To Get Student Learning Back on Track, Commit to Building the Foundations: Lessons from Peru

This series reviews major policy reforms and interventions to showcase real-life examples of the ‘five actions to accelerate progress in learning’ identified by Pritchett, Newman & Silberstein (2022). In this first blog, I discuss the reforms implemented in Peru in 2012-15 to respond to low learning levels in a distinct geopolitical context, aligning to the first action of ‘commit to universal, early foundational learning’ under the five actions.


Image of Rastee Chaudhry

Rastee Chaudhry

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford


After the turn of the century, Peru experienced a significant expansion in access to education, resulting in rising enrolment figures. However, although more children were in school, students in school were not learning.

The real shock to the education space came when the results from the globally recognised Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 were released: Peru ranked last amongst all 65 participating countries (Chen at al., 2019). Education suddenly came to the forefront of national public discourse, and Peruvians quickly began to lose faith in their education system.

To get back on course, Peru’s newly appointed Minister of Education launched a holistic reform of the education system that was rooted in a deep political commitment to learning from the highest levels of leadership and a societal commitment based on the ‘national embarrassment’ from the PISA results (Chen at al., 2019). These reforms were possible and successful because the entire system was committed to building foundations: everyone had a common cause and was open to change if it meant better learning outcomes for the country.

What happened?

Peru is a middle-income country that has been growing steadily since the turn of the century (Saavedra & Gutierrez, 2020). This economic growth led to significant expansion in access to education, resulting in rising school enrolment. Although a greater number of children were now attending school, spending on schooling was not increasing at the same rate, and the overall quality of learning was falling, particularly in an inequitable manner. Per-pupil spending was falling, and teacher salaries were plummeting. While other countries in Latin America were spending 4 percent to 6 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, Peru was spending less than 3 percent; and by 2010, teacher salaries had fallen in real terms to a third of what they were in the early 1970s (Chen et al., 2019).

Although these problems had been building over time, the real shock to the education space and impetus for change came when the results from the globally recognised Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 were released: Peru ranked last amongst all 65 countries tested, which was a huge wake-up call for Peruvians (Chen at al., 2019).

Instead of sweeping the PISA results under the rug, the governmental leadership consciously chose to accept the results and commit to improving learning for all. Fortuitously, Peru had just brought on board a new Minister of Education: Jaime Saavedra, a global education expert who was deeply motivated to improve education in Peru. Saavedra launched a holistic reform of the education system at a time when there was deep commitment to learning both from the highest levels of political leadership and from society at large, stemming from the ‘national embarrassment’ caused by the PISA results (Chen at al., 2019). Saavedra’s reform to promote learning was centred around four pillars: revalourising the teaching profession, emphasising and supporting learning, improving management, and addressing infrastructure gaps (Saavedra & Gutierrez, 2020).

Revalorising the teaching profession

When Saavedra became Minister of Education, he realised that the teaching profession was being hurt by negative public perceptions, low salaries, and a lack of motivation, all of which resulted in harmful implications for student learning. Firstly, teaching was widely seen as a ‘poor career choice’ and a profession for those who would not otherwise be successful in the labour market (Saavedra & Gutierrez, 2020). Secondly, teachers were being paid low salaries, which further compounded the belief that the role of teachers was not particularly meaningful. Along with other factors such as a lack of support from management, these led to low motivation on part of teachers, which ultimately resulted in poor teaching and thus lower learning for students.

Realising that their commitment to improving learning meant addressing system inputs, of which teaching was a major component, the Ministry of Education began an ambitious revalourisation of the teaching profession. Efforts were taken to ensure teachers were better paid, better motivated, and better equipped to support student learning (Chen et al., 2019). In particular, salary increments were offered to teachers who performed well on a standardised teaching exam (admittedly not the best measure of capability but a step in the right direction), coaching programmes were introduced for teachers, and classroom teaching was recentred on learning.

Emphasising and supporting learning

The PISA assessments revealed the low learning levels of Peru’s children. More than that, they showed that Peru had the lowest learning levels (measured across mathematics, reading, and science) among the 65 countries that participated in the survey. The Ministry of Education worked hard to rectify this low learning situation.

Its commitment to learning led to a three-pronged approach to directly support learning (Chen et al., 2019). Firstly, the curriculum was simplified to emphasise foundations and learning. Secondly, instructional materials for teachers were developed to enable them to focus upon learning (these included lesson plans and other support material). Lastly, more teaching time was given to secondary school students, who had previously been attending school for half a day as capacity constraints meant schools were running on a double-shift basis. Collectively, these reforms worked towards supporting and meeting the government’s commitment to learning.

