A recently published UNESCO-led evaluation of the quality of education in Bolivia and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed just how badly it is faring in providing education of sound quality. The report shows that despite near-universal access to education, primary school learners are struggling at school. Alvaro Deuer made similar observations for his Master’s thesis and here argues that to change this, Bolivia’s education system needs to be transformed through the long-term prioritisation of evidence-based research and policy informing the ongoing monitoring and improvement of education quality.
Two years ago, while I was studying at ISS, I conducted two studies on the quality of secondary and tertiary education systems in Bolivia. While doing the literature review, I noticed that between 1994 and 2019, Bolivian authorities were more concerned with increasing the coverage rate of education than monitoring its standards. This is concerning given that SDG4 mentions the need for education to be universal and of sound quality (United Nations, 2021). For countries such as Bolivia where access to education is almost universal, the next step is thus ensuring that learners fare well in school and in university (Deuer, 2019).
UNESCO recently published the findings of a curriculum study forming part of its ERCE 2019 (Fourth Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study), an evaluation of education quality across 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study echoed my findings that the quality of education is lagging behind access to education in Bolivia. This comes despite the existence of a number of institutions that are supposed to support the monitoring of education standards in the country.
For instance, the Bolivian Constitution makes room for the evaluation of the country’s education system by an independent body (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2009). Accordingly, the Plurinational Observatory of Educational Quality (OPCE) was created under the Law of Education (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2010). The OPCE has been part of different initiatives to monitor and evaluate the quality of Education in Latin America, including the ERCE 2019. Yet monitoring does not take place frequently.
A sad state of affairs
The most recent evaluation the country’s education system has been subjected to is the ERCE 2019. This evaluation measured the learning achievements of students in primary education with the aim of informing decisions of stakeholders of participating countries. The ERCE is subject to careful planning. The entire evaluation takes around three years (Aguilar, 2016). The test evaluates learning outcomes and studies for those learners registered in the third and sixth grade at both private and public primary schools, for four areas: languages, writing, math, and science (the latter only sixth grade) (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2018).
The results of the ERCE 2019 were published at the beginning of February 2021. Its most important findings for Bolivia are (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021):
- Bolivian learners generally are not doing well in school.
- Learners from indigenous groups fare comparatively worse than other, non-indigenous learners.
- Those attending private schools fare significantly better.
- The quality of education is higher for schools in urban (versus rural) areas.
It’s clear from the findings that the education sector needs to be overhauled. Yet addressing gaps in learning capacities that affect poor school performance will require more than simply increased funding. Although the addition of ‘facilitating factors’ like improved physical infrastructure, more equipment, or the employment of more teachers can create a better learning environment that helps teachers and students work and study better, they do not necessarily help learners to learn better (Deuer, 2019). What’s needed is evidence-based research on what learners really struggle with and why. I thus argue that studies such as the ERCE could be used as a baseline to evaluate the quality of primary education in general from a transformational approach.
However, Bolivia has not developed a ‘tradition’ of conducting rigorous studies aimed at measuring the ‘impact’ of the education schemes implemented in the ‘transformation’ of student learning. It is only the second time that Bolivia participates in the ERCE, which reveals that monitoring and evaluation are not yet adequately emphasised. Although creating a culture of evaluation takes time, once the necessary institutional capacities are developed, these can be extrapolated to other sectors (and education subsystems), which can contribute to improved transparency and qualitative indicators development that goes beyond the percentage of execution of spending. Moreover, accountability regarding expenditures in the educational sector is particularly important, considering that 5% of the country’s GDP is committed to education and that this sector employs 150,000 teachers (Contreras, 2021).
Thus, only when governance networks of the Bolivian education system commit to investing in more evidence-based research, will policy makers start to take measures to close education gaps detected by the ERCE 2019. Following the recommendations of the ERCE, tackling the inequalities of Bolivian society includes focusing on closing the gaps between public and private schools, urban and rural schools, and between learners that live in indigenous and other regions. The gendered access to education should also receive special attention.
 This was set as the time frame of the study given that the main struggles and milestones of quality assessment mechanism implementation in Bolivia occurred in this period.
 UNESCO conducted the ERCE four times in Latin America and the Caribbean (in 1997, 2006, 2013, and in 2019), but Bolivia has only participated in the first and last evaluations (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021). Bolivia was not part of ERCE 2006 since, in 2007 and 2008, the Constitution Assembly rewrote the Constitution. In the framework set by the new Constitution, the current Law of Education was promulgated only by December 2010. Therefore, the timing did not coincide with ERCE 2013, given that its implementation started some years before. However, in 2017 UNESCO implemented a specific assessment in Bolivia as pilot for ERCE 2019.
On the other hand, at the begging of 2018, an evaluation was conducted in Bolivia as part of ERCE 2013. It constituted a preparatory study for ERCE 2019. According to this study, Bolivia ranked 13th out of 16 countries regarding quality education (Brújula Digital, 2021)
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the author:
Alvaro Deuer is a Bolivian development practitioner committed to bringing about evidence-based research and policy. He recently finished the Master’s degree in Development Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Previously, he obtained Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and later in Political Science and Public Management. Deuer has 7+ years of working experience in various thematic areas such as institutional capabilities building, governance tools implementation, and indicators design. His research interest includes good practices in the areas of education, decentralization, public finance, and national identities building. Currently, he is studying the (de) construction of the indigenous identity during the Evo Morale´s government (2006 – 2019).
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