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Costa Rica and the learning tower of PISA

In 2021, Costa Rica became the 38th member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The announcement recognized Costa Rica for its remarkable economic progress in recent years, noting that, with a 60 percent increase in GDP per capita, the country had raised living standards over the last two decades much faster than the Latin American average.  

This impressive economic growth was bolstered by Costa Rica’s commitment to trade, its success in attracting foreign investment, its focus on diversifying exports, and its ability to move up global value chains. The celebratory commendation did, however, come with encouragements for further reforms, especially changes that would strengthen public finances, boost productivity, and improve education outcomes.  

OECD commentary on education comes as no surprise. Costa Rica has had its eye on the education prize well before 2021. At 6.5 percent of GDP, Costa Rica spends more on education and training than the OECD average, but the country’s learning outcomes significantly lag those of advanced economies.  

Socioeconomic status is the single most significant factor that influences learning outcomes in OECD countries. Costa Rica has greater levels of inequality than many member states. According to 2018 data, when compared to their counterparts from the highest socioeconomic quartile, 50 percent fewer Costa Rican 15-year-olds from the lowest socioeconomic quartile achieved at least PISA level 2 in reading. The OECD average across the same comparison was 29 percent. In other words, if you are 15 years old and from a low-income household in Costa Rica, you are likely to leave school without the skills you need to secure meaningful formal employment. This puts future youth livelihoods and Costa Rica’s continued economic progress at risk.  

15-year-olds are not the only children who struggle to read in Costa Rica. The problem is pervasive across primary and secondary school levels. It is a challenge that keeps teachers, like Rebeca Dinarte, awake at night. When asked what learners in low-income rural areas find most difficult, Rebeca’s answer is quite clear.  

“In my experience, reading and writing is what they struggle with. It is also a cultural issue. As a society, we do not place great value on literacy. It is emphasized in our daily lives. That has a lot to do with why reading and writing is an area of weakness in primary education.” 

Rebeca is a teacher at 27 de Abril School in Santa Cruz, Guanacaste. She loves her students and appreciates their honesty, empathy, and shared passion for learning. Through her own instruction methods, and with the support of digital tools, like the Age of Learning Foundation’s ABCmouse Aprende Inglés, Rebeca hopes to help her students develop strong literacy skills and keen interest in reading.  

Costa Rica’s active integration of digital technologies into teaching and learning is important to Rebeca. She sees it playing a vital role to reduce inequalities for children in the country’s lowest socioeconomic quartile.  

“We cannot isolate ourselves from what is currently available. Technology is already part of our daily lives. The new generations cannot live without technology. It is especially important that in the rural areas have access to it. We must join the digital world.” 

Rebeca is enthusiastic about the impact that gamified and adaptive learning can have on teaching and learning. She is also conscious of the need to socialize children and families in the use of digital solutions.  

“Many children do not have computers at home. It is wonderful for them have access at school, to be able to learn and play using something other than a notebook, a pencil, a blackboard. It is powerful for them to know by virtue of these technologies that we can do important things in our lives.” 

Parents will need to be considered as well, Rebeca explains. 

“Children may come home from school with nothing written in their notebooks. But they will have learned a lot on the digital platforms, which is what matters most. We need to help parents understand that learning can happen independently of older technologies like pencil and paper, which is what they likely remember from their own childhoods.”  

Rebeca also believes that digital solutions have potential to advance learning for children living with different abilities.  

“Perhaps these apps can help children with specialized learning plans. In our local context, we have children who are hearing impaired or sight impaired. It will be interesting to see what can be done to support this segment of learners.” 

After hearing her insights, it is clear to us that teachers like Rebeca will be the true stars of Costa Rica’s post-COVID learning recovery. We at the Age of Learning Foundation are thrilled to play a small role in this important national adventure. If Costa Rica is careful to select the right foot grips as it scales to new heights in education, the summit of the learning tower of PISA may not be out of its reach; up there in the rarified air where the OECD’s very best education systems reside.

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