The ongoing protests by Chilean university students, which began last year, are partly a sign of progress and rising expectations, partly a sign of frustration with tuition costs and economic inequality, and partly a sign of broader social unrest. The protests have focused attention on certain problems that are unique to Chile, and other problems that are common across Latin America. But they are largely a distraction from the region’s biggest educational challenge: improving its primary and secondary schools.

Indeed, for all the excitement over the relatively strong performance of Latin America’s economies since 2002, the persistently weak performance of its education systems continues to drag down the region’s overall competitiveness.

In the World Economic Forum’s latest executive-opinion survey (conducted for the Global Competitiveness Report), which spanned 142 countries and territories, only two Latin American/Caribbean nations (Barbados and Costa Rica) ranked in the top 30 for the quality of their primary-education systems, and only eight (Barbados, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Uruguay, Belize, and Colombia) ranked in the top 80. Meanwhile, the region accounted for nearly half of the bottom 30 nations.

The results were similar when executives rated the caliber of their countries’ overall educational systems. Once again, only two Latin American/Caribbean nations (the same two, Barbados and Costa Rica) cracked the top 30, and only six placed in the top 80. But 16 of the bottom 40 countries were from Latin America or the Caribbean, as were fully half of the bottom 20 nations.

We should also note that the region’s two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, both received low marks. For primary education, Brazil ranked 124th and Mexico 121st. For overall educational quality, Brazil ranked 115th and Mexico 107th. For math and science education, Brazil ranked 127th and Mexico 126th. (Chile’s rankings in those categories were 123rd, 87th, and 124th, respectively.)

Bear in mind that Brazil and Mexico have achieved great success with cash-transfer programs designed to reward parents for keeping their children in school and taking them for regular health checkups. The main Brazilian program is known as Bolsa Família; its Mexican counterpart is Oportunidades (it was originally called Progresa). And yet both countries are still struggling mightily to boost educational outcomes.

The current Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, has expanded Bolsa Família, as did her predecessor, Lula da Silva. She has also launched a scholarship program called Science Without Borders to help more Brazilians pursue STEM studies at foreign universities. This program is “both welcome and much needed,” writes Rutgers political scientist Eduardo Gómez.

But before aspiring to build a world-renowned, technically sophisticated workforce, perhaps President Rousseff should invest more in her primary and secondary schools, where the future of Brazil’s scientific and technological progress truly resides.