This is the second is a series of three articles written by Professor Mario Waissbluth of Chile for this blog. In this series, he describes the school system in Chile, which is based on testing and choice.


Chile´s Education (II): The results of the most neoliberal system in the world

Yesterday I described the Chilean economic and educational system. Now I shall explore its good and ugly results.

Unleashing market forces generated steady growth in per capita income since 1985 until now. As compared with Latin America, this index was the same in 1990, but today Chile’s is 50% higher. Similarly, the UNDP’s Human Development Index is far above that of the region, although well below the average OECD value.

Under Pinochet, the number of people below the line of poverty skyrocketed, beyond 40% of the population. However, since 1990 it has come down to 13%, thanks to more redistributive policies. So, why complain? Maybe Milton Friedman was right after all.

Nicanor Parra is our most prestigious living poet. He summed up Mr. Friedman´s error: “There are two loaves of bread. You eat two, I eat none. Average consumption: one loaf per capita”. Our income inequality Gini index is awful (0.52), and the tax structure does not help much in correcting it (0.50). The line dividing the poorest from the richest 50% of the population is a daily income of US$ 8 dollars a day… and from there down to US$ 2 dollars a day for the poorest 10%.

The children in the lower half are, on the average, getting out of high school without understanding what they read. They are admitted with no selection to for-profit low-quality universities or institutes, dropping out without a college degree in about 50% of the cases, and heavily indebted after this. This is the powder keg that exploded in 2011 and the firestorm has not stopped until today.

It should be said that, as in the economy, in education there have been some promising results. Attendance to basic school, high school and tertiary education is similar to the OECD average. PISA results have shown one of the best improvements in the world from 2000 to 2009, although, strangely, the internal testing system does not show any significant improvement in the average or in the inequality of results. Public spending in education is 4% of GDP, as compared with 6% in the OECD countries.

Things look ugly in the teacher´s staffroom. Their average salary is 40% that of engineering, law, business or medical careers. 40% of them drop out from schools before 5 years. Morale is generally low, confrontation with authorities is high, especially in the public sector which has been under attack for 30 years, by action and/or neglect. Teaching to the test, taken to the extreme, is making robots out of children and teachers. The best proof is that the very expensive Chilean private schools show international results well below the OECD average.

As a professor in one of the best and most selective public universities in the country, I can attest that 50% of my students are not capable of drafting an understandable two page essay on anything. They spent 12 years in school, training to answer multiple choice sheets, speedily forgotten to open brain space for next year´s new payload of material… which meant little to them.

The worst part, by far, is the social and academic segregation of Chilean schools, the worst in the world after Macao, according to PISA statistics. Thanks to market competition and generalized skimming practices, 21% of our children attend socio-culturally integrated schools, compared with 35% in Latin America, 46% in OECD countries, and above 50% in Finland or Canada. Educational apartheid.

In the low income academic ghettos it will be almost impossible to improve results, no matter how much money is poured into them. Even worse, Chilean education has enhanced segregationist and individualistic attitudes in all levels of society. This is steadily undermining social cohesion, to the point that it will be difficult to regain social peace, no matter which the next coalition in power is.

Mario Waissbluth ( has a PhD in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1974). Currently he is a professor at Universidad de Chile and President of Fundación Educación 2020, an advocacy movement for equity and desegregation of the chilean school system ( His soon to be published book, with Random House (in spanish) is “Change of Course: A new way for Chilean education”.