Sobral’s “Education Miracle”: Lessons for Education Systems in the Global South

The poster at the back of the fourth grade classroom asked, “what is your dream?” On cutout paper clouds students had written “doctor”, “teacher”, “football star”, but one in particular caught my attention, “to build a house for my mother.” My throat choked, imagining how precarious this child’s home life must be. But his “cloud” also showed his faith in the power of his education to transform his life and that of his family.

For the power of education, this child was, luckily, in the right place: the municipality of Sobral, Brazil. Over a 25-year period, Sobral was itself transformed from one of the poorest places in Northeast Brazil to a municipality regularly hosting visits to schools rightly regarded as the best in Brazil, with the country’s highest student learning and graduation rates.

Like many others, our group had come to Sobral to try to understand what their education officials had done and how it could be replicated or adapted elsewhere.

Ours was a special group, brought together by the International Education Funders Group—40 different representatives of the world’s leading financiers of global education, including the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education to the Gates, Jacobs, Tinker, Zenex, Yidan Prize, Lemann, and Queen Rania Foundations, to name just a few.

These banks and philanthropies collectively spend over four billion dollars each year supporting education systems in the global south. We also had the benefit of education transformers such as Vicky Colbert, head of the Fundación Escuela Nueva and John Mugo, head of Zizi Afrique.

Over four days we visited Sobral’s schools, observed classrooms, and had unparalleled access to the politicians and education officials who had made Sobral’s “education miracle” happen.

Our initiation started with a no-holds-barred talk with the current mayor of Sobral, Ivo Gomes. Twenty-one years earlier, as municipal education secretary, he launched the Sobral “education miracle” with a total rethink of primary education.

After his brother, Cid Gomes was elected mayor in 1997 and set education as his top priority, the municipality began investing heavily in primary education, building and upgrading schools, equipping them better, and buying new learning materials. Sobral benefitted from the new federal program, FUNDEF, which aimed to reduce education funding disparities in Brazil through capitation-based funding. As elsewhere in Northeast Brazil, the capitation grants incentivized Sobral to establish a bus system so that all children from the largely rural district could attend school; as a result, between 1996 and 1999, enrollments grew from 9,000 to 17,000 students. FUNDEF also mandated that 60 percent of funding would go toward paying teacher salaries, which created fiscal space for transformation of the teaching force. Prior to FUNDEF, teacher hiring across the Northeast was highly politicized; there were no criteria or selection process for teachers and no job tenure. Teachers were often relatives of the mayor in office and changed with every change of administration.

Cid Gomes was intent on professionalizing the teaching force. One of his first reforms was to introduce technical criteria for teacher hiring and to lay off 1,000 existing teachers (Sobral municipal law 123, 1997).

After three years of these reforms and investments, with funding and technical support from the philanthropic Ayrton Senna Foundation, Sobral applied a test of second grade reading and found that 48 percent of second graders could not read words.

Now mayor himself, Ivo Gomes recalled his reaction at the time—and he did not mince words, “I said ‘What the **ck! After all this spending, the kids aren’t learning. What are we doing?” And so began his hunt for the true drivers of learning.

A collaboration with literacy expert Edgar Linhares over several years produced a “science of reading” that would orient Sobral’s first and second grade curricula and materials, its teacher training, and the establishment of a clear, overarching goal: All children should be able to read by the end of second grade.

What followed was an almost complete overhaul of who was in the schools, how they were supported, and what they did. The newly hired teachers were treated as a precious resource to be given intensive, ongoing training and support. School directors were seen as pivotal for system success and were subject to a careful, meritocratic selection process. Existing directors and teachers were welcome to apply for leadership positions, but the bar for skills, experience and personal qualities was set higher, and once selected, leadership training and support were abundant.

Above all, the explicit goal of universal literacy by the end of second grade translated into concrete performance expectations that governed the tenure of directors and teachers, as well as their salaries and promotions. Sobral became a high accountability system where, for the first time, school personnel were accountable for student learning.

In Sobral, learning measurement is a friend, not enemy, of school performance. Mid-year assessments track the progress of all students (identifying letters, constructing words, understanding sentences, reading fluently). Sobral’s schools are also highly attuned to external assessments, including the Ceara state assessment, SPAECE, the national assessment Prova Brazil, and the municipality also requested participation in PISA. In every school, we saw posters adorned with rocket ships and bullseye targets saying “get ready for SPAECE” with messages like “you can do it”, “I believe in my potential” and “with focus, you have the power to achieve whatever you want.” Anyone who walks these halls—students, parents, school personnel, or visitors—has no doubt about the system’s goals.

Teachers receive an unprecedented amount of support; the curriculum is translated into high quality books and materials built on the science of reading. “Scripts” and suggestions in the margins of textbooks guide teachers to the most effective ways to present and sequence content, engage students, and continuously assess students’ progress.  

Every school has several high-quality, experienced pedagogical coordinators who take charge of administrative reporting and help with student behavior and family issues, leaving teachers free to teach and directors free to manage their schools. Other pedagogical coordinators are content experts, able to give teachers feedback and guidance based on classroom observations. Directors can select their pedagogical coordinators from an approved pool and have much more autonomy, including direct control of school finances, than elsewhere in Brazil. Sobral’s modus operandi is similar to Finland’s: select carefully, treat teachers and directors as professionals, and show respect by giving them autonomy.

What emerged in Sobral was an upward spiral as all students began to believe they could learn, teachers were gratified by their students’ success, school directors became convinced that ambitious targets could be met, and system leaders could celebrate their schools’ progress. Sobral’s families and citizens also felt the gains and municipal elections sustained the same party in power for 25 years—with successive secretaries of education all advancing in the same direction.

Even a strong upward spiral of progress takes time to consolidate. When Brazil’s IDEB national index of school quality was launched in 2005, Sobral ranked 1,366 out of 5,700 municipalities. But by 2015, it ranked first, scoring an unprecedented 8.8 on the 10-point scale. In 2017, performance was even higher, scoring 9.1. When former Sobral education secretary Izolda Cela became vice governor of Ceara in 2015, the state put in place fiscal incentives and supports encouraging other municipalities to learn from Sobral's experience.  It is a further tribute to Sobral that the municipalities ranked #3 through 8 on the 2017 national quality index were all from Ceara. 

Mayor Ivo Gomes, the architect of Sobral’s reforms, with study tour participants, and Izolda Cela, former Sobral education secretary, former Governor of Ceara and current Executive Secretary of Brazil’s federal Ministry of Education.

School posters “Reading gives wings to your imagination”—tracking literacy progress (beginner; reads syllables; reads words; reads sentences; reads a text; reads a text fluently) with the number of students in each grade in each category.

School posters: “Get ready for SPAECE!”

Scripted teachers’ guides
Note: The Lemann Foundation has played an important role in helping other municipalities learn from the Sobral experience. It now maintains a leadership center in Sobral, where it regularly organizes “immersion visits” such as ours. The agenda, logistics, and expert support for our visit was superb, thanks to dynamic President Dennis Mizne, director Anna Penido, and experts Carla Vila and Joao Queresma.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.