Evaluating the Impact of the Brazilian Public School Math Olympics on the Quality of Education
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Evaluating the Impact of the Brazilian Public School Math Olympics on the Quality of Education

The current debate on education in Latin America centers on the need to raise the quality of education offered and to universalize school attendance. While many Latin American countries have achieved almost universal school attendance among children from 7 to 14 years of age, much remains to be done in terms of older and younger groups (López-Calva and Lustig 2010). With respect to educational quality, international test score results show that Latin American students tend to perform very badly in comparison with students in other countries. Figure 1, for example, compares average math test scores in several Latin American countries with those in high-scoring countries and with the OECD average, using the results of the latest (2009) PISA international evaluation. The figure shows quite clearly that the relative performance of Latin American students is dismal, even if one takes into account that the improvements in results over time in Brazil and Chile were among the greatest in this PISA.

Hanushek and Woessmann (2009) examines the importance of educational quality, measured by cognitive tests, for growth in various regions. The authors' estimated effects of cognitive skills are smaller in the Latin American subsample than in subsamples from other regions, but they are still important and statistically significant. Various government educational policies, along with initiatives from civil society and business, are aimed at addressing the questions of attainment and quality, but particular emphasis [End Page 143] has been given to improving the quality of the education offered by public schools in Latin American countries (see Glewwe and Kremer 2006 for a review). This paper contributes to this literature by estimating the impact and analyzing the cost-benefit relationship of a specific educational program, the Brazilian Public School Math Olympics (OBMEP), a program aimed at encouraging better mathematics teaching and learning in Brazil.

Figure 1. Average Scores on the PISA 2009 Mathematics Test
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Figure 1.

Average Scores on the PISA 2009 Mathematics Test

Math olympics can be found in several countries around the world. One of the oldest programs is the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), which has run since 1959 and includes both public and private schools. In 2011, 101 countries took part in the IMO, with teams of around six participants (participants are high school students 19 years of age or less). The event is held in a different country every year. The main goal of the IMO is to identify and recognize the top young mathematicians in the world. It is expected that in the process of selecting their national teams, participating countries stimulate interest in mathematics in their country.

The United States and Colombia both conduct national math olympics, and both declare that the main objective of the competition is to bolster educational quality in general. In the United States, competitions are held for all school grades, and in Colombia, as in Brazil, participation is open to students in secondary school or above. The math olympics in other countries are open to all schools, both public and private.1 [End Page 144]

Table 1. Schools and Students Participating in the OBMEP, First Phase
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Table 1.

Schools and Students Participating in the OBMEP, First Phase

In Brazil there are two math olympics, run by the federal government. Brazilian Mathematics Olympics (OBM) includes public and private schools, and the Public School Math Olympics program restricts its focus to public schools. The latter, which is the focus of this study, has been promoted yearly since 2005 by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology in partnership with the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) and the Brazilian Mathematical Society (SBM); the last two institutions are responsible for its academic direction. Students from secondary and high school can participate in the program.2

The stated objectives of the OBMEP are to stimulate and promote the study of mathematics among public school students; to contribute to the quality of basic education; to identify talented young people and encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology; to encourage the professional improvement of public school teachers; to...