Preferences, priorities, and choices of Brazilian parents for their children's education – and why they should be free to choose
One of the recurring arguments against educational choice in Brazil, through a voucher system or non-state endorsed educational services, like those pursued by homeschooling families, for instance, is the belief that poor families would be incapable of making suitable choices for their children. At best, they are deemed incapable; often, the undertone of this argument suggests that poor parents do not even care about their children's education.
For instance, throughout his book A Árvore Bela (2020), James Tooley illustrates the condescending and prejudiced stance of international bodies and public officials regarding the educational choices of the poor. The book, which features Tooley's research on low-cost private schools in developing countries, shows that extremely poor parents are choosing to pay rather than send their children to the available public schools. In one passage, Tooley narrates the interview he conducted with Mary Taimo Ige Iji, the head of the educational administration in Mainland, Lagos, Nigeria. According to her, the most crucial factor in the choice of poor parents is a "false symbolic status".
Poor parents 'want to see themselves as rich, attentive parents, enrolling their children in fee-paying and supposedly better schools.' But these poor parents, as we all know, end up being deceived. They are, in Mrs. Mary's words, 'quite ignorant'. (Tooley, 2020, p. 149-150)
It is arrogance disguised as good intentions, so common among the Brazilian 'virtue-signaling' elite when, for instance, they disregard parents' ability to choose, and highlight the 'risks' of a voucher system in Brazil given that the State would not be able to assess the quality of the education provided (Carnoy & Simielli, 2022):
“The problem for a country like Brazil, which has 26 states, the Federal District and 5,570 municipalities responsible for educational systems, is to assess whether subsidized private education could be sufficiently regulated and held financially and academically accountable to assure the public that funding is not being misused, that students are receiving high-quality education, and that private schools are not competing solely on the basis of selecting the best students and/or obtaining contributions (tuition) from families in addition to government subsidies.”
Beyond arrogance and prejudice, the argument carries the embarrassing obviousness that for these enlightened beings – the anointed, as Thomas Sowell refers to them – being manipulated and defrauded by the State is entirely acceptable. After all, what the Brazilian state does by confiscating citizens' resources, supposedly to guarantee education, and delivering functional illiterate youths at the age of 16, is nothing short of fraud.
Fortunately, for those who value science over prejudice, there is extensive literature on how parents actually act when given the opportunity to choose in a free educational market. One of the pieces of evidence is that there is no consistent pattern in the literature indicating differences between the decision-making processes of low-income and high-income families (Erickson, 2017).
Este também é um dos resultados que encontramos na pesquisa This is also one of the results we found in the survey 'Preferences, priorities, and choices of Brazilian parents for their children's education – and why they should be free to choose', which we propose to analyze here. Besides informing the academic debate or the public sector, our aim is mainly to inform the education market – parents, students, teachers, school administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and the productive sector – as well as those directly affected by the quality of Brazilian students' learning – in other words, all of us.
Are poor Brazilian parents different from parents studied in other countries? What educational goals do Brazilian parents with low socioeconomic level (SEL) have for their children? What do they consider an ideal school? How do their preferences and criteria differ from those of medium-high SEL parents? If they could make choices using public resources available to them, how detrimental would those choices be for their children and society in general?
The answers to some of these questions can be found in the survey ‘Preferences, priorities, and choices of Brazilian parents for their children's education – and why they should be free to choose’, commissioned by the Instituto Livre pra Escolher. The survey was conducted by iDados between December 2022 and January 2023, with a sample of over 1,800 parents from all over Brazil. The sample includes parents from all major regions, state capitals and rural areas, of various age groups, educational levels, and family incomes, who have children ranging from zero to 17 years old.
Parents responded to an online questionnaire to capture their preferences and perceptions regarding what they desire for their children in terms of education. Parents with low and medium-low socioeconomic levels (referred to as low SEL) are considered those with a family income of up to 5,000 reais. In the participant sample, about 50% of these parents have a family income of up to 2,000 reais, while 26% of medium-high and high SEL parents have an income above 10,000 reais. While 69% of low SEL parents have at most completed high school, 72.4% of high SEL parents have completed university education. Thus, there are significant differences between the groups based on socioeconomic level.
Parents’ preferences can be broadly divided into two themes. The first relates to parents' desires regarding the objectives and goals they would like their children to achieve throughout their educational journey, aiming for future success. The second theme concerns the characteristics of an ideal school that parents would like their children to attend if they had the means to access it.
We present below the main conclusions and our analysis of the data found. For our analysis, we also consider evidence from scientific research, which will be cited throughout the text.
- The socioeconomic level (SEL) of parents, including income and education, has a low impact on the goals and aspirations they have for their children's educational trajectory, aiming for future success. The same applies to the characteristics of the ideal school they would like their children to attend. If there is the possibility of choice, such as through vouchers, for example, both groups surveyed tend to make essentially the same choices. In other words, the argument that policies promoting educational freedom of choice are not suitable for the Brazilian context due to a predominantly poor and low-educated population does not hold up.
- In one of the surveyed topics, a significant percentage of parents from both low SEL and high SEL groups (53% and 50.8% respectively) believe that the ideal school should "Contribute to the character, ethics, and/or morals formation of students." If we add the percentage of those who chose this criterion to those who chose "Work on skills such as punctuality, organization, and responsibility," we have 92.4% of low SEL parents and 91.6% of high SEL parents. For both groups of parents, "Developing a moral code of conduct" is a more valued objective than "Learning to value nature" – a theme widely promoted in the media and prevalent in the National Common Curricular Base (BNCC). Clearly, regardless of SEL, parents seek a school where their children learn values that are often associated with conservative rather than “progressive” values.
