In June 2022, the World Bank and UNICEF, in collaboration with UNESCO, released a report that presented an alarming statistic. Four in five sixth graders in Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to lack basic reading comprehension proficiency.
A Latin American Crisis: The report claims that two-thirds of children in Latin America and the Caribbean lost, fully or partially, 66 percent of all in-person school days since the beginning of the pandemic. This translates to an average learning loss of 1.5 years, at a price of a potential 12 percent decrease in lifetime earnings for children in the region. The report states that this puts Latin America and the Caribbean in second worst place in terms of rates of learning poverty – just ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa, where estimates suggest that 9 in 10 children will complete primary school without learning to read or understand simple text.
An Untold Story: Education has its challenges in Latin America, but the likelihood is low that the world’s public will read explorations of the region’s education concerns in the global news, or that development practitioners will hear discussions about it at global conferences. Latin America’s education challenges, and the remarkable progress that has been made to improve learning over the last decade, remain underrepresented narratives.
Caroline Kronley, President at the Tinker Foundation agrees. “We do not talk enough about the successes of the entire region over the last few decades; dramatic improvements in primary school access and attendance; and major increases in university enrollment, with first-generation students being able to enroll in higher education opportunities. Those are huge gains that deserve to be celebrated, protected, and built upon.”
An Unfinished Challenge: Kronley believes that Latin American countries should be lauded for their recovery efforts. “It is a relief to know that the vast majority of children in the region are now back in school.” But that sense of relief should not be misinterpreted as an invitation to complacency. “Reopening classroom doors is not enough when children were out-of-school for the equivalent of three years in the most extreme cases. Back to business as usual is not enough.” There remains important work to address learning loss and educational gaps – “particularly among students who are already vulnerable, already struggling without equitable access to education in the region.”
The learning environment is very different since COVID-19. Learning loss is a factor, but the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic are also showing up in classrooms. “How do we equip teachers, learning communities, and parents to address all that?” inquires Kronley.
An Obligation and an Opportunity: Under her leadership, the Tinker Foundation is seeking and supporting solutions to the many multifaceted, mutually reinforcing, post-COVID-19 challenges that are manifesting and mushrooming in Latin American schools.
“A lot of funding we’ve done,” shares Kronley, “has focused on strengthening systems and promoting improved educational policies at the national level. But we noticed that the first responders, during the pandemic when schools closed, were the grassroots, frontline community organizations.” The Tinker Foundation believes that these organizations will continue to play a critical role addressing contextual education challenges over the next generation. This will not change no matter what government, international NGO, or philanthropic funder interventions are put in place. Grassroots organizations are here to stay. They not only understand the challenges that families and students face, but they also appreciate the transformative potential of education in their communities.
Once the team fully grasped this set of realities, the Tinker Foundation evolved its Latin American education strategy. Its approach now includes both obligation and opportunity. A sense of obligation to operate at the systems level, prioritizing policy interventions that can reach the greatest number of students, and opportunity to oscillate to the local level, to support, connect, and learn from grassroots organizations. The strategy is a marriage of purposefulness and pragmatism. It makes the Tinker Foundation, as a philanthropic funder in Latin America, both intriguing and inspiring.
Scale is in the Eye of the Beholder: “Let me give you an example of how this plays out in practice,” explains Kronley, “Guatemala has a very large indigenous population, and we are seeing again and again how important it is to education organizations that indigenous identity be included as part of a broader educational recovery strategy designed to engage students and families.”
The Tinker Foundations’ grassroots experience reveals a conscientious understanding that locally grounded solutions can be, at the same time, tremendously effective in their specific local context, and entirely less relevant in other communities or countries. But that is a good thing, according to Caroline Kronley.
“We find it helpful to listen to grassroots organizations, to their grounded sense – their evidence-based sense – of what works in their context, and to partner with national organizations and local philanthropists. In the “continental” country of Brazil, for example, the Brazil-based Lemann Foundation has been a critical partner in helping the Tinker Foundation identify some of the most scalable and innovative interventions.
Philanthropic Laborers for the Harvest: As Latin America strives to redeem lost learning and reclaim future lost earnings for today’s children, Caroline Kronley believes that philanthropy can be incredibly instrumental. “We would be remiss not to recognize that the pandemic, for all of its challenges, also opened opportunities for experimentation – think acceleration of digital approaches in education, for example. As we get back into classrooms,” argues Kronley, “we should not miss the chance to harvest all the insights and knowledge we have gained from this very difficult period the world has endured. How might we imagine a transformed approach to education in the region going forward?”
A Call to Fellow Travelers: There are a range of ways to do that, but the Tinker Foundation’s approach is to bring together other funders and get them involved in the process of re-imagining education in Latin America.
“Philanthropy can serve as risk capital… to seed and scale innovations that can’t be taken up by the public sector, which we know, of course, is the most relevant actor for achieving systems transformation in education.” But Kronley believes that philanthropy can also make sure that critical voices from communities are heard. Those voices, with the greatest insight into what vital challenges to resolve and what outcomes can be achieved, should be able to take their seat at the table. “In this way,” concludes Kronley, “philanthropy can be a useful player across the entire spectrum.”
That is why the Tinker Foundation is always eager to identify new philanthropic partners, fellow travelers who are grappling with some of the same questions, innovators willing to learn alongside them in this work of obligation and opportunity.