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Innovations in Education

Secondary education reform means challenges and opportunities for Brazil

Despite representing an opportunity to address the structural problems of this stage of education, new proposals must overcome obstacles to appeal to young people and not increase inequality

by Marina Lopes 06/22/2017

“Is the flexibility only in the curriculum? Will the classes be the same?” The question of young Felipe Lima, a recent graduate from Padre Luis Filgueiras High School in Nova Olinda in the state of Ceará, describes the scale of the challenge faced by Brazil in the coming years: the reform of secondary education will have to go beyond just a reorganization of the curriculum.

Presented as a Provisory Act last September and approved by Congress in February this year, the reform of secondary education requires that 60% of the curriculum is organized around common subjects while 40% should correspond to optional educational programs. In this model, students from public and private schools will be able to choose to extend their studies in the areas of languages and language technology, math and math technology, natural sciences and natural science technology, applied human and social sciences or technical and professional training, depending on the courses offered by their schools.

Although the proposal still generates disagreement among experts, administrators, teachers and students, everyone – or almost everyone – agrees on one point: the final stage of basic education in Brazil needs to change. During the Seminar “Curricular Challenges in Secondary Education: Implementation and Flexibilization,” organized by the Instituto Unibanco in São Paulo, several professionals involved in the educational debate highlighted the challenges and opportunities of structural reform in this phase.

The power to choose vs structural challenges
According to data from the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE), in Brazil 1.3 million young people aged 15 to 17 leave school before completing their studies. Cesar Callegari, a member of the National Education Council, says that in such a scenario decisive steps are needed to set basic education on the path to what the country and the young require. “It is unacceptable that we still consider it normal that 90% of young people finish basic education without the required knowledge in mathematics and 78% without the minimum knowledge in Portuguese,” he states.

But what defines a good high school? For Elizabeth Fordham, the senior advisor of global relations for education and skills of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a quality system must ensure that everyone masters key cognitive skills, as well as addressing the interests of young people and preparing students for the future. “The reform in Brazil is in line with what we consider a reference for a good high school,” she says.

While the advisor defends the possibility of students choosing their educational paths, as provided for in the secondary education reform law, she also warns that it will also be necessary to create mechanisms to support young people in such decision making. “Vocational education must be at the center of the process,” she says, stating that almost 50% of students in OECD countries participate in vocational programs.

In the opinion of young Thayane Santos, who has just finished high school at the Professor José de Souza Marques State High School in Rio de Janeiro, in addition to educational guidance over decision-making, the reform should ensure that everyone’s choices are considered. “Flexibility is an interesting idea, but it makes me a little worried. Will my choice be respected?” she wonders.

“All I hope for from any kind of educational reform is that the exception becomes the rule,” says Thayane, mentioning the fact that only 14% of young Brazilians are in higher education. “If a young person decides to do a technical course, it’s because they want to – not because they are forced. The problem occurs when they take the opportunity to choose away from us and leave us with only one route,” she states.

Offer of educational itineraries
Thayane’s concerns reveal another challenge faced by flexibilization, especially considering almost 3,000 Brazilian municipal regions have only one school. Neca Setubal, president of the board of the Tide Setubal Foundation and GIFE (Institutes, Foundations and Businesses Group), warns that such regions will have to enter into partnership agreements and reorganize themselves within structures and systems of collaboration so that they can offer the five areas of graduation. “The student has to have a real choice,” she says, explaining that the system should offer young people options in their itineraries and prepare them to make such choices.

At the same time, she says that the search for ways to offer all the educational itineraries is an opportunity for schools to learn to work in partnership. “It’s an opportunity for schools to break out of their insularity. Often they see themselves as alone, and don’t feel part of a network.”

School participation
Bruno Barreto, a teacher from the Rio de Janeiro public education system, also argues in favor of the involvement of schools in the implementation of the reform. “I can’t picture a curriculum restructuring without imagining that subject teachers will emerge from their roles and become teachers of skills that require training,” says Bruno, who works in three schools at the same time.

For André Barroso, principle of the Professor José de Souza Marques State High School, also in Rio de Janeiro, the new proposal will still have to deal with how to adapt a flexible and extended timetable to schools that operate in morning, afternoon and evening sessions and often in difficult financial realities. “The only way I see this new timetable and curriculum being implemented in the school model I direct today is through the transformation of the entire reality of the school. At the moment, we operate in the most basic conditions, and would not be able to expand our timetables. The school doesn’t even have a kitchen.”

An opportunity to rethink the system
Despite the challenges faced, Ricardo Henriques, executive-superintendent of the Instituto Unibanco, argues that the high school reform brings the opportunity to tackle the old problems of education in Brazil, bringing about changes in assessment, timetables, certification, teacher training, and didactic materials. “Once the flexibilization being implemented becomes a reference for transformation, we can move into another structural reality,” he says.

He suggests that one possibility for the structure that will emerge from the reform, recently approved by Congress, is a proposal for flexibilization developed jointly with the specialists, experts and secretaries of education partners. This model recommends working with the idea of composite itineraries, which combine common knowledge learning for all students who choose the same area, but still offer young people the option to choose to study further in the topics they are interested in.


21st century skills, autonomy, high school, in-service teacher training, mentorship, pre-service teacher education