- Among the objectives most strongly valued by Brazilian parents, which also appear as equally valued by parents in other countries, are character development, the formation of study habits, strengthening of self-esteem, resilience, discipline, and individual responsibility. In this context, a positive school climate (safe, welcoming, respectful, and orderly) stands out. Apparently, it is clear to parents that a good school climate – as supported by scientific evidence – has an extremely relevant impact on the aforementioned goals, as well as on the level of academic learning and the prevention of absenteeism and school dropout.
- The characterization of the ideal school as one that maintains a positive climate for students and the school community reflects the concern of parents from both groups regarding discipline and violence in schools. Although we understand that it is unlikely for schools alone to guarantee the teaching of moral education, respect, character building, and discipline – which should primarily be the responsibility of parents – the undeniable fact is that parents cherish these values and understand that their children's future depends on the extent to which they acquire them during their school years.
- Also related to school climate, the type of social interaction and the level of interpersonal skills that their children have in school are extremely important factors for parents from both groups. They apparently perceive that their children's personal and professional fulfillment will depend on the quality of the relationships they will be able to establish with diverse individuals.
- The ideological, divisive perspective often present in neo-Marxist, supposedly pedagogical approaches of a binary society where one group must triumph over the other is not shared by parents, regardless of their socioeconomic status. There is a strong consensus among both groups of parents regarding the ideal school, which should cater to students from different social, racial, and religious backgrounds. Similarly, they agree on the objective that their children should have empathetic, respectful, and cooperative relationships with these individuals. Although they acknowledge the existence of prejudice against the poor, racism, and religious intolerance, parents from all socioeconomic levels equally want their children to build and live in a better world.
- The parents who want their children to respect, empathize, and work well with diverse people – in terms of their social origin, race, and religion – are the same parents who desire an orderly, safe school that promotes ethical and moral character formation. They are the same parents who want a school that instills discipline and resilience in students. They are the same parents who want a school that supports their children who are falling behind in what they need to learn to reach college. They are the same parents who want their children to take pride in their diversity and have strong self-esteem to always seek further learning.
- Socioeconomically disadvantaged families are just as ambitious as the more privileged ones. Among the most desired objectives by both groups of parents are for their children to acquire good study habits and a desire for lifelong learning. The absence of an ambitious and technically sound curriculum in Brazil is not a choice made by parents but rather by those responsible for educational public policies. It is these people, not the parents, who choose not to follow the best practices of countries with excellent education systems and subject student and teacher training to their disastrous decisions.
- Where there is freedom of educational choice, robust research evidence shows that the choices made by parents – including those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – achieve their objectives of reducing absenteeism, increasing high school completion rates, promoting ethnic and racial integration, stimulating political tolerance, and fostering civic values. Other achieved objectives include improved academic performance, reduced juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy rates, higher levels of education, higher occupational status, higher earnings, and better overall health. In other words, where there is educational freedom of choice for parents with low SEL, all the goals pursued by Brazilian parents – and even more – are achieved.
- Although the issue of compulsory schooling was not specifically tested in this survey, considering the goals of both groups of parents for their children's future, as well as their criteria for an ideal school, we can conclude that even if schooling were not compulsory, parents would be able to make appropriate choices for their children, with positive impacts on both the individuals and social cohesion.
Section I - Objectives for their educational trajectory, aiming for future success
- Parents are not asked about the reasons behind the chosen objectives; therefore, our analysis is speculative. Whenever possible, however, it is based on evidence obtained from scientific literature.
The most valued objective by both groups of parents is ‘the development of socio-emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, and respect’. Here we can see the importance attributed to the learning of morally acceptable behaviors. Therefore, we can conclude that for parents from both groups, it is essential that their children learn to respect the teacher, cooperate to ensure effective class participation, and empathize with classmates facing difficulties.
There is no doubt that the moral aspect, translated through appropriate behavior, is important for parents. Both groups of parents expect their children to ‘develop a moral code of conduct’ throughout their years in school. In fact, this objective is more valued than ‘learning to value nature’ or ‘being prepared for the job market upon finishing high school’.
In addition to recognizing the intrinsic importance of learning morally acceptable behavior, another possible reason why parents are concerned about this objective is the increasing number of violent incidents in schools, especially in public schools. Parents do not want their children to be protagonists or victims of acts of violence.
Also, very important to both groups of parents is ‘learning to work with different people in terms of race, social level, or religion’. We can consider this second objective as a component of the first, as ‘learning to work with different people in terms of race, social level, or religion’ also involves learning to treat others with respect, empathy, and cooperation. However, more than just a component of the first objective, it reinforces the moral and ethical character that these parents want their children to develop in school.
For both groups of parents, non-prejudiced behavior is considered extremely important for their children's future. Families are concerned about the type of social interaction and the level of interpersonal skills that their children have and will have in school and in the workplace. They believe that their children's personal and professional fulfillment will depend on the quality of relationships they are able to establish with diverse individuals.
From these choices, we can deduce that it is clear to parents that violent children and youth who are unable to respect and cooperate with peers and teachers, and who lack empathy (such as acting as bullies or showing prejudice), will have reduced chances of personal and professional success; they may even be unable to complete their studies.
