The Future of Brazil’s “Common Core”

Friday, October 5, 2018

In the midst of a struggling economy, sweeping investigations into political corruption, and one of the most turbulent political campaigns in nearly three decades, the people of Brazil will take to the polls on Oct. 7 for a first-round vote in the 2018 presidential election. 

Lost in the headlines, however, is an issue that could have a profound impact on this diverse nation of more than 200 million people: education. 

In 1988 Brazil ratified its new, democratic Constitution, which framed education as a human right that government had a responsibility to support. In 1996, Brazil passed the National Education Guidelines and Framework Law, which among other stipulations, required a common set of educational curriculum standards. In the years since, there have been multiple efforts to draft and implement these standards, with the goal of improving student performance and building a more equitable educational system. 

These efforts, none of which mandated that schools adopt a specific set of standards, largely failed to gain traction. That was, until 2013, when the Lemann Foundation, along with third-sector partners, began convening groups of educational experts, public officials, legislators, and other stakeholders to draft a series of K-12 curriculum standards.

The first draft of those standards – the Base Nacional Comum Curricular (BNCC) – was released by Brazil’s minister of education in 2015, and after three rounds of often acrimonious revision, a set of K-8 standards was finally approved by a national committee in 2017. The BNCC standards for high schools, which have not yet been approved, are currently ensnared in a separate political quagmire that will be the subject of future posts on this site.

The process to create the BNCC was buffeted by serious political turmoil. Through multiple presidential administrations and education ministers – and Brazil will yet again have a new president and education minister following elections this month – support for the BNCC has remained quite strong among many influential groups. However, for multiple reasons, support has weakened somewhat among others who were supportive at the outset, while a contingent of individuals and interest groups who were originally opposed remain so.

Advocates maintain that educational equity requires that all children have access to the knowledge and skills that are often provided to only the wealthy, and that the best way to ensure high academic expectations is through clear academic standards. Detractors, on the other hand, doubt whether the standards themselves will increase educational equity, particularly given the tremendous inequalities in human and fiscal resources across Brazilian schools and communities. Further complicating matters,  some question the legitimacy of the standards themselves, given that they were passed under a government they deem to be illegitimate in light of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2015.

These arguments for and against curriculum standards will be familiar to anyone in the U.S. who has followed the debates surrounding the Common Core. However, at least two important factors distinguish Brazil’s BNCC from our Common Core. First, the Common Core in the U.S. was not the result of national legislation.

Although states were offered (strong) financial incentives by the federal government to implement the standards, the standards themselves were crafted and supported financially largely by non-governmental entities, and adoption was voluntary.

In contrast, Brazil’s BNCC is federal law, and states and municipalities are required—at least on paper—to create and implement new curricula based on the standards. Whether Brazilian schools will do so is related to the second key difference. Brazil has little history with—and indeed, severe political aversion to—education accountability systems that sanction schools or teachers for either non-compliance or poor performance. Declining support for the Common Core in the U.S. was due in part to backlash tied to the new Common Core-aligned standardized assessments, particularly their role in high-stakes decisions for students, teachers, and schools. This will not be the case in Brazil.

It is difficult to predict how the lack of enforcement mechanisms associated with Brazil’s BNCC will influence its implementation. The lack of high-stakes consequences may give districts and schools the space to implement the BNCC in ways that fit their local contexts and needs. Conversely, the lack of enforcement mechanisms makes it unclear what incentives states, districts, and schools have to fully adopt the new standards. 

Given these challenges, and a host of others, many questions remain. With limited financial resources, how will Brazil’s two million teachers be trained to implement the BNCC? Will classroom instruction actually change, and to what extent will improvement vary across schools, municipalities, and states? Did textbook publishers have enough time to fully align their materials to the BNCC? What about the new standardized assessments? And, perhaps most importantly in the short term, how will the BNCC weather the outcome of the upcoming elections? 

Over the next five years, through generous support from the Lemann Foundation and Itaú Social, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Teachers College will lead a study of the implementation of the BNCC standards. We will conduct annual interviews with national, state, and municipal officials, as well as union leaders, university faculty and staff, third-sector representatives, and other stakeholders. But given that our core questions surround whether the BNCC is actually influencing what takes place in Brazilian classrooms, we will spend several years observing classrooms and speaking with teachers and principals in a longitudinal subset of schools and districts across the country. I hope to provide regular updates on our work here at the CPRE Knowledge Hub, as we attempt to analyze the implementation of BNCC standards and examine their impact on instruction. 

On the immediate horizon, however, is October 7. The BNCC, and Brazil’s education standards movement in general, is likely to be impacted by the upcoming election, but in ways no one can predict. The winning candidate, and the next minister of education, will undoubtedly hold significant sway over the direction of this movement. Like many millions of Brazilians, we will be watching with great interest. 

Douglas D. Ready is associate professor of education and public policy in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University. He also serves as director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Teachers College (CPRE-TC).
Interested in contributing a blog to the CPRE Knowledge Hub? Email us at keithheu@upenn.edu


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