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  • Lessons from Chile: School Choice Gets Results

    Forty-five kindergarten children sit attentively in a cold classroom in a poor school on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. Bundled in blue and white uniforms, they patiently wait on their teacher’s next instruction, a child occasionally moving across the small room to access materials in his personal cubby-hole.

    In a neighborhood plagued with drugs and violence, the private voucher school is a sanctuary for the low-income children who reside there. For many, their home life is one full of neglect: out-of-work parents (if any), unsanitary living conditions, and a familiarity with the sounds of local drug dealers that should be reserved for the music of an ice cream delivery truck.

    But despite the incalculable obstacles that lie before them, the San Joaquín School has provided them with hope. San Joaquín provides a high-quality education to the 100 percent low-income population of children it serves. The teachers are dedicated, the academic focus is rigorous, and structure is the cornerstone of the school’s routine.

    The voucher school posts reading and math scores far above the national average. The school spends only about $150 per child per month, but it daily reinforces the truism that all children can learn and should be provided with the opportunity to transcend their poor surroundings.

    It’s a jarring study in contrasts with many American schools, where spending exceeds $10,000 per child per year while achievement results languish.

    While the San Joaquín School is one of the higher-performing schools in the country, Chile is working to improve outcomes for schools nationwide. Like the U.S., Chile is striving to increase academic achievement levels for all children while at the same time reducing achievement gaps between low- and upper-income students. In recent years, Chile has seen an increase in reading achievement for students and a slight narrowing of the achievement gap between low-income children and their more advantaged peers.

    Moves to create greater transparency about school performance could have aided in the recent increases. The country now employs a “traffic light” system, classifying schools as either green, yellow, or red based on academic test results. The traffic light system is credited with providing parents with more information about where to enroll their children in school and provides some pressure on low-performing schools to improve academic outcomes.

    The Chilean education system is divided into three classifications of schools:

    1. Municipal (public) schools, which, as in the United States, provide taxpayer-subsidized free public education to families across the country;
    2. Private voucher schools, which are private schools that receive a fixed government subsidy based on the number of children who attend (and lose money if a child decides to transfer to another school); and
    3. Private tuition schools, which receive no taxpayer subsidies and require parents to pay straightforward tuition like most private schools in the United States.

    In Chile, school choice has played an integral part in the country’s efforts to improve its overall education system by providing more options for families and placing competitive pressure on the public school system to improve.

    According to an April 2011 paper by the Chilean public policy foundation Libertad y Desarrollo:

    According to the information from the [Ministry of Education], between 2000 and 2010, nearly 500,000 students migrated from the municipal [public] education [system]; 500 schools closed in that period, while, at the same time, approximately 2,000 private subsidized schools were created.

    Like the U.S., Chile struggles with centralized bureaucracy in education (with nearly all educational decision-making authority concentrated in the hands of the Ministry of Education in Santiago). Similar to the paperwork burden handed down to local schools from Washington, growing bureaucracy from Santiago burdens local schools. A new “Shared Support Program,” for example, is duplicative of the country’s “Preferential School Subsidy Program,” similar to the American Title I grants for low-income schools.

    The success of the San Joaquín School has come from dedicated teachers, a devoted principal, and a structured school environment that is missing from the home lives of many poor children in Santiago. Like successful low-income schools in the United States, it’s the dedication of local leaders who have a close understanding of the needs of local children.

    While Chile’s ministry of education is intent on extending its reach into local schools (each administration has a hand in reworking the national curriculum, which all schools must adhere to, for example), there are lessons that can be applied to education reform in the United States: keep educational decision-making authority local, increase transparency of results, and above all, empower parents.

     

    Posted in Education [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to Lessons from Chile: School Choice Gets Results

    1. Kirsten Sehnbruch says:

      you are truly writing from a position of total ignorance of the facts and ideological bias. why do you think hundreds of thousands of school children and university students have been taking to the streets in vocal protest over the education system during the last few months? the voucher schools in Chile cherry pick their students by charging fees. their academic results ARE NO BETTER THAN THOSE OF STATE SCHOOLS IF YOU CONTROL FOR THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND OF THE CHILDREN. in fact, they mostly use the fiscal voucher to make a profit, rather than spending the money on the children's education. they improve their results by expelling those children that are not performing well before national test scores are taken, thus improving their average scores, but seriously damaging the children concerned.
      one good school does not serve as a representative sample of the entire system. there are plenty of state schools that do better than this one!
      PLEASE: take a look at the facts before you spread ideological garbage!!!
      Kirsten Sehnbruch, PhD, Professor, University of Chile

    2. JFK says:

      Kirsten, were you educated in the US university system?

    3. Chris D says:

      Bahahahaha. I taught for 9 months in a Chilean public school in Valparaíso, lived with a Chilean family, and was in close contact with dozens of other volunteers who did the same in villages, towns, and cities all over the country. This is pure fantasy: the semi-private schools are also a mess, as are all but the most elite of the private schools.

      People have already noted the protests. When the *students*, who don't even like school, are protesting the quality of their education, we should take notice. Before I trusted any school's high academic achievements, I would conduct an investigation to verify that those are the grades the students actually received, rather than the grades the teachers entered in the book–because, setting student learning aside, no one benefits from student failure. (The student can't proceed to the next year; the teacher gets yelled at or fired; the school gets even less money and more hassle.)

      The problems are complex and very Chilean. The educational culture is thoroughly broken: those 45 kids will have exactly the same classes every day of every week, with no tracking by level. Advanced students are profoundly bored, and the class size means that teachers can't take time with students who are behind or who have different learning styles.

      Try teaching a class of 45 high school freshmen sometime and see how much you get done.

      Students who graduate from an ordinary private school (as opposed to an elite children-of-the-wealthy school like St. George's College) still do not graduate prepared for university: pre-university programs are, well, universal.

      Chile's educational system is another ruin of Pinochet's dictatorship. If you'd like to learn more about it from people who actually experience it, I suggest contacting the volunteer organization WorldTeach: they've been running a volunteer program in Chile for many years and would be happy to help you understand the challenges and problems of the system there.

      However, to imagine that school choice has magically fixed things is just a conservative wet dream.

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