Solving a problem that causes three million young Brazilians between the ages of 15 and 17 to be absent from school requires the cooperation of every section of society, according to a study. “Public Policies to Reduce Truancy and School Dropouts Among Pupils”, by the economist Ricardo Paes de Barros and the result of a partnership between the Instituto Unibanco, Instituto Ayrton Senna, Insper and the Fundação Brava, recently launched a platform that explains the causes, costs and consequences of school dropouts.
With interactive videos and infographics, the site describes 245 programs (135 national and 110 international) that combat 14 factors of disengagement, such as work, poverty, early pregnancy, violence, emotional problems and the atmosphere at school. “Because there are several reasons involved, it is important to have specific programs as there are a number of different solutions,” says Marina Gattás, project coordinator at the Brava Foundation.
By clicking on each of these factors, the user can see how they relate to education, possible solutions and the contact made by organizations that are tackling the issue today. “In the workshops we held with the state education departments, we realized that they like to exchange ideas. Hence the decision to put all this on the site, summarizing research that in the document takes up around half the 210 pages,” says Marina.
Finally, the site describes the ideal high school approach and lists 12 fundamental features that all public policies should include. According to Paes de Barros, when faced with so many problems, administrators remain distant from the solution, as the work goes far beyond the scope of what an education department can do and requires initiatives from outside school. “There’s an element of stalling. Can I do anything about it? Do I have to do everything? It’s not clear. It’s all integrated, there is so much synergy that if it they take just one action, it will not solve the problem.” However, he explains in the interview below that truancy is rarely a bolt from the blue. “Students give us several signs that they are unhappy. Ideally all schools should have a system to monitor this.” To learn more about the subject, read the interview below and visit the Gesta platform.
Porvir – Is there a single solution to tackling truancy or is a joint effort required from different areas to deal with the issue?
Ricardo Paes de Barros – The first thing is to understand the seriousness of the problem. Truancy is not a minor problem or something that is acceptable. It has to be stopped because the costs are astronomical. It depends on the figures you use, but each generation costs Brazil R$200 billion. It’s unbelievably expensive and has multiple causes. One school might lose a student for one reason, another for a completely different reason, while another student may have multiple reasons for leaving school. He might not understand anything because he has a learning difficulty, but he might also think that even if he does learn, he won’t know what the content is for.
The problem of school dropouts is that a student might say that he left because he has problems with a teacher, but then even after the problem is resolved, he stays away for another reason. Then you can offer tutoring but the student still leaves because he thinks it’s useless. It’s a fight for life. Each school’s policy should be multidimensional and should involve intersectoral coordination as often the solution lies outside school. There is no point in thinking that the schools can 100% of the problems. Sometimes they do an incredible job but an out-of-school problem ends up driving the student away, like a pregnant girl who is happy at school but cannot find a kindergarten for her child.
Porvir – How did the education departments react? They probably already knew about these multiple reasons, but what did they say when they saw the 14 factors that every high school policy should address?
Paes de Barros – On the one hand the reaction was “you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know”, on the other it was “let’s say that what you are showing me is that I won’t be able to solve the problem because it’s beyond my reach. The problem is huge, and I’ll keep trying but I don’t think that I can do anything about it.” I think there is a lack of a gradual approach and I don’t know if it exists yet. There’s an element of stalling. Can I do anything about it? Do I have to do everything? It’s not clear. It’s all integrated, there is so much synergy that if it they take just one action, it won’t solve the problem.
One thing we can’t stress enough is that truancy is not a bolt from the blue. Students give us several signs that they are unhappy. Ideally all schools should have a system to monitor this. Being aware and having enough empathy to get close to these students is very important. Early identification of the problem and trying to stop truancy is a universal rule for everyone to follow. When there is no way of stopping it and there are no spaces and tools to help students for whom repeating a year makes no sense, what can be done?
Porvir – Would a school that is open to dialogue with students and encourages participation throughout the process be more protected against truancy?
Paes de Barros – This is very important, but it gets overlooked. It will solve some problems but a student who has a serious learning difficulty in elementary school and reaches high school without anyone paying attention to them won’t see any benefits in going to school. When you wear a suit to a hippie party, what are you going to do? Obviously you’re in the wrong place. For a student who understands what the teacher teaches and thinks that the rules are flexible, who can use cell phones in class and has a tremendous desire to be proactive, participation is everything. He or she needs it to feel good. But another student can say that the school curriculum is a waste of time because he or she doesn’t want to go to university and wants to work with his or her father. This student doesn’t want a more academic path and needs something more practical.
The problem isn’t participation, it’s that school doesn’t make sense. And if school doesn’t make sense, encouraging participation isn’t going to change anything. You need to eliminate the learning difficulties of the student to allow him or her to participate and for school to make sense. If the curriculum is a waste of time, participation isn’t going to make any difference. Depending on the disease, it might be the cure. But a cure for every disease? Will participation fix everything? Not necessarily. It depends on the power of the school community to create a program that meets the needs of all the students with learning difficulties and makes math less abstract, by mixing it with programming or games. If the school has this flexibility, participation will be very important. In those schools where you can’t change the curriculum and there are no tools to respond to the demands of the students, participation can result in conflicts that are hard to resolve.
Porvir – When the problem of dropouts is so huge, can it be said that universal education is a myth, given that it will never apply to everyone?
Paes de Barros – I don’t know if it’s a myth. Within the National Education Plan, having 100% of young people aged 15 to 17 in school might be a utopia. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to take a long time to achieve it. Each young person who drops out of school represents an enormous cost and we have to do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen. I would say that we have to have more realistic goals and also a very well thought out plan to justify an immediate target of 100%. It’s the old story of ok, I’m not going to pay what I owe. But not paying is a serious issue and I have a well-thought out plan. It’s a big debt, that should be paid straight away, but I think we need a plan to reduce truancy progressively and as quickly as we can. It’s an extremely serious issue, which doesn’t just involve adjusting expectations but also reaching the limits of what is possible.
* Translated by James Young