The hard-fought successes of Rio's school system


Through innovative changes in the system, Rio de Janeiro's students are seeing improvements in literacy and general well-fare, says the city's education secretary.



This is a response to John Otis' piece, "Brazil's 'educational apartheid' cements inequality early in life," written for our most recent Special Report, "The Great Divide: Global Income Inequality and its Cost."

Dr. Claudia Costin has been the Secretary of Education for the city of Rio de Janeiro since 2009. She is an expert in public policy, and holds a degree in Public Administration, an MA in Economics and a PhD in Management. Dr. Costin was also vice president of the Victor Civita Foundation, which is focused on education projects and has been a visiting professor at a number of schools, including the University of Québec.

Despite its rank as the sixth-largest economy in the world, Brazil was still 53rd in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to measure the quality of education around the world.

Although there have been improvements, the country still has a long way to go. The main reason for the education imbalance is the delay in universalizing access to basic education. In 1930, only 21.5 percent of school-age children attended schools, while Argentina and Chile already had 62 and 73 percent, respectively.

By the end of the 1960s, less than 45 percent of kids were in school. It was only in 1996 that a huge effort was made to ensure that every child had access to adequate schooling. Now, they are all attending, but they come from families who have only few years of formal schooling, which has an important impact on learning.

After receiving an offer in late 2008 from future mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, to become his Secretary of Education, I realized it would be a huge opportunity to show it was possible to transform the system – even in such a complicated context.

More from GlobalPost: Brazil's 'educational apartheid' cements inequality early in life

Rio has the biggest municipal school system in the country; there are 1,074 public schools and 356 early childhood centers, some of them in areas controlled either by drug dealers or militias, or recently pacified. An initial assessment of kids’ deficiencies showed that we had approximately 28,000 illiterate students in grades 4 to 6, a sad portrait of the consequences of an ineffective system.

We had to abandon a prevailing view of the education establishment: the belief that we deal with poor kids whose parents have very little schooling, so we should not overburden them with homework, or tests. Instead, a strong literacy program was established in order to ensure that students learn to read and write in first grade and no later. Homework and tests were reestablished. We were convinced that if we wanted to emancipate students, we needed to be more demanding and not less. Ensuring the appropriate support, of course.

We started a transformation process with the definition of a curriculum for each academic year. In other words, we did not start by introducing fancy projects. Instead, we set out a clear curriculum and created tools connected to it, such as textbooks and Educopedia, a platform of digital lessons that can be projected in every classroom.

The textbooks and the digital lessons share two characteristics: First, they were prepared and are systematically updated by our teachers. The production of these materials is now part of their professional development. Second, the teachers can decide whether they want to use it or not. In a recent research, 74 percent of teachers affirmed that they were using Educopedia systematically.

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We continued by investing in two key pieces to improve learning: teacher training and the establishment of a strong system of remedial education for the kids who were lagging behind or learning at a slower pace. Different tracks were established for older students and kids who were still illiterate in middle school, so as to ensure that they may overcome their difficulties with more appropriate strategies for their age group.

In schools in violent neighborhoods, where children and young people are most vulnerable, we offered additional support in a project called Schools of Tomorrow, in which teachers’ salaries were increased, mothers were hired to be a pacifying presence in schools, and we concentrated on going after students who were about to drop out. We also put in place an innovative, hands-on science program in those schools, with a science lab inside each classroom, and we offered a vast choice of after-school activities in arts, sports and tutoring. Health professionals and social workers have also been mobilized in order to make sure these vulnerable kids get the necessary support to succeed in schools.

The results so far have been astounding. In just two years, grades rose 22 percent in our national educational index for the ninth grade. In the Schools of Tomorrow, the increase was even higher at 33 percent. In the first grade, we also received good results. By the end of 2011, 83 percent of students were already able to read and write at grade level.

But while schools have shown a much better performance, we realized these results would not be sustainable if we did not extend school hours. Thus, a bill was passed by the Rio city council to progressively turn the entire school system in Rio into one that offers a one-shift, seven-hour school day.

This “revolution,” which already shows important results, will certainly take time to consolidate. But Brazil needs a sense of urgency in education. The future of our kids cannot be at risk.