Among the most desired objectives for their children, both groups of parents highly value ‘learning good study habits’ and ‘always wanting to learn more’. The prejudiced notion that low-income and low-educated parents have no educational ambitions for their children and that they will make their children work at the first opportunity does not correspond to reality. On the contrary, these parents believe that it is not enough for their children to be exposed to what is taught in school; they aspire for their children to be capable of studying efficiently on their own and to do so habitually in to continually learn more.
The assumption that parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds have no interest in developing habits involving discipline and effort is equally refuted by our survey. In fact, parents from both groups recognize that their child's success in the future greatly depends on individual effort. For parents from high socioeconomic backgrounds, individual effort is as important as the quality of the school. For parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds, individual effort is even more important than the quality of the school. Although they are aware that their children need to put in more effort and have greater resilience to progress educationally, parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds do not expect the school to treat their children condescendingly or to have lower expectations because they are poor. These parents do not perceive insurmountable systemic or structural conditions that prevent their children from learning as long as the prerequisites are in place.
We can also conclude that parents do not oppose an ambitious curriculum in terms of content, as long as their children are equipped to handle it with discipline. Evidence of this is that for parents from both groups, having children ‘prepared for college’ is more valued than having children ‘prepared for the job market’ by the end of high school. The absence of an ambitious and technically sound curriculum in Brazil is not a choice made by parents, but rather by those responsible for educational public policies. It is these people, not the parents, who choose not to follow the best practices of countries with excellent education systems and subject student and teacher training to their disastrous decisions. Some references that could and should be used but are ignored by those determining public policies in Brazil are Oliveira (2018), Becskeházy (2018), and Crato (2020).
The undeniable fact is that the desire for children to develop non-cognitive skills during their school years is not exclusive to Brazilian parents. Robust studies show that parents in other countries share these same preferences. They also demonstrate the effects of these choices in various areas: non-cognitive skills such as self-control, grit, and perseverance strongly affect the ability to achieve short and long-term goals (Nichols, 2017) and are predictive of college persistence, completion of higher education, and overall educational success (Carneiro et al., 2007; Heckman et al., 2006; Lleras, 2008; Mischel, Shoda, and Peake, 1988, in Nichols, 2017). In the labor market, these skills, which include interpersonal skills and work habits, are associated with higher employability, better wages, and increased work productivity (Borghans, Ter Weel, and Weinberg, 2008; Farkas, 2003; Heckman et al., 2006; Lleras, 2008, in Nichols, 2017).
Various character-related skills are predictive of health outcomes in general, including the reduction of teenage pregnancy rates (Carneiro et al., 2007; Heckman et al., 2006, in Nichols, 2017). Similarly, Moffitt et al. (2011, in Nichols, 2017) followed 1,000 children from birth to age 32 and found that non-cognitive skills, particularly self-control, were associated with overall health. Additionally, the team followed 500 pairs of siblings and discovered that a reduction in non-cognitive skills was associated with worsening academic performance and social behavior (Moffitt et al., 2011).
Section II - Characteristics of an ideal school
Once again, we emphasize that, similar to Section I, which addresses the objectives to be achieved, the section on the ideal school does not inquire about the reasons behind parents' choices. Although our analysis is speculative, whenever possible, it is based on evidence obtained from scientific literature.
Initially, it is important to highlight that regarding the characteristics of the ideal school, parents were asked to choose one of three alternatives for nine themes (management, teaching strategy, educational focus, etc.). In six themes, the most valued alternative by both low and high socioeconomic level parents was the same. Furthermore, in the comparisons where there was a divergence in the preferred characteristic, the least valued characteristic was the same. In other words, there was no complete divergence between the choices of the two groups in any theme. Below are the different themes and our analysis.
At first glance, there is a slight divergence between the two groups of parents regarding the two most voted characteristics: ‘teaching a profession, practical classes for the job market’ (44% for low SEL and 39.6% for high SEL) and ‘teaching directed towards preparation for Enem/university entrance exams’ (41.9% for low SEL and 43.6% for high SEL). However, if we add the percentages of those who chose ‘teaching directed towards preparation for Enem/university entrance exams’ as the most important objective of the ideal school with the least voted option – ‘being among the top performers in school rankings’ – we have a higher percentage than those who prefer ‘teaching a profession, practical classes for the job market’. Low SEL parents who choose either of these two options account for 56% of those surveyed about the ideal school. High SEL parents account for 60.4%.
And why add these two items? First, because when we evaluate the objectives of parents from both groups, ‘being prepared for college at the end of high school’ is more important than ‘being ready for the job market at the end of high school’. Second, because in general, the schools that are at the top of academic performance rankings are exactly the ones that best prepare students for accessing higher education.
However, we cannot overlook the percentage of low SEL families who, among these three options, choose ‘teaching a profession, practical classes for the job market’: 44%. Considering that this is the preference of so many parents and that there is a mismatch between the profile of university graduates and the demands of the job market, if there were school vouchers for private technical/vocational schools that are innovative and responsive to market needs, there would likely be less dropout, more young people being skilled, and the market would be better served and more productive.
2) Teaching priorities
In this theme, the compared items are ‘Subjects or classes that address citizenship, leadership, and diversity’, ‘Subjects that address science and technology’, and ‘Art classes, such as music, dance, painting, and crafts’. There is convergence between the groups of parents regarding what is less prioritized: ‘Art classes, such as music, dance, painting, and crafts’. However, this is one of the few themes where there is a divergence in preferences. For low SEL parents, the ideal school should prioritize ‘Subjects or classes that address citizenship, leadership, and diversity’, while for high SEL parents, the focus should be on ‘Subjects that address science and technology’.
