Indeed, the weakness of its K-12 educational system is the primary reason why Brazil is now facing a major shortage of skilled workers. The same problem has arisen in Panama, a country that is booming despite the poor quality of its schools.

Thankfully, the campaign for education reform is gaining steam across Latin America. “In country after country,” Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, managing director of Blue Star Strategies, observed recently, “Latin American businesses are teaming up with NGOs and governments to deliver better educational outcomes.”

He listed several examples. In Brazil, the continent’s biggest media conglomerate is funding a program that offers “government-accredited, complete elementary education through free television programming and accompanying materials such as books and DVDs.” In Mexico, a nonprofit organization helped finance a 2012 documentary highlighting the obstacles to a better Mexican education system. The film, which paints a damning portrait of the Mexican national teachers’ union and its leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, generated enormous buzz in Mexico, sparking a passionate debate and “outdrawing Oscar-winning features,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, the private sector is expanding Internet access via a massive laptop initiative in Nicaragua, and energy companies are sponsoring scholarships and other educational programs in Colombia.

Even those Latin American and Caribbean countries that ranked highest in the World Economic Forum survey are working hard to bolster their schools. Take my native Costa Rica. “In 2010,” reports the Legatum Institute, “over 80 percent of respondents expressed both satisfaction with their local educational institutions and believed that Costa Rican children have sufficient opportunities to learn and grow every day.” Yet the country still needs far more of its students to complete high school and some form of college: “The typical Costa Rican worker has undertaken just under a year of both secondary and tertiary education.” Since 2006, Costa Rica has used a conditional cash-transfer program (similar to Brazil’s Bolsa Família and Mexico’s Oportunidades) to reduce its high-school dropout rate.

Such programs should be expanded wherever possible. Latin America must also place a stronger emphasis on math and science education, given its innovation deficit, its need to create more technology-based jobs, and its need to keep up with the emerging economies of Asia. Finally, it must harness the current momentum and encourage the private sector to become more involved in educational initiatives (such as scholarship and Internet programs).

If Latin American countries take these steps, they will greatly enhance their ability to compete in a 21st-century global economy.

(Read this article in Spanish here.)