I have been fortunate over the course of my career to have been able to visit schools and learn about public education in Norway, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and last summer, Brazil. Learning how other cultures and governments address the fundamental need to educate their children has provided thought-provoking comparisons. I’ve learned new ideas that stretched my thinking about many things and worked on my cultural proficiency skills. I have also gained a deep appreciation of how blessed we are here in the United States that quality education for every child is has been a core value from the beginning of our democratic government. Our educational system (and our system of government for that matter) has challenges and imperfections that make me a little crazy at times. But having experienced other systems, I still firmly believe we are blessed in what we have. This belief is one of the things that inspires me to continue trying to address our challenges and imperfections.
Last summer, I was fortunate to have been selected as part of a team of 15 American high school teachers who participated in a Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad in Brazil from June 19 to July 14, 2010. We visited 9 different cities or regions, starting in São Paulo and ending in Rio de Janeiro. Our goal was to learn about Brazil with a focus on diversity in education and how Brazil has been attempting to bridge achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity and socio-economic class. I learned much about this amazing country that is becoming very important in the world. I also learned about efforts Brazil is making to deal with racism, socio-economic inequity, and a historically weakened K-12 public education system. This very much informed my own work as an educational leader.
One requirement was to create a project to share the experience. I developed a resource unit for social studies classes that weaves together my personal “travel journal” of observations and experiences with some important questions about Brazil, race, poverty, and education. It’s been quite a while since I had to write curriculum, so this project was also a good experience. It renewed my appreciation for what our teachers do all the time as part of their work. If you’d like to see the project (which includes quite a few pictures and observations about Brazil) you may check it out at Brazil Project Link. A warning: it is 104 pages long…I told you it was an amazing trip! I will just share briefly one of my key reflections from the experience. This will be simplified and I will use USA equivalent terms for schooling rather than the Brazilian terms for the sake of brevity.
Brazil is a country with vast resources, but also vast inequities in the distribution of wealth and power. Unlike the U.S. where the middle class is historically the largest socioeconomic group, Brazil’s poor are the largest group. Unlike the U.S., education is a right and a responsibility of government to provide guaranteed in the 1988 Brazilian constitution. Not only ‘free’ pre-K-12 education, but also 'free' all the way through graduate school! Unlike the U.S., Brazilian funding for federal universities was historically the greatest portion of education funding. The children of the wealthy and the powerful needed world-class universities, so that's were the funding went. Brazil has really great universities; free to students the same way our K-12 system is free to students. If a high school graduate can score high enough on the Vestibular (the “TEST”) he or she gets into university… a free ride all the way through medical or law school, for example, if that’s the “TEST” they pass. So, passing the “TEST” is a hugely important goal. In the U.S. we save money to send our children to college in the future. In Brazil, parents who can afford it spend lots of money on pre-school, tutoring, supplemental education, and K-12 education so their children will score well on the “TEST” and theoretically get set for life.
This sounds intriguing, but here are the rubs. First, K-12 public education in Brazil is only 4 hours per day (for 200 days a year). Secondly, until recently, funding for the K-12 public system was quite small. The dictatorship (under which Brazil was ruled until the 1988 constitution when they became a democracy again) did not value public education for all and allowed the public schools to wither away during multiple economic crises. Wealthy and middle class parents almost universally abandoned public schools for private schools (which also get some government funding - sort of like vouchers - to supplement the private tuition). Private schools operate 8 or more hours per day and pay teachers many times more than what most public teachers were reduced to. Families with resources and power gave up on the public school system and the public schools declined in a vicious doom cycle during the 1960’s 70’s and 80’s. In the past 15 years or so, with some prodding by the United Nations and a new government that valued public education for all (‘para todos’) for the future of Brazil, the country began investing in public education again. Brazil has made amazing strides in the past decade in terms of access to education by all children. For example, they went from about 60% attendance to over 90% attendance at the elementary level. In addition, I saw Brazilian school systems doing things with multi-cultural curriculum that were truly impressive. But, at core, it is still only 4 hours per day. So, who is typically not ready to compete on the "TEST" are those who did not attend full time private schools: mainly the poor and persons of color. That’s why, until very recently, in a country that is roughly 50% persons of color and 50% persons primarily white about 98% of university students are white. Resolving this inequity is one of the larger educational challenges with which Brazil now wrestles.
For me, the cautionary tale of this brief overview of one idea is the critical nature of public support of good public education for all. As important as this is, the public expectation of good schools for all can be lost, and once lost, is extremely difficult to rebuild. Regardless of the government in charge, or the economic times we face, we must keep public education for every child the cornerstone of our culture and democracy - - as it has been for over 300 years. We need to make schools perform well for all, the poor as well as those not poor; minority racial and ethnic groups as well as those in the majority. We certainly have our challenges and inequities with which to wrestle. However, we are fortunate that our governments and our people have never “given up” on our public schools or stopped expecting that all children have equal opportunity to become well educated. This American heritage is one of the reasons I am proud to be an educator in the United States and remain committed to work to make it ever better.
Finally, I wish to thank the U.S. Department of Education and the Brazil Fulbright Commission for the opportunity to participate in this Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad. It provided amazing opportunities for learning about another country, improved our cultural proficiency, and as well let us share what is happening in the United States with educators and leaders around the world. For more on this program: Fulbright-Hays Seminar Link