Brazil's vexing public education problem

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.

But in a problem that will be familiar to those who follow education in developed countries as well, the path that resources take from well-meaning federal programs to hard-working teachers loses steam as it filters through the labyrinth of state and local bureaucracies.

Unimaginable workloads

The trouble also isn’t a dearth of effort at the bottom. Most teachers in Maceio seem to be well-intentioned and caring, if not necessarily highly trained.

“The great majority of teachers have a lot of good will,” said Cleriston Izidro dos Anjos, a professor of education at the Federal University of Alagoas, known as UFAL. “But work conditions, low salaries, poor training — these are a series of other elements that doesn’t allow the work to be done.”

Brazilian teachers’ workloads, for example, would be simply unimaginable for their American counterparts. American public school teachers may not be getting rich, but they make a decent living working one shift a day, with preparation time built into their schedules. In Brazil, as in much of Latin America, schools run in three daily shifts: morning, afternoon and evening.

In Maceio, which ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack for Brazilian teacher salaries, instructors with bachelor’s degrees who work for the state secondary schools can expect to make about $7,000 per shift per year, a figure that barely increases with seniority. Teachers working for Maceio’s municipal school system (which works mainly with elementary schools) make slightly more. But in both systems, virtually all teachers work at least two shifts, and many work all three.

Those conditions make it difficult even for the most dedicated to do a good job.

Almir Barbosa teaches fifth grade at the Eulinha Alencar Municipal School in the particularly rundown Maceio neighborhood of Jacintinho.

An eight-year veteran, Barbosa speaks in fluent pedagogical lingo about his students’ weaknesses and strengths in reading comprehension and writing skills. His students are calm and well-behaved. They even write essays upon command, something you rarely see in public elementary classrooms in Brazil.

But teaching fifth grade is just his morning job. In the afternoon, he works as academic coordinator at another school. And in the evening, he teaches Portuguese to secondary school students in still another. He leaves home at 6 a.m., gets home at 10 p.m., and has barely enough time built in between shifts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, let alone planning or grading. That leaves Saturday to prepare for his triple workload, and Sunday to relax. “It’s a hectic life,” he said.

And many recent graduates with education degrees can’t get coveted state jobs, which come with tenure and a pension, because the state hasn’t held a teacher-licensing exam since 2006. Instead, schools end up hiring low-cost, temporary teachers known as monitors, who often don’t have college degrees.

'Under attack and without support'

The crime and drug problems in poor neighborhoods in Maceio also make teaching difficult. 

Even a well-run school can fall victim to the drug culture if it is in the wrong neighborhood. And in Maceio, there are a lot of wrong neighborhoods.

The Eulinha Alencar School — where Almir Barbosa teaches — is, by all evidence, a good place. It was the only school GlobalPost visited by recommendation of school authorities, rather than by random selection, a sure sign it is being used as a showcase.

Its no-nonsense principal, Marilucia Almeida Soares, is delightful and firmly in control; there is a tropical garden where students plant crops and fruits, and students’ notebooks are filled with such rarities as complete sentences and original thoughts.

But vandals broke in a whopping five times between January and May, stealing electronics, appliances, textbooks, classroom fans, lightbulbs, anything that could be of value. “The administration does not have the support that the situation requires,” she said. “We are under attack here and without support.”

The school actually posted a sign declaring itself “Record Holder in Burglaries, Muggings and Vandalism” to embarrass the city to send security.

Power politics

Many teachers blame the notorious political system of the Brazilian northeast, often referred to as “coronelismo,” for the school system’s problems. Centuries ago, the Portuguese crown granted huge chunks of territory to landowners, who treated their holdings as kingdoms and their subjects as serfs. To some extent, politicians and business magnates still operate that way.

“You still have archaic power relationships,” said Georgia Sobreira dos Santos Cea, a professor of education at UFAL. “That explains most of it. There is a culture of threats and fear.” She sees it in her students, the future teachers of Alagoas, when she urges them to fight for change. Year after year they bring up the same story of Paulo Henrique Bandeira.

In 2003, Bandeira, a teacher from the small town of Satuba, Alagoas, publicly accused municipal officials of misusing funds for school lunches. Days later, his charred body was found in his car on an isolated rural road. (The then-mayor of the town is now in jail, though the case is still wending its way through the courts.)

Hard-nosed politics also play out in less tragic, but educationally vexing, ways. When Soares took over at the Rosalvo Ribeiro School, the former principal remained president of the school council for the first six months of her term, Soares said in an interview. He used his power there to block nearly all school expenditures, including the student lunch budget.

Soares recounted how the new administration had to search far and wide for a supplier that was willing to provide yogurt, crackers, pasta and eggs for six months on credit. Parents and other teachers backed up her account.

“I don’t even know how the school functioned,” said Soares de Oliveira. “It’s a chaotic situation that you can only understand if you were in the middle of the mess.”

In an hour-long interview with GlobalPost, Rogerio Auto Teofilo, the Alagoas state secretary of education, was familiar with many of the complaints, and full of plans to solve them.

Most revolve around a new program called “Geracao Saber,” or Generation Knowledge, trumpeted by T-shirts with fancy logos and pamphlets. It sounds great, involving United Nations consultants and a cooperation with the municipal school systems, and surely everyone hopes it works.

But governors and their secretaries of education almost never stay in office long enough to be held accountable. Teofilo, in fact, has been education secretary twice before. And a gubernatorial election is coming in October.

High-tech wizardry

But no situation is more maddening than unused technology. In visits to a half-dozen public schools over a week in Maceio, GlobalPost could not find one making regular use of its computers, although the labs where they sat were in high demand for faculty meetings, principally because of their air conditioning.

In the Professora Josefa Conceicao da Costa school in the Canaa neighborhood, most of the computers are ready for use.

And if there was one teacher who wanted to use them, it was Simone Cavalcanti. She is a bright, energetic 24-year-old teacher, just a few years out of a bachelor’s degree in geography, who fell in love with teaching and decided to work in the public schools (as a monitor, of course).

As most of the teachers met for a staff meeting in the computer room, her class was one of the few still taking place. She was making a spirited effort to engage students in her sweltering classroom in a debate about creationism and evolution, later having them write a paragraph about what they learned that day. (That pretty much counts as Jetsons methodolgy for a Brazilian public school classroom.)

She’d love to use the computers. Her reason for not doing so? There are only 10 computers set up, and her classes have 40 children. Four children per computer, she says, is just not worth it.

Cavalcanti recently graduated from UFAL, the state’s top university, and is fluent in PowerPoint. She would love to plug her laptop into a projector, showing students photos, images and graphs she pulls off the internet to keep them engaged.

No luck, but not because the school doesn’t have a projector. The school indeed has one, purchased with its discretionary funds. But according to to the assistant principal Marijose Albuquerque Costa, it will not be available for teacher use until the rest of the items on the discretionary budget come in and it is all presented — bright and shiny new, of course, to the school community.

Read about the challenges of bringing modern education to the remote Amazon.

Seth Kugel is a former third-grade teacher in the New York City public schools through the Teach for America program and studied education policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.