There seems to be a contradiction between the highlighted objective in the previous theme – ‘Being prepared for college at the end of high school’ – and prioritizing a school that focuses on ‘Subjects or classes that address citizenship, leadership, and diversity’, as preferred by low SEL parents. However, it is not that they are disregarding science, as ‘Learning to analyze arguments, facts, and evidence’ is among the objectives of parents from both groups, albeit more strongly emphasized by high SEL parents. Nor is it about wanting to postpone the teaching of science or other content that prepares students for college, but rather ensuring that the prerequisites for learning these contents are met.
For the poorest parents, education for civic values and inspiring their children to respect and take on leadership positions is more prioritized than for high SEL parents. Firstly, it is important to remember that low SEL parents have a maximum family income of R$5,000. Half of them have a family income of up to R$2,000. In other words, these are people facing difficulties in meeting their most basic needs. In this sense, one of the reasons that supports this educational choice is likely the perception that their children need to believe that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty and, more than that, they need to learn the right paths to reach their potential as individuals and as citizens.
Furthermore, prejudice and bullying tend to undermine students' self-esteem, interest, and engagement, leading to increased absenteeism. Even though we are talking about parents with low levels of education, their perception of the importance of strengthening their children's self-esteem so that they do not give up is correct: data from PISA 2018 shows that students who experienced frequent bullying were more likely to miss school and had lower scores in reading. It also shows that among the factors positively associated with academic resilience are parental support, a positive school climate - which we will discuss later - and a growth mindset. It is likely that it is precisely this type of mindset - of ambition - that parents want the school to promote in their children through classes that address citizenship, leadership, and diversity.
Indeed, for the poorest parents, the ideal school should strengthen their children's self-esteem and expose them to diverse horizons beyond their current circumstances, discouraging dropout rates. It is likely that parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds believe that such teachings are a prerequisite without which the learning of science and technology - as well as other technical/academic knowledge - would be unattainable. We can conclude that this is a pragmatic and rational choice made by these parents: a school cannot teach those who give up on learning, those who do not believe that education can represent a secure future, or those who believe they have greater chances of "success" and recognition outside of school. Being prepared for college at the end of high school presupposes completing high school to the end; it assumes that the student does not drop out. Therefore, it is not even a trade-off, giving up something to have something more important. It is a clear example of applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the most basic needs must be met for others to be realized.
The parents' quest to strengthen their children's self-esteem is the opposite of victimization. Although economically disadvantaged children need more support and resilience to overcome prejudices and contextual limitations, their parents understand that their children bear most of the responsibility for breaking this cycle. This perception is evident in the survey when parents from this group state that success depends more on their children's attendance and effort (59.8%) than on the quality of the school (40.2%). In other words, while they desire a school that provides support for their children's educational success, low-income parents see their children's agency as greater than that of the school - a stance far removed from the victim mentality espoused by elites claiming to speak on behalf of these individuals. Low-income parents are aware of what their children need to achieve with individual responsibility and resilience. This is likely one of the reasons why personal responsibility and resilience are highly valued by them.
O sucesso do seu filho ou filha depende mais:
There is evidence that low-income parents in other countries act in a very similar manner. The concern about dropout rates - even though this problem is much less severe than in Brazil - is evident. When choosing a school, low-income parents, as well as non-white and non-Asian parents, value schools with higher high school completion rates more than higher-income and white parents do. The same applies to the rate of students who manage to enter university (Kelly & Scafidi, 2013). They know that their children are statistically less likely to complete high school and attend college. Therefore, they are willing to seek out a school that can help them break that pattern.
Literature shows that, in general, parents from low-income backgrounds tend to make rational choices regarding their children's education. When given the opportunity to exercise educational freedom, there is evidence that low-income parents can achieve their objectives of reducing absenteeism and increasing high school completion rates.
Webber et al. (2019) conducted a study on the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in Washington, D.C., which provides vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private schools. The study used a randomized control trial, considered the "gold standard" of evaluation methodology, to compare the outcomes of two groups. The vouchers were randomly assigned through a lottery system, ensuring that the treatment and control groups were similar at the time of enrollment in the OSP, with the only difference being whether or not they received the voucher.
After three years of follow-up, the study found statistically significant results, including:
• Chronic absenteeism was less prevalent among students using the voucher to attend their chosen school compared to those attending public schools based on their residential address.
• The impact on reducing absenteeism was more significant for older students with low levels of academic achievement, who are at higher risk of dropping out.
• Students using the voucher to attend their chosen school reported a higher perception of safety compared to those who were not selected and continued to attend public schools based on their residential address.
These findings not only highlight the convergence of objectives among low-income parents from different countries but also demonstrate the rationality of choices made by Brazilian parents in pursuit of their goals.
It is important to note that the effectiveness of educational choices may vary depending on the specific context and available options. However, the evidence from studies like the OSP evaluation suggests that when low-income parents have the opportunity to choose schools that align with their objectives, positive outcomes can be achieved in terms of reducing absenteeism and improving students' perceptions of safety and well-being.
3) Direct Teaching Strategies
Both groups of parents prefer ‘practical classes through projects’. They possibly perceive the low level of interest and concentration span in their children. Considering the prevalent level of indiscipline issues in classrooms, parents may find it virtually impossible for teachers, for the most part, to teach through direct instruction. The second most voted option, ‘Focused teaching of Mathematics and Portuguese’, is valued more by parents with a lower socioeconomic status (43.9%) than those with a higher socioeconomic status (37.3%). Poor parents know that their children only have the school to teach them these subjects, and possibly even those who chose practical classes have in mind projects that reinforce the learning of Mathematics and Portuguese. These options are not mutually exclusive.
4) Indirect Teaching Strategies
The percentage of parents from both groups who believe that the ideal school should have ‘full-day classes (morning and afternoon)’ is practically identical: 47.5% (lower socioeconomic level) and 47.3% (higher socioeconomic level). This choice seems inconsistent considering that, in another part of the survey, when choosing up to three options among eight factors that influence academic success, only 13.4% of lower socioeconomic level parents and 9.7% of higher socioeconomic level parents choose the factor ‘Time spent at school’. Once again, parents demonstrate a better understanding of what really matters when it comes to learning: it is not the time spent at school but how that time is used. There is robust evidence that the amount of quality time spent by the teacher in teaching tasks has a strong correlation with students' grades. On the other hand, the correlations between students' grades and the total number of hours spent at school are much weaker (Oliveira, 2019). The following item, which analyzes parents' preferences regarding ‘Teaching support strategies’, sheds light on this seemingly discrepant choice.
5) Teaching Support Strategies
Although there is no explicit mention of the type of activities that should take place during the extended school hours in the ideal school, the choices related to this topic provide some clues. We see that 54.1% of low-income parents state that the ideal school should offer ‘Extra classes for students with learning difficulties’. Considering that these are reinforcement classes (presumably for what is taught during the "regular" class time), it is likely what they desire this extra time to take place during the extended hours. This assumption is reinforced by our survey, which compares five characteristics of an ideal school. Parents were asked to choose two priorities among five alternatives. For 48.1% of low-income parents, an ideal school offers ‘extra support for students with difficulties’. It is worth noting that 69% of low-income parents have at most completed high school, limiting their ability to support children with learning difficulties. Furthermore, these families generally have less access to books and the internet, meaning that it is only at school that their children can receive instruction for curriculum subjects. Therefore, if the extended hours are used for reinforcement classes, yes, a full-day school is desired.
For 42.8% of high socioeconomic status parents, the preferred teaching support strategies are ‘Extracurricular activities such as sports, theater, and community actions’. This choice is possibly related to the fact that the availability of these activities in school would simply consolidate, in a more convenient way, the activities their children already engage in outside of school hours at different locations. Furthermore, 72.4% of these parents have completed higher education, which would enable them to provide some form of support to children with learning difficulties or even hire additional reinforcement classes. Lastly, but not less important, these are parents whose children generally have fewer learning gaps and therefore require less reinforcement classes.
6) Life Skills Education
A significant percentage of parents from both groups (53% for the lower socioeconomic status and 50.8% for the higher socioeconomic status) believe that the ideal school should ‘Contribute to the development of character, ethics, and/or moral values of students’. This confirms the main objectives to be ensured throughout the educational journey, aiming for future success: ‘socio-emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, and respect’, ‘Learning good study habits’, and ‘Always wanting to learn more’.
The ideal school, therefore, teaches values typically associated with conservatism, such as discipline, resilience, individual responsibility, and the ambition to acquire more knowledge. We are not talking about schools where students are allowed to do whatever they want or, even worse, engage in violent behavior. Parents from both groups seek order. This preference may explain the interest aroused among Brazilian parents in the model of civic-military schools. According to the joint report released by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation at the end of 2022, the program achieved an 82% reduction in physical violence and a 75% reduction in verbal violence. Dropout rates and school abandonment decreased by approximately 80%, and schools with low performance in the Ideb (Basic Education Development Index) began to show improved results.
In the ideal school for parents from both groups, character and respect for rules are highly valued – concepts related to ethics and morality. This is evident as the second most voted item by both groups of parents (39.4% of lower socioeconomic status and 40.8% of higher socioeconomic status) is ‘Develop skills such as punctuality, organization, and responsibility’. If we add the percentage of those who chose this item to those who chose ‘Contribute to the development of character, ethics, and/or moral values of students’, we have 92.4% of lower socioeconomic status parents and 91.6% of higher socioeconomic status parents.
It is worth noting that although we understand that it is unlikely for the school alone to guarantee the teaching of moral education, respect, character strengthening, and discipline – which should primarily be the responsibility of parents – the indisputable fact is that parents cherish these values and understand that their children's future depends on how much they acquire them during their school years. In this sense, the establishment of a school culture that emphasizes these values can represent significant progress.
Indeed, a school culture that promotes the development of these skills not only enables the learning of curriculum content but also contributes to breaking the cycle of poverty in which many students are trapped. This can be observed in schools informally referred to as "No excuse" schools in neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by poor people or ethnic minorities in cities like New York and London. The transformative effects on the lives of these children are described in books such as "How the Other Half Learns" by Robert Pondiscio, "Charter Schools and Their Enemies" by Thomas Sowell, and "Michaela: The Power of Culture" by Katharine Birbalsingh.
Actually, the learning of these skills does not need - and should not - happen separately from the learning of technical/academic content but rather integrated with it. Academic rigor and discipline, established and upheld through clear rules, convey values such as honesty, integrity, empathy, respect, cooperation, individual responsibility, self-control, which can and should be expected from students in the execution of all tasks, rather than isolated in activities specifically focused on the learning of these skills.
