It is possible to transform education systems: What we learned in Sobral, Brazil

Between 2000 and 2004, students in Sobral, Brazil made remarkable progress in foundational learning, which has been sustained over two decades and is lauded as a positive outlier in a world mired by a global learning crisis. Here's how it happened and what we can learn from Sobral's experience.

November 16, 2023 by Ramya Vivekanandan, GPE Secretariat, and Jo Bourne, GPE Secretariat
5 minutes read
Students in a classroom. Credit: Centro Lemann
Students in a classroom.
Credit: Centro Lemann

Since 2021, GPE has been on a journey of supporting the transformation of education in partner countries. This journey is not always easy.

As a partnership, we are learning together what education system transformation means. Partner countries are coalescing around a priority reform (in many cases focusing on foundational learning), building a shared sense of purpose and aligning different parts of the education system towards the attainment of that core goal.

This is a new approach. We don’t yet have much tangible knowledge of how such a shift happens in the education systems of lower-income countries. Concepts and literature on system transformation are often esoteric and theoretical. There is little in the way of concrete examples and lived experience.

The journey of Sobral

But last week in Brazil, we had the unique opportunity to learn and live education change in concrete terms. At the invitation of partners from the philanthropic community, GPE took part in a 4-day immersive visit to learn from the experience of Sobral, a municipality of 200,000 people in the northeastern state of Ceará.

Between 2000 and 2004, students in Sobral made remarkable progress in foundational learning (particularly literacy in the early grades), which has been sustained over two decades and is lauded as a positive outlier in a world mired by a global learning crisis.


Credit: Ramya Vivekanandan
Ramya Vivekanandan

Organized by the Centro Lemann and the International Education Funders Group (IEFG), in partnership with FCDO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Zenex Foundation, the visit brought together over 40 leaders from philanthropy and organizations such as GPE.

Over four days, we visited Sobral’s districts and schools (both rural and urban), exchanged with political leaders (including the mayor, Secretary of Education and Brazil’s Deputy Minister of Education) and reflected as a group on what it means to transform an education system in favor of foundational learning.

The story of Sobral’s transformation is nothing short of extraordinary. Back in 2000, the municipality was marked by poverty and low education results. Eight out of 10 kids were illiterate. This served as a wake-up call for the political leadership, which decided to place a laser focus on improving foundational literacy.

By 2004, an assessment showed that over 91% of 2nd graders could read with ease. And by 2017, Sobral ranked first in Brazil in both primary and secondary education.

Family picture with members of the mission in front of Centro Lemann. Credit: Centro Lemann
Family picture with members of the mission in front of Centro Lemann.
Centro Lemann

A rapid and extraordinary change in learning results

How did such a shift happen? We learned during our visit that much of the journey was about building a shared sense of purpose.

Regardless of whom we spoke to, from the mayor to school leaders to teachers, parents and students, the message was clear: being literate by age 7 is a non-negotiable, and every child is supported to make progress, without exception.

Leadership is a big part of the equation. Sustained political commitment to education at municipal, state and federal levels has scaffolded Sobral’s journey. At the school level, principals and other leaders benefit from regular pedagogical and administrative support.

Most importantly, all elements of the system are aligned to support what happens in the classroom.

We visited the Escola de Tempo Integral Maria de Lourdes Vasconcelos in the rural district of Aracatiaçu and Escola Emílio Sendim in the urban center of Sobral. At both, we saw that good pedagogy, structured teaching, age-appropriate materials and regular assessment (both formative and summative) drive the attainment of literacy and other foundational learning outcomes.

Teachers have monthly training and weekly planning days, with substitute teachers available to ensure learning continues. There is also a strong focus on inclusion, including visible accommodations and support for children with disabilities, underscoring the passion and determination not to leave anyone behind.

The principal of Escola Emílio Sendim with some of the teaching and learning materials used in the school. Credit: Ramya Vivekanandan
The principal of Escola Emílio Sendim with some of the teaching and learning materials used in the school.
Ramya Vivekanandan

Transformation is possible

Sobral’s journey resonates deeply with GPE’s vision of education system transformation.

The main elements of the Sobral story – focus on a core priority, strong leadership, building a shared vision and commitment, aligning the system around that vision and using resources efficiently – echo the key components of the GPE model.

More than anything, this experience reaffirmed what is possible. On the first day of our visit, Mayor Ivo Gomes told us that what Sobral has done, any place can do.

While context of course matters and the circumstances that we witnessed may be different elsewhere, we learned how change is happening in places as diverse as Colombia and Kenya, echoing elements of the Sobral experience.

What’s most encouraging is that there’s nothing revolutionary about Sobral’s journey. It’s not simple either, but, as we were told time and again in Sobral, change is possible if we put our hearts and minds to it. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote: “We are transformative beings, not beings of accommodation.”

Foundations can support transformation

This visit was a positive milestone in GPE’s engagement with private foundations that represent an increasingly active constituency in the partnership.

The IEFG, as a network of about 100 private philanthropic foundations with a focus on education, has the unique ability to convene its members around collaborative models and opportunities such as this immersion in Sobral. The focus on foundational learning was timely given that GPE has joined the Global Coalition for Foundational Learning.

The visit also illuminated how private foundations are increasingly interested in supporting systems change.

Centro Lemann, through its work in Sobral and elsewhere in Brazil, exemplifies this. We look forward to working with them and other partners to help spread the message: it is possible to transform education systems.

Sobral’s ‘literacy revolution’ makes this abundantly clear. As GPE, we’re more committed than ever to supporting this journey.

For an inspiring look at Sobral’s educational transformation journey, please watch “Building Tomorrows (Construindo Amanhas)”, a documentary film by the Center on Reinventing Public Education that was premiered during our time in Sobral.


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