The interdependence of education in growth economies: Solving Brazil’s education paradox


Feb 15, 2022

This is the first in a two-part blog series about the role of innovation in improving Brazil’s education system. The series is funded in part by Mind Lab.

Most growth economies have ministries or departments that focus on important components of the economy, like education, healthcare, transportation, and so on. The structure and complexity of these ministries may differ from one country to another, but the goal is often the same: to improve standards of that particular component in the country. 

Decentralizing and modularizing different components of the economy so experts can work on the things they’re good at makes sense on paper. However, unless certain conditions are met, a more integrated approach may prove a better model. Consider the case of education in Brazil.

Brazil’s education paradox

Brazil’s education system is a paradox.

The country spends more than six percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, a whole two percentage points more than it’s Latin American neighbors. Yet Brazil’s learning outcomes are much lower than its Latin American peers

And things don’t seem to be improving. Since 2009, Brazil’s test scores for reading, mathematics, and science have not increased much especially when compared with the OECD average. 

Brazil’s inability to capitalize on its education expenditure has resulted in a decline in productivity since 1990. This decline impacts economic growth and the livelihood of Brazilians. Today, around 55% of Brazilians earn below the minimum wage. 

Brazil’s education, employment, and subsequent economic woes are not for lack of effort. In the country’s constitution, education is free at all levels. And over the past few decades, Brazil has increased enrolment in early childhood, primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Despite this increase, the education system still struggles to produce quality results.

Assessing Brazil’s education system through the lens of innovation theories can provide some insight as to why this paradox exists, and how to solve it. 

Insights from Modularity Theory: Why Brazil’s education paradox exists

Modularity Theory is a framework for understanding how to piece together different elements of a system in order to achieve different goals. A system can be modular when there are no unpredictable interfaces between the elements in it. In other words, different elements of the system fit and work together in crisp and well-understood ways. In such systems, the connecting interfaces between elements are specifiable, verifiable, and predictable, enabling different elements to plug-and-play.

In contrast, an interdependent system is one where a change to one element in the system affects or necessitates a change to the entire system. Interdependent systems are required when the performance of a product or service isn’t yet “good enough” for the majority of users.

For example, in the infancy of the mainframe computing industry, mainstream customers were not satisfied with the functionality and reliability of the products on the market. In addition, there were no predefined standards that connected one component to another–operating system to hardware design, for instance. 

As a result, most companies who wanted to compete couldn’t simply choose to design or manufacture just one or two components. In essence, “you could not have existed as an independent supplier of operating systems, core memory, or logic circuitry to the mainframe industry because these key subsystems had to be interdependently and iteratively designed…”

The cycle repeated itself with minicomputers and personal computers. The companies that dominated those industries at their infancy–Digital Equipment Corporation for minicomputers and Apple for personal computers–developed proprietary and interdependent architectures that were designed to maximize performance. 

This wasn’t simply a computer industry phenomenon however. The same thing happened in the automobile industry. Ford and General Motors rose to the top because they developed integrated systems. Ford for instance, built and managed steel mills, iron ore mines, glass and paint factories, and even invested in distribution to get the Model T car to mainstream customers. Similarly, RCA, AT&T, Standard Oil, and US Steel dominated their industries at the same stage because they developed integrated businesses. (Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth). 

According to an OECD report on the Brazilian Education System, “Brazil has a complex governance structure, reflecting in part its size and diversity… Brazil still lacks a national system that clearly outlines and harmonizes the roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government, laying out the ways in which they should work together to deliver education policy… This lack of coordination often leads to overlap or duplication of work, inefficiencies, and gaps in education provision.” (emphasis added)

In essence, Brazil has divided its education system into different components, and authorities in different levels of government manage unique aspects of the system without a clearly defined collaboration interface. Municipalities, for instance, are responsible for early childhood and primary education, while the states are responsible for secondary education


The modular design of Brazil’s education system is a major contributor to its education paradox. 

Understandably, Brazil is a complex and multi-layered democratic country, not a company. As a result, it can’t simply change its education strategy overnight. In fact, the country has been debating the need for a national education system for several years, at least since 2014.

In an upcoming piece, I’ll describe how understanding the push versus pull strategy can can help improve the quality of Brazil’s education system.

Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.