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Elementary Education Versus Illiteracy in Brazil

by Dalilla C. Sperb - 1956

The present situation in our elementary schools is acute. While our upper and middle classes have finally reached fuller understanding of the benefits of education and demand better schools for their children, there is the shortage of classrooms and of teachers. While our federal and state governments understand the "must" of educational equality as a basis of progress, the monster of inflation threatens the nation in many ways. We know that we have advanced many steps, that we have reached a transition period in our elementary school system, and we must believe that the transition will lead to more and better schools. Paramount here are such assets as democracy, religious freedom, and no segregation problem. We have faith in a better development of our elementary school system. We are anxious to see the final victory of the elementary school in its fight with illiteracy, and we are confident that such a day will come.

THE census of 1950 in Brazil showed that, of its population of almost 53 million inhabitants, approximately 19 million know how to read and write.1 The school statistics of 1953, 1954, and 1955 give the following information: 5 million children are enrolled in elementary schools all over the country, but only 750,000 remain in school until they reach the fifth grade. This is the last year of elementary school, and the one in which the pupils are prepared for the selection examination required for enrollment in junior high school.

In Rio Grande do Sul, the most southern of the Brazilian states, we have 4,164,821 inhabitants, 66 per cent of whom read and write. Our state maintains 1,170 elementary schools spread over 282,480 square kilometers. In addition there are 6,312 public elementary schools which are controlled directly by the city government, or, as we call it, the municipio. Our state is divided into 118 municipios, each of which is subdivided into districts. (Later in this discussion we will clarify the relationship between state public schools and municipal public schools.)

Besides the above-mentioned public elementary schools, Rio Grande do Sul has 1,047 private grade schools, mostly Protestant or Catholic parochial schools.


The merits and shortcomings of a school system derive in large part from the social conditions and the historical background of the country. We have been greatly influenced by the European pattern of education, which seldom has fitted into the situation of the country. We speak of compulsory elementary education, and so it is according to our law, but up to now it has not been possible to enforce. Extreme poverty in some areas and the lack of educational facilities have been hindrances in making the law really effective.

Anisio Teixeira, one of the leading authorities in Brazilian education, commenting on the period of difficulties faced by the country at the present time, expressed himself as follows:

In one way or another, the violence of the social transformation of this century finally has shaken us, achieving some material progress, which though insecure and out of proportion has been strong enough to create a new spirit in a small group of men. This means that the old feeling of inferiority will gradually be replaced by a national pride, which even if still confused, will have sufficient vision to face the real situation and its challenge.

This is the present solution for Brazil. The feeling of national pride is the watershed between the two mentalities that oppose each other today. There are those who do not believe in Brazil, who consider it as a country of third rank which will never be able to solve its problems by itself—a factor which is essential for a well-organized civilization. On the other hand there are those who took over the responsibilities which the empire and the republic have neglected, and who believe that our human element is what it is today because it has not had the advantage of what other nations have been enjoying, namely, modern and systematic education. They believe also that the country can, through the benefits brought by the development of science, achieve to be as rich and civilized as the most advanced parts of the temperate zones of the earth.2

Those who believe in the power of education have been struggling hard for a higher standard of schools. The present situation is more difficult than ever, and public schools as well as private enterprises face problems of gigantic proportions. We want to work toward our objectives: care for the physical, intellectual, moral, and emotional education of children; their adaptation to the social environment; instruction in the basic elements (reading, writing, and arithmetic); and the formation of desirable habits and attitudes. We wish to foster extracurricular activities, and above all, we are determined to give up the idea of educating only the elite.


The administration and supervision of all elementary schools is a state responsibility. In its capital city, each state maintains a department of education, directly subordinated to the governor and headed by a specialist in education. Such agencies include technical sections and special divisions which deal with educational problems of different levels and various types, that is, the planning of school buildings, the directing of extracurricular activities, the collection of educational statistics, the selection of textbooks and equipment, the rating of school work, curriculum organization, supervision of physical education, school medical services, and so forth. A few states (Rio Grande do Sul among them) maintain regional administrative agencies which centralize the activities of the supervisors and also administer the schools located in their respective regions. In recent years the tendency toward even greater centralization has been emphasized, and as a result the local community has very little influence upon its public schools.


Our private schools also are under state control, even if supervision is less intensive. Religious instruction is given in parochial as well as in public schools, but by law parents may decide whether or not they want their children to attend such classes. Promotion does not depend on the grades a pupil receives in his examinations in religion. The government of the State of Rio Grande do Sul has been fostering private schools by yearly gifts of money, and even by appointing teachers whose salaries are paid by the state. Some parochial schools have two, three, or four state-paid teachers on their staff.

