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Brazil's vexing public education problem

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

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.