Education in Chile

There’s a little bit of debate going on here and here about education in Chile. Rodolfo and I talk about this a lot, and although I feel that education is better where I am from (meaning the specific part of the Bay Area where I grew up, not the entire US), I don’t have the facts or side to side comparison of skills to back that up. I also realize that education is cultural, so although there might be things that I see as totally lacking in Chilean high school graduates – read those two posts to get an idea of what – I’m somewhat comparing apples and oranges. Yes, globalization is an important factor, but most Chileans will be interacting and looking for jobs within the Chilean marketplace in the near future, as opposed to striking out into another culture.

Anyway, I’m not going to talk about all that. I very briefly touched on education once before, and I want to further explain my point. In Chile, as in much of the US, if you can afford it, you send your kids to private school. With a few notable exceptions – Instituto Nacional for boys and Liceo Uno for girls spring to mind – public schools here aren’t very good. I don’t know how public schools in the wealthier areas compare to those in the poorer areas, since I don’t know anyone who lives in a wealthier area who has a child in anything but private school! I know in the area where I grew up, the public schools are great, in large part because high incomes = lots of tax money going to public education, but I really have no clue whether the same holds true here or to what extent.
Now, I’m not anti-private school. I went to one for 7 years in grades 6-12, loved it, and would send my children there in a heartbeat if we were living in the area. That said, my parents sent me to private school because I was smart but shy, and a teacher at my public elementary school recommended that my parents look into a place that would foster both my intelligence and my social skills. Their motivation was not to send me to a “name brand” school. I’m not denying that there isn’t a certain cache associated with my high school – both for its programs and for its price tag (although about 80% of the student body receives some kind of financial aid, according to the school’s statistics). But not to the extent that I’ve seen in Santiago.

Here, “what high school did you go to?” is one of the first questions people ask each other when introduced. People put their high schools on their resumes, something that would never happen in the US mainly because we move around far more than Chileans but also because nobody cares what you did when you were 14. Here, however, your high school says not only how smart you probably are but also where you’re from in Santiago and what your socioeconomic background is.

There’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that. One thing I’ve realized thanks to Chile having such an obvious and well-defined class structure is that just because class divisions in the US may be less clear doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Of course we all have clues as to our background, and part of everyone’s background is economic lifestyle.

The thing I still can’t quite make my peace with is the direct connection between decent schools and wealth. If I were educating my kids in Chile, I would want them to have a) the best education possible and b) at least part of that education in English. That means that, if I could afford it, I would be looking at schools like The Grange, Santiago College, Nido de Aguilas (don’t let the Spanish name fool you, it’s where all the American embassy kids go) among others. I’m sure they offer a good academic environment, and I know people from all of those schools who have great English – and I’m not picking on them in particular, they’re just some of the best-known “names” when it comes to schools. But by virtue of their cost, they say something about students and alums that’s obvious to any Chilean. I am someone important, I have money, I am going places. And of course, they’re pretty homogenous. These schools are places where it’s not a question of whether or not you have a nana but whether you have just the one or two or even three. Again, I’m not anti-nana, and I think parents can offer their kids a nice lifestyle and at the same time teach them that not everyone lives the same way. But, on a day-to-day basis, students are seeing one type of reality, and in my view they’re missing out on an element of social education.

Again, I’m not holding up my hometown as the perfect example. My private school may have had people from varying backgrounds, but even the least wealthy came from families where their parents care about their education – and that’s not the case for everyone. Public schools in my area may have a wider cross-section of students, but we’re still talking about a wider cross-section of what is a majority upper-middle class area. It’s not like I’m claiming them to be some utopic mix of Beverly Hills and the slums of India, everyone learning about his fellow man’s circumstances. But I do think it’s a little bit more of a holistic educational experience in terms of seeing different lifestyles than in your average uptown school in Santiago.

I would love to see top schools in Santiago offer need-based aid to students who qualify academically. To be fair, I don’t know if any currently do, but if so then I don’t think I’m the only one who’s in the dark, since most people still see these schools as luxuries only a tiny percentage of the population can hope to afford. Right now, I still see education as one of the main reasons that I think we’ll move back to the US before having kids. And although of course there’s part of me that just wants to move at some point and be back on my home turf, I wouldn’t complain if the Chilean education system wanted to reinvent itself enough in the next few years that the choice got a little harder.

