Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

This past November, while attending the annual Teach For All conference in Chile, I had the opportunity to hear the minister of education speak about the country’s academic growth—especially among some of its most vulnerable students. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2009 Chile saw the second largest increase worldwide on the Programme for International Student Assessment, and the greatest gains among students in the lowest performing sub-groups.

The OECD launched PISA, an international study, in 1997 to evaluate education systems across the globe every three years by assessing 15-year-olds’ competencies in reading, mathematics and science. More than 70 countries have administered the PISA study since its inception.

In explaining Chile’s progress on the 2009 exam, the education minister pointed to school system coherence and accountability. But he also said the education system is moving too slowly, and that Chile has a long way to go in terms of student learning. Despite gains among traditionally low-performing students, growth has actually stagnated among its highest-performing students. The minister talked about the need to measure a variety of types of achievement for students, and the lack of capacity in the system. He said Chile must address higher education, and that the system remains too focused on inputs instead of outcomes. 

As the minister shared his thoughts, I could not help but draw parallels between the problems Chile faces and those we face in the United States. In many ways, we must consider some of the same solutions that Chile is pursuing. Chile has managed to attain stronger results with a larger group of its most vulnerable children and teenagers—something America strives to do, as well.

In Chile, these results came about because the country made real investments in these students. There were other key factors, as well.

As my friend Ignacio Illanes, an education reformer in Chile, shared with me, two major elements that influence Chile’s student learning results have changed in the last decade: Chilean families and the media have demanded a higher level of accountability from schools, and the country has adopted a weighted funding policy that has increased the amount of subsidy allocated to schools that serve low-income students.

The former change can be seen in both the extensive news coverage of national assessment results and massive protests in the streets in 2006 and 2011; several secretaries of education were removed in two different governments. The latter has meant a lot of additional resources for schools working with the most impoverished communities in the country. With that additional subsidy, these schools have hired external services—for assessment, teacher training programs, consultancy and more—that have helped to improve results.

As I reflect on these changes to accountability and school investment, America’s education system comes to mind—as does our need for policy reform. I know weighted student funding and Title I aid exist here to provide additional dollars to low-income students—but America has not seen the same type of large-scale growth as Chile. Nor have we seen the type of public accountability that Ignacio mentioned to me.

In Chile, public accountability was the byproduct of the Student Movement, a series of student-led protests across the country. At the core of these protests was the demand for a new education framework. 

I left Chile wondering what it would take for American students, families and media to start the same type of movement—one in which the entire nation stops and recognizes that our education system is failing to meet the needs of all our students. The very people served by the system must demand change. And when that change doesn’t come, we most hold our system leaders accountable. 


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