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By José Joaquín Brunner
What is required now is something much more difficult to achieve. It is about transforming the educational experience -especially that of children and young people from lower-income sectors- into a process that, on the one hand, compensates for inequalities of socio-economic and cultural origin and, on the other, prepares them to learn the same. throughout life and thus be able to exercise adult roles in an environment characterized by continuous change, insecurity and productive pressure.
The expansion of educational opportunities in Latin America has so far not served to compensate for inequalities of socioeconomic and cultural origin. Although it is true, today millions of children and young people previously excluded from education enter the K-12 training process (a term that includes preschool, primary and secondary education), on average one half does not complete it and the other half continues highly dissimilar trajectories from the point of view of training quality. Indeed, among those who complete secondary education - a condition to avoid the risk of falling below the poverty line in Latin America - on average, 50% have not achieved the minimum mastery of the learning competencies defined by the age of 15 years. the PISA test.
In short, the expanded education offered in the region today, more than compensating for inequalities of origin, tends to reproduce them and thus limit the future of the majority of young people. In fact, only a fraction of them are able to access tertiary education. For this reason, the majority of young people -with low-quality secondary education or even less schooling- are not sufficiently prepared to continue learning throughout life, integrate into the world of work, assume their civic responsibilities and face the uncertainties of contemporary life. As a consequence, their expectations of social mobility, satisfaction of material and cultural needs, as well as their desire to take advantage of the opportunities and assets of modernity, are frustrated. A dull malaise results from these circumstances, a malaise that, like the volcanoes of the Andes mountain range, erupts every so often, making the political order and social coexistence unstable.
How, then, to advance from 2015 towards a more equitable educational horizon for the population of Latin American children and youth?
1. First of all, preschool education should be extended until it is universal. Along with this, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programs should be developed for the boys and girls of 60% of the households with the fewest resources. These initiatives should have highly qualified professional personnel and the highest quality infrastructure and equipment. As long as Latin America does not achieve this goal, it will not be able to use education as a means to compensate for inequalities of socioeconomic and cultural origin. During the next 15 years this should be the absolute priority of public policy, State action, public investment and cooperation with private parties.
2. Next, all Latin American children and youth should be assured of a K-12 process that offers all a formative experience leading to the minimum necessary mastery of basic learning competencies and skills in accordance with the international standard designed by PISA. This, regardless of their home of origin, social class, gender, ethnicity or location. The challenge is to transform the effectiveness and quality of the schools into a real lever to equalize the learning outcomes as much as possible.
3. The two previous goals suppose to satisfy three sine qua non requirements: (i) that the higher education system provide ECCE and the K-12 cycle with qualified teaching and managerial personnel to convert schools that currently have a mediocre performance or failed in effective schools capable of meeting the proposed learning standards; (ii) that governments, together with civil societies at the national and local levels, have support programs for those schools that need to be transformed, and (iii) that public spending for education in Latin America be used as a priority and with strong demands on accountability to meet the objectives outlined above. This idea aims to reverse the current situation in which a proportion of resources goes to the two highest income quintiles, with a strong regressive effect.
4. Finally, in addition to drastically improving the training of teaching and managerial staff for the other levels of the educational system, it is essential to review the policies and goals of tertiary education, in order to meet the following three objectives:
(i) Strongly develop Technical-Professional Education and Training in connection with the changing needs of the productive sector and with its active participation and collaboration. In this way, it seeks to reduce the pressure that exists on the demand for academic-based, long-term and high-cost professional careers;
(ii) Guarantee the widest possible availability of information to guide the choice of young people when entering tertiary education. This proposal is aimed at reducing the high dropout rates, the frustration of expectations, the waste of public and private resources, and the potential fraud that markets that are not very transparent and with strong information asymmetries entail;
(iii) Actively promote educational research both with State resources and through international cooperation. The work should be oriented both towards the solution of problems of the ECCE system, school and tertiary and towards pedagogical innovation, so that public policies have evidence on which to rely, teachers with means of knowledge to improve their practices and national societies with information and arguments that allow them to deliberate and decide on the most conducive courses for educational action.
Note:  This article was originally published under the title Latin America: A Post-2015 Education Agenda in NORRAG News No. 49 October 2013 of Network for international policies and cooperation in education and training].