In 2006, high-school students in Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s education system, sparking President Michelle Bachelet’s first major crisis. Known as the Penguin Revolution (a term that refers to the students’ white and black uniforms), the protests accomplished what decades of public debate had failed to do: force a political agreement to reform institutional practices in place since the 1980s. The student movement—perhaps the most successful in the country’s history—responded to widespread complaints that despite public education funding, the system’s guiding principles perpetuate socioeconomic differences.
As a result, needed change has come to Chilean education. But there is still much work to be done.
In practice, Chilean schools are segregated by socioeconomic levels. The Education Ministry classifies them into five groups using a methodology that combines information about household income, parents’ educational level and characteristics of the particular educational institution. Gaps in the educational outputs of these groups increase with years of schooling. For example, upon completion of their fourth year, the gap between students belonging to the high and low ends of this segregated system reaches 26 percent in reading comprehension and 36 percent in mathematics. By the tenth year, these differences increase to 36 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
Although formal education is compulsory up to middle school, this gap in quality severely limits the ability of students in the lower socioeconomic classes to compete for admission to higher education institutions—the grand prize where human capital investment returns are most concentrated. A recent study by Claudio Sapelli of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile shows that as of 2006 students who completed middle school earned between 9 percent and 12 percent more than those who did not. The economic returns of a technical or professional degree were higher, with graduates earning 20 percent more than non-graduates. And for those who possessed a college or university degree this number increases to 24 percent.
Moreover, public higher education spending is concentrated on the 25 universities in existence when the current legal framework was created, though more than 200 universities and technical institutes operate today. This has led to a shortfall in financial aid for middle- and low-income students. Unlike wealthier youth, a financially struggling student who achieves a competitive but not outstanding score on the university entry exam can only apply to limited universities. The result: 67 percent of students in the highest socioeconomic groups enter a college or university, a sharp contrast with the 20 percent for lower-socioeconomic class students.
This means that the grand prize of the Chilean educational system—higher education—is obtained by only a fraction of those who should be reaching this goal. Penguins were right when they pointed to the structural inequalities of the system as the cause of Chile’s educational failures.
Beyond the Penguin Revolution
The Penguin Revolution accelerated the changes needed to eliminate these gaps. For example, in 2008 a new system was established for primary and middle-school subsidies that allocates more funds for schools catering to the less fortunate. This subsidy is estimated to inject an additional $900 million into the educational system, doubling the resources destined to priority students. Last year the Education Ministry also launched a program called INICIA (or, in English, START) to improve training for primary- and secondary-school teachers. As of December 2008, 80 percent of teacher-training schools were enrolled in this program.
Another initiative has focused on merit-based scholarships. The Education Ministry’s Milenio (Millennium) scholarship covers a portion of the annual tuition at a technical school for low- and middle-income students with a grade-point average above 5 (on a scale of 1 to 7). Through 2005, it had annually awarded fewer than 10,000 of these scholarships; this year the ministry will grant 50,000 of them. Scholarships for domestic postgraduate work have also increased by 65 percent since 2005, while foreign postgraduate awards gained momentum through a new program called Becas Chile (Scholarships for Chile). This year Becas Chile will reach 2,500 fellows and next year another 3,500—a notable advancement considering that up until 2007 only 200 of the 5,815 Chileans studying abroad received public funding.
Although none of these initiatives is a direct result of the students´ demands, the Penguin protests unlocked energy needed to put these programs into effect. The protests created a sense of urgency that produced an unexpected consensus over a sweeping new general education law last August.
The new general education law extends middle school from four to six years, and reduces elementary school from eight to six years. It also prohibits private schools from pre-selecting students before the sixth grade. Significantly, the law prevents private schools from siphoning off the best students (which the private schools have a financial incentive to do under the voucher system).
The new law also creates the Agencia de Calidad de la Educación (Education Quality Agency) responsible for monitoring the overall quality of the education. Schools will then be sanctioned for poor performance—a process that could result in closing a school.
Unfortunately, the consensus has not been sufficient to introduce urgent higher-education reforms.
Nevertheless, the Chilean education system has come a long way. since the first reform debates held even prior to the Penguin Revolution. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that today’s reforms are the result of battles fought by teenage students three years ago.