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The Elixir of Education?

Many people see education as a cure-all. They believe that societies can be transformed by pouring money into raising educational standards. But, while it is right to believe in the power of education – indeed, many scholars are convinced that it creates healthier, more prosperous citizens – such enthusiasm doesn’t tell us how to get more children to stay in school longer, or how to ensure that they learn useful skills while they are there.

Today, virtually every Latin American and Caribbean child enrolls in primary school, and most complete several years of secondary education – remarkable progress compared to a half-century ago. Yet Latin American and Caribbean children gain fewer skills in each year of school than students do in high-income countries – and even in some other developing countries. Indigenous children have a significantly lower chance of educational success. Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay lag behind even other Latin American countries.

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for lifting educational performance in Latin America and the Caribbean, little effort has been devoted to working out how to maximize investments in education. Which policies work best?

There are myriad options. The World Bank recommends decentralizing school administration and decision-making so that schools are more responsive to local needs. But no reliable studies have established this strategy’s effectiveness. Bilingual education is another suggestion that requires further research if we are to establish the benefits.