Improving management

Another key input that impacts student learning is the management of education systems, both at the school level and at the departmental/ministerial level.

To address the first level, the Ministry revisited its entire school principal cadre to ensure that hiring was meritocratic, that quality principals were being selected, and that principals were adequately supported so they could in turn support teaching and learning in schools (Saavedra & Gutierrez, 2020). This involved making the recruitment and selection of principals transparent by selecting principals through a standardised examination, thereby removing the corrupt selection practices that were the status quo. Principals were also provided with coaching and training to enable them to effectively support teaching and learning in their schools.

To address the second level, Saavedra changed approximately 55 of the top 60 bureacrats to ensure management and decisionmakers in the Ministry were appropriately qualified and committed to improving learning (Chen et al., 2019). He was able to do so due to political commitment to learning from top leadership, which created a supportive space and limited opposition to reforms that would address the learning crisis. This resulted in a school management system that was better qualified, more capable, and most importantly committed to improving learning.

Addressing infrastructure gaps

As student enrolment had expanded rapidly and school financing had not increased to match it, infrastructure gaps had widened in an inequitable manner (Chen et al., 2019). Issues with facilities, such as non-functional toilets or lack of running water, made it difficult for students to focus on learning and for teachers to teach effectively.

The Ministry realised that infrastructure gaps distracted from learning and thus embarked upon a mission to ensure all schools had satisfactory basic infrastructure (Saavedra & Gutierrez, 2020). This meant that efforts were taken to ensure that all schools had running water and functional toilets, and that buildings that were not ‘falling apart’ (Chen et al., 2019). This created an environment where teachers and students were able to focus on teaching and learning respectively without external distractions, thereby creating a learning environment that supported this commitment to learning.

What can we learn?

Peru’s strong commitment to learning from the highest levels of leadership and from society at large significantly changed its public education landscape. Over the 3-year PISA assessment cycle from 2012 to 2015, Peru boasted the fourth largest improvement in learning outcomes globally and the largest improvement in Latin America (Chen et al., 2019). As measured by PISA, Peru’s mathematics scores increased by 5 percent, reading scores by 4 percent, and science scores by 6 percent (while the OECD average for math and reading both fell by 1 percent and science had fallen by 2 percent). Further, Peru increased its spending on education significantly from 2.9 percent of GDP in 2012 to 4.0 percent of GDP in 2015 (Chen et al., 2019). The education system had also seen fundamental changes toward a meritocratic and capable school management and teacher cadre.

This case shows the impact that is possible if a system effectively commits to foundational learning. Peru’s commitment resulted in an in-depth reflection on the status quo, which led to a series of reforms that targeted different elements of the education system. Still, it is important to recognise that at the time of Peru’s PISA shock, the education system was already on an upwards trend in the literacy level of their school-going population (Le Nestour et al., 2021). This trend, however, doesn’t discount the fact that Peru was still performing poorly on its PISA scores in comparison to other countries and then worked to dramatically improve its scores. Reform was possible and successful because the entire system was committed to building foundations: a critical mass of education system actors had a common cause and were open to change if it meant better learning outcomes for the country.

Policy implications

The case of Peru demonstrates the impact that can be made if a system collectively commits to foundational learning. This case yields the following policy implications:

  • Commit to foundational learning. Peru had rapidly expanded access to education and was initially doing little else to support learning. This led to huge learning gaps and to many students in schools not successfully mastering foundational learning. Peru began to rectify the situation by committing wholeheartedly to building learning foundations for all children.
  • Don’t be afraid of big changes. As a result of strong commitment to learning, the Minister of Education was able to make significant changes to the workforce: he replaced most of the highest-ranking staff in the Ministry and significantly changed principal and teacher selection. These shifts can be unpopular and difficult to implement, but attaining commitment from all levels and being transparent about the reasons driving the decisions can balance the risk.
  • No step is too small. When Peru was shifting towards a meritocratic selection process for teachers and school principals, it did so via the use of examinations—which Saavedra himself admitted was not the best way to assess capability. That said, it was the most realistic and implementable option for Peru at the time, so it was still a step in the right direction.


Chen, L.K., Child, F., Dorn, E. & Morales, R. 2019. An interview with former Peruvian Minister of Education Jaime Saavedra. McKinsey & Company: Our Insights (Education). Available at

Le Nestour, A., Moscoviz, L. & Sandefur, J. 2021. The long-term decline of school quality in the developing world. Center for Global Development: Consultation Draft. Available at

Saavedra J., Gutierrez M. 2020. Peru: A Wholesale Reform Fuelled by an Obsession with Learning and Equity. In: Reimers F. (eds) Audacious Education Purposes. Springer, Cham. Available at

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