Education on the Fast Track

We all agree: education is a building block for individual and collective progress. This explains why education is at the center of parental concerns and at the core of the public debate for improving outcomes for future generations. Parents increasingly expect more from the educational projects they choose, both in ethical formation and academic preparation.

Decades of social and economic progress have transformed Chile’s society. Chileans recognize more than ever the critical importance of merit, and have become increasingly uneasy about the nation’s unfair inequalities. They want to see more rewards from hard work and personal talent than from birthrights.

Therefore, to talk about education is to talk about (in)justice, (in)equality of opportunities and how to correct these issues. To talk about education is to think about our children’s and grandchildren’s future, about the freedom to choose and have access to high-quality, diverse, and modern education.An education that not only enables new generations to make the most of the technological revolution—which otherwise, through robotics, could lead to unemployment—but also lays the foundation for continuous progress to undo the knots of underdevelopment.

As we argue in this book, some recent policy changes are positive, but others are not, since they point toward a “bureaucratic egalitarianism” that flattens the schooling system, promoting uniformity instead of diversity. We do not want to revert to the past. We are concerned with the future. We frequently think and legislate from the suspicion and distrust associated with parents and educators. We need a new approach to filter and integrate means and ends within the framework of a pluralist society undergoing processes of modernization and driven by demanding aspirations. We are looking for a new equilibrium to create opportunities through a combination of merit and solidarity. How can we sustain a progress-based path to development by building a better education system? How can we serve the demand for social mobility while securing the freedom of families and schools to choose? How can we promote effort and talent while fighting the long-standing intergenerational transmission of inequality?All in all, how can we put education—especially for those who most need it—on the fast track to improvement?

In this sense, this is a book that goes against the grain. We are not following consensus or established opinions and approaches, but challenging them. Of course, we may be wrong. But here are our arguments and a set of pragmatic, feasible propositions.

This is a book that attempts to reveal what parents look for in schools. Instead of seeking to correct the paternalist mode of parental decision-making, we look to understand and explain their underlying rationality.

This is a book that argues on the basis of freedom and for freedom. It defends subsidized private education and, at the same time and especially, strengthening public education as a quality option that must always be available and free of charge for all families. This text makes concrete proposals to revitalize and invest important resources in education. On the other hand, it defends public high schools of academic excellence, for they allow able-minded teenagers from low socioeconomic backgrounds to excel and integrate the ruling classes of Chile. These are meritocratic and republican high schools that need improvement, for they have suffered financially and structurally over the last several years, almost to the point that they no longer serve their historic purpose.

Within these pages the reader will find national and international evidence, experiences and analyses, interpretations and reflections, criticism and propositions. We have attempted to avoid technical language, aiming for a general public interested in education, teachers who spend much of their days in a classroom, and parents who work and strive to give their children the best possible education.

Selection, disparity and early education, segregation, equality, social cohesion, peer effects, educational standards, wages and teacher training, subsidy per student, co-financing, academic freedom, public and private schools are some of the controversial and interrelated issues that we mention and with which we take a stance. In some cases, we pose objections to the legislation that governs us and suggest modifications. Yet there are many relevant issues that the book has not been able to address, such as how Law N° 20.845 eradicates profit in subsidized private schools and its impact.

The international experience is an important reference in our analysis. Education systems vary widely throughout the world but, from a structural point of view, perhaps the greatest similarities with Chile are found in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Estonia, three countries characterized by their educational excellence. In all three cases, parents select their children’s school and education is financed through a subsidy per-student scheme, without discriminating between public and private schools. In Estonia, most people favor public schools and co-financing is an option. In Belgium and the Netherlands, more than 70% attend subsidized private schools and larger subsidies exist for more vulnerable students.

