achievement

A new poll shows that, amazingly, Latin Americans are much happier with their countries' public education systems than people in other regions that score much better in international student achievement tests and university rankings.

Before we get into why this should trigger alarm bells in Latin America, let's look at the results of the Gallup poll of 40,000 people in 24 countries in the region commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank as part of a wider study on satisfaction levels on various issues.

When asked whether they are happy with their countries' public education systems, including elementary schools, high schools and universities, the response in the region was overwhelmingly positive. Eighty-five percent of Costa Ricans, 84 percent of Venezuelans, 82 percent of Cubans, 80 percent of Nicaraguans, 77 percent of Salvadorans, and more than 72 percent of Colombians, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Bolivians, Panamanians, Uruguayans and Paraguayans said they are happy with their countries' public education.

Comparatively, only 66 percent of those questioned in Germany, 67 percent in the United States and 70 percent in Japan are happy with their respective countries' public education, the study says.

"Latin Americans in general are satisfied with their public education, even though the region scores very badly in international student achievements tests," says Eduardo Lora, the senior IDB economist who coordinated the study. "Their satisfaction isn't justified by the facts."

Indeed, standardized international tests of 15-year-old students show that Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, where respondents were happier with their public education than Japan, score about 35 percent lower on average than Japanese students, the study says.

When it comes to higher education, Latin America – which has some of the world's biggest state-run universities – doesn't do well either when compared to other regions.

A recent ranking of the world's 200 best universities by Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement shows that there are no Latin American universities among the world's best 100, even though Brazil and Mexico are among the world's fifteen largest economies.

Only three Latin American universities made the list of the best 200: Mexico's National Autonomous University (150th), Brazil's University of Sao Paulo (196th) and Argentina's University of Buenos Aires (197th). By comparison, there were nine Asian universities among the world's top 50 universities.

Asked why he believes so many Latin Americans have an overly optimistic view of their education systems, Lora told me that most people in the region tend to judge their education systems by the adequacy of their school buildings, or the treatment their children get from their teachers, rather than by how much students learn in school.

In other words, there has been a lot of progress on expanding education – literacy rates have doubled since the 1930s, to 86 percent of the region's population – but very little focus on improving the quality of education.

"The danger is that, if people are satisfied, there will not be a social demand to improve education standards," Lora told me. "Ironically, such demand is mostly seen in the countries that have achieved the highest education standards in the region, such as Chile."

My opinion: Fortunately, people in a few Latin American countries are increasingly conscious of their educational backwardness, and of how it is preventing them from developing faster in a global economy where knowledge-based exports are much more valuable than raw materials.

The IDB study shows that only 54 percent of Argentines and 45 percent of Peruvians are satisfied with their countries' public education. Good for them! Mexicans and Brazilians are somewhat in the middle between the most and least satisfied with public education: 68 percent of Mexicans and 64 percent of Brazilians are satisfied with their respective public education systems.

Most countries in the region, however, should stop living in denial. As with drug or alcohol addictions, the first step for most Latin American countries to solve their educational deficit will be recognizing that they have a problem.

P.S.: Regarding the levels of satisfaction with life in general, the poll shows that on average Latin Americans are less happy than their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe, and about the same as in Asia.

While 7.5 percent of Americans and 7 percent of Britons and French say they are satisfied with their lives, the percentages were lower in Mexico (6.6 percent), Brazil (6.2 percent), Argentina (6 percent) and Peru (5.3 percent). So much for the old stereotype that Latin Americans are poor but happy.