Will more computers in classrooms determine the future of successful education systems, or more facilities for clean water and sanitation?

This was one of the questions faced by the leaders gathered at Riviera Maya, Mexico, for the World Economic Forum on Latin America, and there is no easy answer when it comes to addressing the challenge of education quality and access across the region.

Despite this, the benefits of taking on this challenge are transformative.

If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty.

Our ability to quantify the importance of education with ever greater precision over the last two decades has revealed the crucial role of schooling in social and economic development.

Knowledge and technical competence—the products of good education– leading to higher incomes and greater productivity, are vital to a nation’s growth.

Schooling also significantly reduces criminal activity, fosters more informed civic participation, and paves the way for a myriad of non-monetary societal benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, recent studies in the U.S. have shown that inequalities in social and economic outcomes, including unemployment, are greatly reduced when one accounts for educational achievement.

With this insight, it is imperative that Latin America leaves no stone unturned in pursuing ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ and skills development for all its citizens; a keystone of the UN’s proposed Sustainable Development Goals, and a major challenge, along with reversing the trend of increasing inequality, as identified by the World Economic Forum this year.

While 60 million people in Latin America moved out of poverty between 2002 and 2013, the statistics on education are worrying.

The number of out-of-school children increased slightly between 2000 and 2012 in Latin America and the Caribbean, from 3.6 million to 3.8 million children.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, barely 40 percent of students graduate from the secondary level across the region, and even those that graduate lag behind their counterparts across the world in primary and secondary stage performance. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which assess reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, placed the eight Latin American countries participating at the bottom of the tables for middle-income countries.

Further disparities must be addressed–namely the gap between the current capacity of educational systems and the skillsets required by the 21st century marketplace. Also, there is a pronounced productivity mismatch between South American workers and the developed world.

It seems clear that far-reaching changes are required to lower dropout rates, ensure universal educational access, and improve the quality of education, but finding the means to support necessary reforms is less certain. While the ‘percentage of people living in poverty on the continent fell from 42% to 26%’ during a decade of high growth, the IMF has placed Latin America at the bottom of the global economic growth forecast, jeopardizing the great strides made for social progress.

To enhance education systems at a time of slow economic growth, Latin America’s leaders must adopt two principles for reform.

First, in a climate of tight budgets, a new nexus between the public sector, the private sector and NGOS is required. Innovative partnerships that engage local communities in educational projects, and facilitate local ownership of sustainable projects, have a better chance of success.

Second, educational reforms must look to address underlying social and infrastructural barriers to literacy and educational achievement, such as poverty, gender equality, lack of security, access to water and sanitation. If attempts to reform curricula do not pay equal attention to public health best practices, the impacts will be limited.

For example, purely technological approaches have met with limited success.

Experts judged the One Laptop Per Child project for schoolchildren in Peru to have no effect on  ‘test scores in reading and math, no improvements in enrollment or attendance, no change in time spent on homework or motivation.’

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) are one tool that provides open access to educational content from some of the world’s leading universities, and have gained support for their potential to broaden access to education.

Though designed mainly in the U.S., two-thirds of users are from abroad, and Brazil and Mexico are in the top-ten list MOOC users.

However, recent research from El Colegio de Mexico shows that MOOCs are not yet coordinated with national curricula, are mainly in English, are of variable quality, and are consumed mainly by those who already have a college education.

Despite this, leading Latin American educational institutions such as São Paulo University (USP), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Tecnológico de Monterrey are seizing on the opportunity to expand the range of online courses for Spanish-speaking students.

Rotary’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects in Guatemala offer one model that recognizes the crucial connection between poverty, community and economic development, and education and literacy.

Rotary clubs have supported nine public elementary schools outside Guatemala City by laying new pipes for fresh water, improving quality of drinking water, and installing flush toilets and hand-washing stations for improved sanitation. This is combined with extensive hygiene and sanitation training for students, teachers, and school management, along with basic education and literacy components to change behaviors. This has proven an effective way to improve school attendance, as well as children’s health and school performance. A new pilot program will expand this method to Belize, Honduras, Kenya and India in January 2016.

Another initiative in Guatemala integrates the emphasis on public health with the educational potential of technology. In partnership with the Cooperative for Education, the program brings textbooks into classrooms in Guatemala through a sustainable rental program, builds new computer labs with high-quality curriculum in middle and secondary schools, and trains teachers on reading and writing pedagogy.

To reap the benefits of modern education, with widespread equity, good quality and universal participation, Latin America must adopt a holistic and strategic approach for the good of its future generations, the prosperity of its people, and the dynamism of its economy.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: John Hewko is General-Secretary of the humanitarian organization Rotary International

Image: Children walk past a mural at Morro Santa Marta, the first ‘pacified’ favela in Rio de Janeiro. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino.