Many have been shocked by the World Bank’s estimate that it would take Brazil more than 260 years to reach the OECD average proficiency in reading and 75 years in mathematics. But as demonstrated by the discussion last week following the presentation of the World Development Report on Learning in São Paulo, Brazil’s education community is aware that the country lags far behind.

It knows that it needs to do a lot, and soon. The report concludes that the world is facing a “learning crisis”—even though more kids go to school, they are not learning nearly as much as they should.

But is this really a learning crisis? In commenting on the report, Ricardo Paes de Barros, chief economist of the Ayrton Senna Institute and a specialist in education policies in Brazil, challenged this conclusion. He argued instead that Brazil is facing a “copying crisis”: There is plenty of data about the performance of schools across municipalities in Brazil, with huge variations, but it’s clear that the poor performers don’t improve. Transferring experiences from one country to another can be difficult, but learning from the successes of your peers within the same country should be a lot easier.

The municipality of Sobral in the interior of the state of Ceara in Brazil’s Northeast region exemplifies broader lessons from a growing number of evaluations on what works in education:

  1. Teachers are key.
  2. School administrators have to make sure that teachers get the support and are held accountable for classroom results.
  3. Teachers and administrators need to be supported with an adequate curriculum.
  4. While politicians should not be educators, to sustain improvements and overcome the potential resistance to a more performance-oriented approach to school management, a broad political coalition around the goal of learning is necessary.

Read more about Brazil's education system by Martin Raiser at Brookings