Country Listing

Brazil Table of Contents



As in other areas of social life, education in Brazil is marked by great inequalities, with a highly developed university system at one extreme and widespread illiteracy at the other. Despite considerable progress in coverage, serious problems of quality remain. In 1995 the federal government was spending almost twice as much on the universities as on basic education, which is the primary responsibility of states and municipalities. Local governments often paid teachers wages that were well below the legal minimum.

In 1990 there were 37.6 million students, as compared with 10 million in 1964. Of the 1990 total, 3.9 million students were in preschool, 29.4 million in elementary school, 3.7 million in secondary school, and 1.7 million in university. Despite this progress, less than 40 percent of the high school-age population was enrolled in school.

Because of the economic and social changes that have occurred in Brazil in recent decades, parents now place high value on education for their children. Availability of schools has become an important factor in deciding where to live and how to make a living, even in how many children to have.


In 1990 it was estimated that 81 percent of the total population above age fifteen was literate, or 19 percent illiterate (based on the inability to sign one's own name). The level of functional illiteracy--that is, the inability to read newspapers and write letters--was not measured but was certainly much higher (an estimated 60 percent). As with most social indicators, illiteracy is highest in rural areas of the Northeast and North, where the figures are comparable to those in Africa, and lowest in urban areas of the Southeast and South, where the figures are comparable with those in the developed world. For example, southern towns had an adult illiteracy rate of only 10 percent in 1991, while the rate for children between the ages of eleven and fourteen was only 3 percent.

Literacy is strongly associated with income. When the population is divided into five income strata, illiteracy is ten times greater in the stratum with the lowest income. The illiteracy rate rises by age- group. The 1991 census also showed a strong racial gradient, with illiteracy levels of 11.6 percent among whites, 27.4 percent among mulattoes, and 29.9 percent among blacks. Differences by gender were not strong. Because of disappointing results when the federal government undertook a nationwide adult literacy campaign, the Brazilian Literacy Movement (Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização--Mobral), the emphasis shifted in the 1960s and 1970s to reaching children through the school system.

Data as of April 1997