This is also advocated by Jal Mehta and Frederick Hess:
7) Management I
The topic of Management has been divided into Management I, II, and III. In Management I, the main choice of both parents and guardians from both groups is 'Attention to student well-being (support, care)'. This topic complements the previous one in the sense that it explores management aspects aiming at the development of a school climate that allows for the desired life skills education to take place in the classrooms.
“A positive school climate is one of those things that is difficult to define and measure, but everyone recognises it when they see it. Students appreciate a school environment where bullying is unusual, where students do not feel out of place, and where establishing genuine and respectful relationships with teachers is the norm. PISA 2018 shows that school climate is closely associated with students’ sense of well-being." (Schleicher, 2019)
Although the issue of violence and indiscipline is not explicitly mentioned, that is what it is about. 'School climate' is the term routinely used in discussions about educational policies to refer to the safety, order, and friendliness of the school environment. Indiscipline and violence in schools were not explicitly addressed in our survey because it was considered that the rejection of both would be unanimous, and by comparing them to other criteria, the ability to evaluate the importance of other alternatives could be lost. However, the fact is that in these aspects – indiscipline and violence in schools – reality clearly shows that there are problems.
An unwelcoming school environment that does not ensure the physical and emotional well-being of students undermines quality teaching and learning. Parents and guardians from both groups – and dare we say, teachers as well – are aware of this. The responses to this topic confirm the preferences expressed in the previous theme (Life skills education). By prioritizing student well-being, parents and guardians – even those with limited education – recognize the importance of a positive school climate for their children's learning. A positive school climate is a precondition for the learning of all content, skills, and values considered priorities by both groups of parents, such as respect, empathy, character development, individual responsibility, and a desire to learn more. And indeed, there is a correlation between improved results and stricter behavior rules (Nichols, 2017).
Data from PISA 2018 shows that the level of discipline in language of instruction classes – in our case, Portuguese language classes – is one of the strongest predictors of reading performance. In all countries and economies, students who reported fewer disciplinary problems in their language of instruction classes performed better in reading, even after accounting for students' and schools' socioeconomic profile. This difference reaches 25 points in PISA when indiscipline prevents them from paying attention and effectively learning in most or all the language of instruction classes. Even occasional disciplinary problems were negatively associated with reading performance. Students who reported disciplinary problems occurring in some language of instruction classes scored 5 to 9 points lower.
This is, in fact, one of the reasons why Brazilian students perform poorly in the PISA: the level of indiscipline is extremely high. According to the TALIS 2018 survey, for 54.9% of teachers in Middle School, maintaining discipline within the school is a significant source of stress (34.1% find it quite stressful, and 20.8% find it very stressful). The situation is no different for High School teachers: 50% of them consider maintaining discipline within the school to be a significant source of stress (31.2% find it quite stressful, and 18.8% find it very stressful). In addition to the difficulty teachers face in capturing students' attention, a survey conducted by the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP) with school principals reveals a discouraging picture: 35% of public school principals and 4% of private school principals pointed out that intimidation or bullying among Middle School students occurs on a weekly or daily basis.
And it gets worse. A survey conducted by Instituto Locomotiva in partnership with the Official Teachers Union of the State of São Paulo (Apeoesp) shows that 69% of students believe there is a moderate or high level of violence in state schools in the state of São Paulo. Among teachers, this percentage is 68%, and when the students' family members respond, the rate reaches 75%. According to the same survey, 41% of students do not feel safe in the vicinity of schools, and 26% do not feel safe inside schools. 71% of students and 73% of their family members stated that they are aware of cases of violence in their schools. Although the staggering numbers from this survey do not necessarily reflect the national reality, they confirm the preference expressed by parents in our nationally representative survey regarding the need for 'Attention to student well-being (support, care)’.
Brazilian parents are not alone in their concern about discipline. According to Schleicher (2019), for parents in different educational systems, a safe school environment is among the most important criteria when choosing a school.
This is also shown in various studies in the United States, such as the one by Stewart & Wolf (2014):
“In their initial year of OSP, as noted, parents overwhelmingly mentioned safety as their top consideration in choosing a school for their child. In every initial parent focus group that we facilitated, including those in Spanish and regardless of whether the session involved the parents of elementary school, middle school, or high school students, the safety of the school was most frequently mentioned by parents as their number-one school choice consideration. (…) In addition to safety, some families placed strong emphasis on the moral climate of the school." (Stewart & Wolf, 2014, p. 53).
Similar criteria are described by Kelly and Scafidi (2013): just like for Brazilian parents, for the American parents surveyed, factors related to school climate and classroom discipline control are also the most important ones. The study shows that at the top of the list of criteria for school choice, for over 85% of the surveyed parents, is a better school environment for their children; for 61.7%, "more disciplined students," and for 52.9%, "better safety for their children.”
Lastly, other studies present similar results regarding choice criteria: better school environment (Catt & Rhinesmith, 2016), school safety (Stewart et al., 2009), and religious or moral instruction (Catt & Rhinesmith, 2016; Kelly & Scafidi, 2013; Stewart et al., 2009).
In other words, the scientific literature provides broad support for the rationale of the majority of Brazilian parents who consider that the well-being of students, which depends on an orderly and respectful school climate, is of utmost priority. They also seem to infer that this characteristic of the school, in addition to being a prerequisite for effective learning, is directly linked to reducing dropout rates and increasing educational attainment.