This is a way of helping to meet the teacher-shortage problems. But public schools especially suffer from the lack of trained administrators. The matter of school buildings also is a problem too immense for the state to solve. Thus in many cases private schools, aided by gifts of money and state-paid teachers, have solved an urgent need of their communities by offering a school building and supplying school administrators.


Teachers are poorly paid in our elementary schools. But as we work only four hours a day, teachers' salaries are not out of proportion when compared to the income of other state-employed personnel. Many of our public schools have to operate on two or three shifts, and this makes the school day shrink to three hours. A school administrator is supposed to stay in the school at least six hours a day, while a classroom teacher works three or four hours, and earns a salary slightly inferior to the principal's. On the whole, the working conditions in our schools are not pleasant, and the principal often becomes a victim of the ill temper of dissatisfied teachers. No overtime work can be expected. Almost every other elementary-school teacher holds another part-time position.

The state department of education of Rio Grande do Sul for a few years has been offering special courses for administrators, paying the teachers who enroll their whole salaries while they attend the one- or two-year courses. This has not solved the problem. Many of the teachers who take such courses enjoy the life of the city and do not return to their school. They prefer to be classroom teachers in a city school, so the state spends much money on these courses without real profit in the end. Apart from the lack of school buildings, finding school administrators is the greatest problem that confronts our public schools at present.

School supervision under such circumstances becomes a difficult task. Public school supervisors have their headquarters at the regional administrative agencies, from which they are sent out to supervise the schools located within the region (there is generally one agency for three, four, or even more municipios) and frequently one supervisor has twenty or more schools under her jurisdiction. We do not want to be "inspectors" and we honestly work toward a better understanding among teachers, principals, and supervisors, but progress in the present situation is very slow. When we visit a school to help the principal with her administrative problems, to make classroom visits, to have a meeting with the whole group of teachers, or to plan class-work with them, we very often find a confused and irritated principal who complains about the lack of discipline and the poor work of the teachers. The teachers complain about overcrowded classrooms and low salaries; the parents complain about careless school work. The situation really is much more serious than we may think. Will the same teachers who have been doing poor work on account of low salaries do better work after they receive higher salaries? Will the present situation leave permanent marks on the teachers' personalities? How much can be done against illiteracy if schools operate on two or three shifts? Shall we go on keeping children until their fourteenth year (this happens often) in the first grade because they cannot get special attention for their reading problem? Such are some of the questions that lead many of us to think that we face a decisive moment in Brazilian elementary education. We know that our entire educational, national, and political future depends on victory in the battle against illiteracy.


The children in our public schools give us a wonderful opportunity to study the entire racial background of our nation.

In the population of Rio Grande do Sul, 89 per cent of the people are white, chiefly of Portuguese, Italian, and German ancestry; 5.22 per cent are Negroes (slavery never was widespread in this part of the country); and a small number are Indians, all semi-civilized but living under very poor conditions.

We should remember that the Portuguese themselves are a blending of many ethnic groups who roamed over the Iberian Peninsula before Portugal became a nation. Thus the Portuguese brought a great number of racial characteristics to a land where the natives also represented a variety of ancestry. Without attempting to enter the field of anthropology it would be interesting to mention here that our Indians represent many types. There are short ones, who leave little room for doubt about their Asiatic background. Others are dark and tall, while in the central Brazilian high plains we have some who resemble the central African pygmies. Such were the human beings with whom the Portuguese colonists established contact in the new country. After 1530 we received slaves from various parts of Africa, which means that many different types of Negroes increased the already existing varieties of human characteristics in this country. There was much interbreeding and soon we had three ethnic types: children of Portuguese and Indians, those of Negroes and Portuguese, and those born of African and Indian marriages. Our schools are open to all these children, but we very seldom find Negroes in a private school. In parochial and other private schools, fees are often out of reach of poorer families. Negro families still live on a very low standard and not many achieve a secondary education.

Public schools do a great deal toward schooling and other assistance to poorer pupils. These children are supplied with textbooks, copybooks, pencils, and the white cotton duster worn by all our primary school children. They also receive without charge a plate of soup every morning, and many well-organized schools give medical assistance for the poorest. In winter the very poorest are given some warm clothing; again, this is only in the well-organized schools.

If, when our boys enter the army, they* are still illiterate, they learn reading and writing. Afterward they have opportunities to finish their education in night schools for adults. Many elementary schools are open in the evening for classes in which the fundamentals are taught to adults.

The reader may now be asking, Why, then, do you have so many illiterates? The answers are readily discernible.

1. We do not have enough public elementary schools.

2. The lack of transportation and communication literally isolates many communities. Even if the state wishes to open a school in these areas, no teachers are willing to accept a position under such circumstances.

