Commentary: Obama should play education card in Latin America

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

When President Barack Obama starts his much-awaited first trip to South America on March 19, he should take his recent State of the Union address on education, science and innovation with him, and turn it into a hemispheric cause.

He needs that, as much as the region does.

While all recent U.S. presidents had a grand plan for Latin America — George Bush proposed the Enterprise for the Americas, Bill Clinton launched the North American Free Trade Agreement, and George W. Bush tried to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas — the Obama administration has not produced any major plan for hemispheric development, or to expand U.S. trade with one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.

Granted, polls show that Obama is very popular in Latin America, and his speech at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad promising “an equal partnership” without “a senior partner and junior partner” drew enthusiastic applause in the region. But nearly two years have passed since, and the administration has not moved beyond confidence-building words.

So what can Obama take to Latin America at a time when the U.S. Congress is preparing to make drastic budget cuts at home and abroad? Obama should offer the region the same recipe he is proposing at home: improving education standards to become more competitive in the global economy.

“The world has changed,” Obama told Congress in his annual State of the Union address Jan. 25. “Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science, investing in research and new technologies.”

“We can’t just stand still,” he added. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

At home, Obama has placed education at the center of the political agenda. For the past month, he has been touring the country proposing to train 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, engineering and math, offering financial rewards to state school systems that change their rules and allow evaluation and merit pay for teachers, and calling for greater international student and teacher mobility.

He should take the same message on his trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. He could emphasize that the United States and Latin America are facing the same kind of challenges in competing with Asia.

While an elementary child goes to school 243 days a year in Japan, the U.S. school year is of 180 days, and in many Latin American countries — once you take into account non-scheduled holidays and teacher strikes — it’s often 160 days. And school days in China — once you count after-hour learning — are twice as long as in the Americas.

Not surprisingly, in the most recent PISA tests of 15-year-old students in 65 countries around the world, the United States descended to 17th place, while Brazil, Argentina, Panama and Peru placed 53rd, 58th, 62nd and 63rd respectively. The city of Shanghai, China, was in the first place, followed by South Korea.

Education is an area in which the United States can make a big contribution to Latin America.

U.S. universities are still dominating the top places of the QS World University Rankings, while there is not one single Latin American university among the world’s best 200 universities. And according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office figures, U.S. inventors register about 83,000 patents a year, compared with Japan’s 36,000, China’s 1,600, Brazil’s 100, Mexico’s 60, Argentina’s 40 and Colombia’s 10.

My opinion: Obama should announce an Education Initiative of the Americas that would include large scale student and teacher exchanges with U.S. universities (there are currently 128,000 students from China in U.S. colleges, compared with only 13,000 from Mexico), as well as sending English teachers and providing free Internet English courses to tens of millions of Latin Americans.

And Obama could offer to share his experiences with his Race to the Top program, which offers money to states that change their laws to allow teacher evaluations and merit pay, so that teachers are paid by results in their classrooms rather than only by their seniority. It’s a plan that would revolutionize education in Latin America.

It’s time for Obama to move beyond feel-good rhetoric and build concrete bridges with the region so that the whole hemisphere could better compete with the emerging Asian and European trading blocs. Much like in the United States, education would be a good place to start.


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 aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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