How this poor Brazilian state became an education powerhouse

Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook
Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook

As it turns out, one doesn’t need a Scandinavian-sized budget to develop a world-class education system.

The Brazilian state of Ceará – one of the country’s poorest – now punches well above its weight in educational outcomes thanks to a series of high-impact political reforms, and a sharpened focus on foundational skills (literacy and numeracy) in the early years of schooling.

“In the early 2000s, Ceará was unexceptional in its education system,” a 2021 study by Andre Loureiro and David Evans reads. At the time, two in every five students in third grade could not read a single word.

Now, however, 84% of students achieve adequate literacy scores by the end of third grade. And the gains have been largest for poorer students and students of colour, the study found.

Sobral, a midsized city in the state, now ranks first among Brazil’s more than 5,500 municipalities in terms of both fifth and ninth grade student performance. Its public schools perform better than the private schools in Brazil’s richest state, São Paulo.

Back in 2005, Sobral didn’t even feature in the top 1,000 of Brazil’s municipalities.

Here’s what changed:

  • Ceará’s government introduced a range of reforms, including one that financially incentivises municipalities to achieve better educational outcomes. Basically, municipalities that make the most progress in education get a larger share of the state consumption tax. The financing formula promotes equity by rewarding improvements among the lowest-performing students, and it discourages manipulation by penalising student absenteeism.
  • Second, schools run by municipalities receive extensive support from the state under its literacy programme, including a standardised learning assessment, literacy materials, workshops, and rewards for top schools that help lower-performing schools.
  • Third, Ceará regularly monitors results. Schools use an externally administered assessment to measure student literacy in second grade, and these results inform both targets and support through the professional development for teachers.

“These incentives and support could only work because municipalities had autonomy – and consequently accountability – to deliver education,” the study says.

It’s also worth noting that some important foundations were laid before these reforms were implemented.

For instance, policymakers passed laws to ensure that teachers and principals were selected on technical criteria rather than for political reasons. They also consolidated primary schools to ensure each had at least one teacher per grade. And the state government improved school transportation services to boost attendance.

In Sobral, a clear target was set – to achieve literacy by the end of second grade. This was rooted in the understanding that without achieving literacy in the early years of primary school, it’s impossible to develop any of the other desired goals of education.

“A curriculum designed around achieving literacy meant clear sequencing of tasks. In later grades, the curriculum builds on that foundation of literacy. This curriculum provides natural goals for each school and teacher, and it provides the basis for structured lesson plans to guide teachers.”

Teachers in Sobral are also paid more than the national minimum, and they receive bonuses both for high performance from their class and from their school as a whole.

You can read more about this case study here.


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