3. Our poorer classes have enjoyed very little culture and do not appreciate the value of schools. As compulsory education is not yet effectively enforced, parents may or may not send their children to school. Although by law a girl or a boy may not be employed and earn money before fourteen years of age, in rural areas parents take their children very early in life to work for them in the fields. In some industrial areas children stay away from school for the simple reason that they have to take their father's lunch to the place where he works. The children frequently suffer because of unfortunate home and family life.

4. We need 100,000 more teachers (the estimate of an authority at the Ministry of Education), and we also need better programs for our teacher-preparation institutions. Professor Anisio Teixeira, director of the Institute Nacional de Estudos Pedagogicos, believes that elementary teachers and administrators should be prepared through college work, which would be a new procedure in our country.


The organization of our five elementary grades and the preparation of our elementary teachers follow a pattern established by the state. Junior high and senior high schools are under federal control. In Rio Grande do Sul elementary teacher preparation requires the five elementary grades, four years of junior high school, and finally three years of normal school. The certificate given by the normal school enables a young teacher to teach any of the five grades. There is not even a restriction against entrusting a very young teacher with the administration of an elementary school. The state department of education places the young teachers in accordance with the following requirements: a minimum age of eighteen and a maximum of thirty-eight years, Brazilian citizenship, voter certificate, health certificate, recommendation by a normal school, and, of course, the certificate of graduation itself. The newly appointed teachers are sent to small schools, where they are supposed to do their probationary teaching (two years). If married, the teacher has a right to work in the same town or city where her husband works. This law saves the teacher from the work in rural areas, but not from the period of probationary teaching. Married teachers receive, in addition to their salary, a small sum of money for each child, about one-seventh of the salary of a new teacher. When the married teacher has a baby she takes a three months leave, during which she receives her full salary.

It is only after the two years of probationary teaching that the teacher gets tenure—something like a contract for the rest of her teaching life. After thirty years of continuous work the teacher may retire and receive her full salary as long as she lives. At the age of sixty-five retirement is compulsory.

Teacher rating has not been practiced up to this time. After a certain period of years any teacher has the right to work in city schools. Her salary is automatically raised every three years. A few elementary teachers go to college after they have started to work. College means specialization, and after four years the teacher is fitted to teach in high school. If she remains in elementary teaching, a college course does not entitle her to higher salary.

Generally a teacher who has done college work applies for a position in a high school, where she earns a better salary. The state has been opening high schools everywhere, and it seems that in consequence elementary schools have been neglected during the last few years. We may have forgotten that a school system has to grow from the roots upward and not from the top downward. We should consider that the high school level is bound to drop as the elementary level sinks. Very few young men teach in elementary schools. Maybe the low salaries do not attract them to the profession.

In private schools, hiring teachers is the concern of the community, or rather, of the principal and the board. Here a teacher does not have to present a normal school certificate in order to be employed. Private schools are generally schools for the elite, and their teachers usually receive higher salaries than those paid by the state. Very often, however, in rural areas the private school teacher earns less than does his colleague who is employed by the state.

Municipal schools are maintained and controlled by the city government. They have supervisors who are appointed by the mayor of the municipio. Municipal schools are the schools for the poorest classes, and they are found in rural areas and at the outskirts of the cities. Many of the teachers in these schools have had very little schooling and in consequence do extremely poor work. Some of the municipios pay almost as much for their municipal school teachers as does the state. Teaching conditions, of course, are less attractive in municipal schools, and the type of pupils often means that the teacher is confronted with a harder task.

In the last few years the state department of education has been offering special courses for teachers who have no credentials other than five years of elementary school. After an intensive course (one month of preparation) these teachers agree to work in very distant and poor areas. Sometimes they live in the school building and raise cereals and fruit to supplement their income.


The present situation in our elementary schools is acute. While our upper and middle classes have finally reached fuller understanding of the benefits of education and demand better schools for their children, there is the shortage of classrooms and of teachers. While our federal and state governments understand the "must" of educational equality as a basis of progress, the monster of inflation threatens the nation in many ways. We know that we have advanced many steps, that we have reached a transition period in our elementary school system, and we must believe that the transition will lead to more and better schools. Paramount here are such assets as democracy, religious freedom, and no segregation problem. We have faith in a better development of our elementary school system. We are anxious to see the final victory of the elementary school in its fight with illiteracy, and we are confident that such a day will come.

1 Miss Sperb studied in this country under the auspices of the State Department and the Institute of International Education. She received her Master's degree in educational administration from Teachers College, Columbia. During her stay, she visited schools in 22 states. In 1945 she founded an evening school for adult education in Novo Hamburgo, Brazil, and continues to supervise its operation.

2 Anisio Teixeira, "Condigoes para a Reconstrucao Educacional Brasileira," Revista Brasileira de Estudos Pedagogicos. Janeiro-Marco, 1953.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 58 Number 3, 1956, p. 169-174
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4540, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 12:24:28 AM

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