8) Management II’
In this theme, with a very similar percentage of votes, the preferred criterion for both groups for the ideal school is 'serving students from different social, racial, and religious backgrounds'. Clearly, the ideal school for any parent is one that serves their children without prejudice against who they are or what they believe in. Clearly, this management theme also aims to ensure a positive school climate, where there is respect and empathy.
Recognizing that poverty and racism are real problems in Brazil and that religious intolerance - which is not limited to so-called "African-based religions" – still permeates society, it is very encouraging to see that this criterion is equally highlighted in terms of school management for both groups of parents. For them, the ideal school equally includes everyone.
As evidenced in Section I of our survey, parents generally have the same goals for their children's future, regardless of their socioeconomic status. More than just tolerating diversity, parents from both groups want their children to respect, empathize with, and work well with diverse people. It is worth noting that empathy means being able to put oneself in another person's shoes, seeking to act or think as they would. Empathy, therefore, stands in contrast to pseudo-pedagogical approaches that foster perceptions of a binary society composed of oppressors versus oppressed, where one wins when the other loses, in a zero-sum game.
For parents from both groups, the ideal school ensures excellent service to all students, regardless of their social, ethnic-racial, or religious background. Well-managed schools do not provide different quality services based on students' profiles, and rules apply equally to everyone. We can conclude further: the curriculum is equally demanding, and teachers have equally ambitious learning expectations for all students.
Regarding this theme, it is important to highlight another prejudice related to the possibility of making educational choices: allowing choices would allegedly lead to the "balkanization" of education. According to this argument, parents from middle-high socioeconomic level would choose schools that kept their children separate from children from low socioeconomic level families and/or Black and mixed-race families, exacerbating racial and socioeconomic segregation. Supposedly, such choices would contribute to a growing lack of empathy and respect, and ultimately hinder social cohesion.
Such a view is fully refuted by the fact that for both groups of parents, this is the most desired criterion in the Management II theme. Our survey shows that parents seek inclusive schools where their children's peers share values such as character, empathy, respect, discipline, and order, regardless of their social background, race, or religion.
Lastly, it is worth noting that 'diversity' is not limited to external, visible issues. 'Diversity' is defined as the representation of all diverse identities and differences (race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, tribe, caste, socioeconomic status, thinking and communication styles, etc.), collectively and as individuals. Given the reality that individuals differ primarily in what they think and are, given the conceptual and ideological hegemony imposed in teacher training programs and given the imposition of our BNCC (National Common Curricular Base) on all schools, which primarily focuses on the external aspects of diversity, we emphasize in italics above the aspects that truly make us diverse. Our belief that what universally unites us as human beings and what differentiates us as individuals seems to align with what Brazilian parents seek in the ideal school.
9) Management III
In this theme, we can see that the ideal school for both groups of parents, almost identically (67.5% of low-SEL parents and 66.8% of high-SEL parents), includes 'Good infrastructure (well-ventilated and equipped classrooms, computers, etc.).' Once again, it is clear that low-SEL parents are as ambitious as high-SEL parents when it comes to the health, physical well-being, and learning of their children.
Characteristics of the ideal school – Percentage of response in each item in each theme
Other comparisons between parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds
When parents are asked to choose two out of five characteristics related to different themes, once again, there are no major differences between the two groups. 'Developing personal skills' is the top choice for both groups, and 'Attention to well-being' is very important for both groups. And just like the most voted option, the least voted option is the same for both groups of parents: 'School Location.' This is interesting because another argument against the freedom of school choice for low-income families is that parents will always prefer the school that is closest to them, regardless of its quality. Thus, it could be considered unnecessary to provide choices since, in general, there will be a nearby public school. Our survey refutes this hypothesis and shows that, for all parents, the criteria that impact the goals they have for their children's future are more important.
Characteristics of the ideal school (%)
Lastly, when asked to choose among eight factors that influence school success, parents make the following choices regarding the top three: for more than half of the parents in both groups, the most important factor among the options is 'Teachers.' Following in reverse order for the two groups but with very similar percentages, 'Family involvement' and 'Student effort' come next. It is interesting to note that the factor 'Time spent in school' is chosen by only 13.4% of low-SEL parents and 9.7% of high-SEL parents. Parents seem to recognize that without quality teachers, without family involvement, and without student effort, in terms of school success, it matters little whether their children spend the entire day in school.
Factors influencing school success (%)
Yes, when it comes to choices aimed at their children's success in school, parents are often more sensible than many of those responsible for developing public education policies. And there is robust evidence to support this. In countries where low-income parents are able to enroll their children in schools that best meet their criteria, it is possible to evaluate the results of these choices. Below are some examples:
Studies on the effects of school choice
Beuermann and Jackson (2018) conducted a study in Barbados precisely on this issue. They show that parents value a positive school climate among students and, consequently, good company for their children. And even though, on average, the schools chosen by these parents did not always result in better test scores for their children, the choices were still successful.
The study demonstrates that in the long term, students from these same schools have higher high school graduation rates and better well-being as adults, considering educational attainment, occupational status, salary earnings, and health. The improved health conditions of these individuals can be attributed to the development of healthy habits and attitudes encouraged by the school environment. The study also shows that these long-term benefits are greater for women, including a reduction in teenage pregnancy rates. The authors suggest that girls who attend schools with positive social relationships find it easier to find and maintain employment and are more likely to delay motherhood.
