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Brazil's vexing public education problem

A two-part series on Brazil's unequal education system.

MACEIO, Brazil — Schools in this poverty-stricken, crack-infested northeast state capital have one problem you’d never expect: bright, shiny computers.

Most are still in their boxes, awaiting installation that never comes. Others are not used because teacher training is lacking, or the internet is not connected. It’s one of the most maddening problems facing the Maceio public school system. The schools there represent some of the worst in Brazil public education.

Even as the country’s notorious rich-poor gap shrinks and the middle class grows, the education system continues to be a national mark of shame. In many cities and towns, public schools are, quite simply, for those with no other choice.

Fourteen percent of Brazilians attend private schools, according to 2009 figures from the Ministry of Education. In big cities almost the entire elite and upper-middle classes send their children to private schools, as do those middle class families that can afford it. Private school students are, on average, three years ahead academically of those who attend public schools.

In the case of Maceio, the failures don’t appear to stem from a lack of funds — just check out the number of computers — but instead from teacher shortages and absenteeism, school violence, antiquated methodology and incompetent or corrupt administration.

A school in recovery

The Rosalvo Ribeiro school in a low-income neighborhood in Maceio shows many signs of being a well-run school.

Its principal, Eunece Maria Soares de Oliveira, is just the kind of person you’d want in charge of your child’s education: a confident, intelligent and pragmatic manager, gentle but firm with her adolescent students. The school environment is that perfect middle ground between martial law and utter chaos: the office buzzes agreeably with staff and teachers; the pretty courtyard, shaded with tropical trees, is filled with what seem to be happy students.

But Rosalvo Ribeiro is a school in recovery. The last administration was a disaster, according to accounts from Soares, teachers and several parents. The principal and his assistants rarely showed up, and the school operated without the vital position of academic coordinator. During the 2009 school year, there were no math or physics teachers.

When Soares de Oliveira’s slate took over about a year ago, they hired a coordinator and made sure math and physics teachers were put in place. Some students are now taking two consecutive years of math simultaneously to make up for lost time — a pragmatic if not methodologically sound solution.

By some standards, the school is still pretty disastrous. Classroom observations over three separate visits revealed teaching methods common in Brazil, but that American teachers might classify as anywhere from old-fashioned to reprehensible.

In one class, students seem engaged during a traditional math lesson on place value from an energetic teacher. But in a particularly bad Portuguese class, students spent an entire period copying teacher’s manual answers to their textbook’s essay questions off the board.

Brazil is one of the world's fastest-growing major economies and an emerging player on the international stage. But a glaring weakness remains: its unequal education system. In this two-part series, GlobalPost looks at the challenges to bringing modern education to the remote Amazon and the poor northeast.

“I’m not sure why we’re doing this,” said Mayara, one of the students.

Good intentions

Such issues are present across schools and across Brazil, differing only by degree. But Alagoas state has it worse than most, ranking last in overall literacy, and fourth to last in the Brazilian education development index called the IDEB.

A lack of effort or funds from the top don't seem to be to blame for its struggles. Federal education reforms are rampant in Brazil, most successfully in the case of universalizing education over the last few decades. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has widely expanded the Bolsa Familia program, which gives poor parents monetary incentives to keep their children in school.

The federal government has also sent money, and supplies are flowing to the schools across the country. The Ministry of Education buys immense numbers of textbooks and then replaces them every four years, making the federal government by far the biggest purchaser of books in the country.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/brazil/100907/education-public-schools