Nothing in the foundation of its institutional structure impedes Chile from achieving outstanding academic results. However, this has not happened yet. High achievers in mathematics, according to PISA 2015, are 1.4% in Chile compared to 10.7% in the OCDE. And underachievers are 49% compared to 23.4% in the OCDE. Quality education remains a huge challenge. A 12.9% variation in the results of the PISA 2015 science test can be explained, on average, by student socioeconomic origin. In Chile, this figure increases to 16.9%. On this scale, Chile’s results fare somewhat better than France’s: 20% with a free state-run system. But our country still faces an immense challenge in terms of equality.

On the other hand, the variation in results, for example, of senior year mathematics has less to do with differences between schools than it does with differences within a school. In fact, as we will discuss, around 70% of the variation in results is due to disparities in performance within schools. PISA test results tend to confirm this phenomenon. And Chilean teachers agree, saying their biggest challenge is the heterogeneity of performance within the same course. One only has to look and observe girls and boys sitting in a class to perceive their distinct personalities, their differences. Education must be flexible and adaptable to the different talents, needs, and interests of students. This represents another major challenge.

One of the most concerning aspects for parents is order and discipline. And the evidence shows that indiscipline hinders learning, particularly among schools in the lowest decile of standardized test scores. According to PISA, Chile is one of the countries where teachers report academic performance is most affected by alcohol and drugs. And this problem seems more severe in public than in subsidized private education.

Nonetheless, Chile has the best education system in Latin America, according to the PISA 2015 tests. And between 2000 and 2015, the country’s reading performance rose by 49%, the third highest improvement in the world behind Peru and Albania. During this same period, the average in the OCDE countries fell by 3% and, for example, Finland dropped by 20%. And in mathematics, Chile’s performance did not wane, whereas the average score in countries that consider the PISA test fell by 4%.

Therefore, we have progressed and we can keep progressing. But, what is the key to continue doing so? Teachers. Significantly improving our educator training and remunerations are crucial tasks. From our perspective, that is where we should now concentrate all our efforts.

We believe it is possible to construct an education system that combines the freedom to teach with the freedom to choose the most autonomous schools. A system where diverse providers (public, subsidized private, and pure private) secure high-quality standards for all, and repress unjust discrimination. In other words, we believe that within the framework of freedom, quality and equality are compatible for all—and, particularly, for those who most need it—and unjust segregation can be curtailed.We make specific policy propositions aimed at this end.On the other hand, we must not confuse segregation—in the sense of discrimination which violates peoples’ equal dignity—with processes characteristic of modernity.In pluralist societies people are different and reject the molds that attempt to standardize them.

From our perspective, an education system based on academic freedom does not have a sole purpose, it is not a factory to produce a certain kind of citizen or a population skilled in particular knowledge. On the contrary, it must be defined by a set of rules promoting the  development of different educational projects while, of course, adhering to the compulsory national curriculum. The State has an irreplaceable duty to regulate, audit, orient, inform, and finance. But in a pluralist society the State should not use the education system to inculcate any particular way of life.Therefore, the State should not subject all children to a uniform educational project.

In a free society, the education system pursues multiple objectives. Educational projects must emerge from the interaction between the educators and the parents who choose them for their children. And the reasons behind their choices may be varied, ranging from family ties to religion, or the school principal’s personality, quality of education, infrastructure, friends’ opinions, and other factors. If some parents prefer low-performance schools because they value other aspects, such as the school environment, they are in their full right. If we believe in people’s autonomy, we cannot restrict it or place obstacles in its way just because we do not agree with their decisions. Again, one option that must always remain available is public, secular, free, and high-quality education.

We look skeptically upon the mistrust in parents. As if certain experts knew more than families what is best for their children.We look skeptically upon the mistrust in educators, which is especially prevalent in public schools, where principals have few obligations and the existing regulations dilute responsibilities.

We value those school communities that integrate teachers, students, and involved parents into a specific educational project. We believe good schools tend to be communities that stand the test of time, providing a sense of meaning, enriched by friends and affections that last a lifetime.These pages are written with that spirit.

Arturo Fontaine and Sergio Urzúa

January, 2018

Translation by Thomás Rothe