A study from Stanford University (Bettinger et al., 2019) on the effects of vouchers over a 20-year period in Colombia shows that students who were randomly selected to use vouchers in privately-run vocational schools chosen by their parents - from low socioeconomic backgrounds - were strongly impacted. Among the effects, it highlights higher chances of completing high school on time, escaping poverty and achieving middle-class income by the age of 33, living in less impoverished areas of the city, being able to afford a car, and avoiding teenage parenthood. All of this was achieved with lower public expenditures while the student is in school and increased tax revenue after they complete their education.
Regarding the effects of choices based on safety criteria, we have the study by Shakeel and DeAngelis (2018), which shows that a safe school environment is essential for effective learning and the inculcation of civic values.
A study focused solely on adult criminal activities and paternity processes, conducted by DeAngelis and Wolf (2019), examines the effects of the choices made by low-income parents through the Milwaukee voucher school program in the United States. The effects found include a reduction of approximately 53% in drug convictions, 86% in property damage convictions, and 38% in paternity processes. The greatest beneficiaries tend to be male students with lower levels of academic performance.
There is also a comprehensive and robust meta-analysis by Hitt, McShane & Wolf (2018), which demonstrates that parents' choice based on criteria that are not immediately measurable has significant outcomes. Their research shows an increasing number of studies that prove that regardless of whether they have an impact on test scores, educational choice programs bring long-term non-cognitive benefits highly valued by parents. These include higher high school completion rates, increased access to higher education, and higher earnings.
Finally, in a meta-analysis on the effects of school competition when school choice policies are in place, Jabbar et al. (2019) state that there is evidence that school competition can have a greater influence on the performance of students from minority backgrounds. "This is consistent with advocates’ claims that choice may improve educational opportunities for marginalized students in particular, not just for those who choose, but also for those “left behind” in traditional public schools." (Jabbar et al., 2019, p. 24).
We are aware that in relation to surveys like ours, there is a valid concern about stated preferences. Such choices are indeed susceptible to social desirability bias; for example, parents may feel that they should be concerned about a particular school characteristic when, in reality, when they actually make choices and concrete decisions, they may not consider them. However, there are studies that examine the revealed preferences of parents (Lincove et al., 2016 and Trivitt & Wolf, 2011), observing the characteristics of schools where they actually enroll their children. These studies show that there appear to be relatively insignificant differences between stated preferences and those that are actually realized.
Certainly, the market can assist students and their families in making these choices. Some websites gather relevant information about schools, such as the programs offered, teacher qualifications, course completion rates, class sizes, testimonials from former students, among other information. In the United States, popular examples are Great Schools and Find Your Niche. In addition to examinations, private initiatives also offer certification. Private educational certification companies, which already operate in various countries, assist families in choosing schools that are suitable for their interests. Furthermore, there are companies like Niit Ltda, established in India in 1981, that offer curriculum development, training, and their own assessment system for businesses and individuals in several countries. Similar to certification agencies, the legitimacy of their accreditation is not granted by the state but by the market.
Furthermore, as our survey shows, parents' considerations when choosing a school go beyond exam results. They include school climate, safety, support for students with difficulties, school values, along with a range of other concerns.
Therefore, there is no ethical, rational, or pragmatic justification for maintaining public policies that prevent parents from making educational choices. Allowing them to use the resources allocated to their children in public schools at the educational provider of their choice is not an irrational or risky measure. There is evidence that parents have better criteria and more interest in making informed and sensible choices for the well-being of their children than a small group of supposedly enlightened bureaucrats, especially considering that we know they are constantly pressured by interest groups. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the results of choices would be worse than the current outcomes we have, particularly in the case of Brazil.
Regarding future perspectives, it is worth noting that pedagogically disruptive initiatives implemented outside the scope of traditional schools have efficiently met the prerequisites for building the knowledge necessary for the labor market and accessing higher education. Certainly, if there were broad educational freedom in Brazil, not only in terms of using resources that are currently exclusively allocated to public schools but also curriculum freedom, there would be much more diversity of schools, which would undoubtedly benefit students and the educational market as a whole.
Furthermore, there already exist technologies capable of meeting the demand of parents, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, for remedial lessons that help bridge the learning gaps for those who have fallen behind. Adaptive learning software, which utilizes artificial intelligence and gamification, caters to the individual learning needs of each student at their own pace while allowing the teacher to identify areas that require greater focus.
Lastly, the choice of a school for children and young people from low-income backgrounds is not limited to those who can use the resources allocated to them for use in public schools at a chosen private school, such as through voucher systems. In very poor areas, even those affected by conflicts like Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Liberia, a market of schools free from state interference offers affordable options to the poorest and serves this population more effectively than state-controlled schools (Tooley, 2020) and (Longfield & Tooley, 2017). As mentioned in the introduction of this analysis, extremely poor parents choose to pay for a low-cost private school instead of keeping their children in a public school that does not meet their criteria. Parents interviewed by Tooley reveal that one of the reasons for this is the ability to hold schools accountable. They know that these schools must be accountable to them and not to a distant state body where disinterested or incapable individuals have nothing to lose if the service provided is inadequate.
In this sense, although voucher systems represent progress in terms of the opportunities currently available in Brazil for low-income families to choose a school, we could go further. A major educational disruption would come from a market of schools not funded by the state and not necessarily endorsed by it, free from curricular impositions and regulations that prevent them from providing the services demanded by families. Unfortunately, the requirement for state certification of private schools and their teachers remains a limiting factor for educational advancement in Brazil.
A free educational market, where parents can make their choices and hold the contracted service accountable for its quality, is an essential part of advancing towards a prosperous future built and shared by educated and free individuals.