15 Responses to “Education in Chile”

  1. Vinko says:

    Interesting post. I'm right in the middle of the exact situation that you describe. I have two boys 9 and 15 and back in the states they where in a great public school system. One that we were sure would be able to give them the education that they need. Now we're here in Chile and we're having a very difficult time finding a school which is both affordable and up to pare with the education that we expect our kids to receive and on top it all off, they know next to no Spanish.
    We have been searching for schools that can accommodate our kids needs and at the same time being affordable enough to pay for it. We've learned quickly that "Intensive English" isn't anything more that the Schools attempt to pad their resume. We're in a very difficult situation when it comes to education here in Chile.
    Thank god, our two younger girls aren't School age yet, what with all the incorporation fees, this fee, that fee, we'd be broke and have no other choice but to return to the US.

  2. Amanda says:

    I am all about public schools! But not in Chile… it just isn't possible. And it's a shame.

  3. Andrea says:

    I once asked Gonzalo what was needed to make sure our kids would even get accepted to an English speaking school (i.e. the ones you noted) and he said "money." I asked how that could be IT…do we need recommendations, do we need to do a wait list, does it help to have siblings already there….no, no and no.
    I doubt we'll ever see need-based financial assistance at these schools. There's a reason why it's all about the Benjamins and it's to promote the class structure and to make sure that the upper tiers marry one another.
    In fact, not at all so different from the Bay Area.

  4. Emily says:

    Vinko, all I can say is good luck!

    dre, how do you see it as being similar to the Bay Area? Just that there are a lot of people there who have a lot of money, and those people tend to mix with each other rather than mixing with people of other income levels? As far as financial aid goes, I know a lot of (if not most or all) Bay Area private schools offer need-based aid, some with a stated mission of wanting to make good education accessible to deserving students regardless of income-level, which of course then means you are to some extent decreasing class boundaries. I think that's a HUGE and very important difference from what I've seen here in Santiago. I'm really interested to hear your perspective since we're both from the same place but had different high school experiences!

  5. KM says:

    This is def a controversial issue which people have strong feelings about so kudos for writing about it. i think it's important. I have some thoughts (oh and ps disclaimer: i'm pretty down on the US education system to be honest) 1) perhaps US private schools are + diverse simply because the US is + diverse than Chile, not because US private schools try so hard to promote diversity (also are we talking economic diversity or cultural/ethnic?). 2) I'm sure private schools in the US have lots of scholarships but I bet that the reality is that most lower class families never hear about the availability of these scholarships (and i'd bet most middle/upper middle class kids don't qualify for them…not all but MOST) and i bet there's little outreach to get the lower classes to know about them bc, after all, private = make money, not charity, not government sponsored. I'm from a muy wealthy suburb of St Louis where most famalies don't bother sending their kids to private school bc the public schools are amazing. For those who don't know US public education is linked to property taxes…Anyhoo, my highschool was as high tech as any of the prep schools in st louis (my best friend even transferred from the fancy st louis country day school to my highschool). Of course I can only speak for st louis (and for my experience specifically) but the VAST majority of kids in private schools were wealthy and white. period. and the VAST majority of kids in my public school were also wealthy and white. kids from poorer neighborhoods went to the public schools for their neighborhoods. i really believe that many gringos i've met in Chile like to romanticize our education system whereas I just don't see the huge diversity…i mean yes, some, but like not so much that that would tip me over the edge of living in one country or the other. about high schools on CVs: while you might not put where you went to highschool on your CV i can bet that if you went to horace mann, andover…even some west coast place like Harvard Westlake…that comes out in job interviews, and perhaps even on resumes…and if not, it comes out one way or the other i bet…so really i think chile's system is perhaps even more transparent…yes, they judge you for where you went to highschool. but so does the US …it's just a different level…perhaps you can't compare your school to the grange bc yours isn't the best in the US (or at least you didn't say so in your post)…perhaps you'd have to compare it to Exeter…and in that case i'd be surprised if it didn't 99.9% always come through in interviews and perhaps even on resumes that that is where you went…not sure but it's possible. that said, if you went to a lesser known school you won't put it on a US resume but that's just bc nobody will know what you're talking about. One thing i will say, even at the snottiest US school you'll get some Chinese kids or Indian kids or maybe even 1 black kid…some Jews, etc. Here you're going to get 99.9% Catholics of Euro/white descent. So certainly in that respect US schools are more diverse but, again, i woudl say that's mainly bc that's how the US is by default…not bc our education system fosters it so much. though we do foster it more than here via scholarshiops, affirmative action,e tc…just not as much as we gringos like to think

  6. Andrea says:

    I don't know if I necessarily agree that if the schools are "balanced" or offer need-based scholarships that it promotes equality or encourages others to seek relationships and goals outside their norm.
    I went to San Mateo High School which was a public school in the middle of a hispanic neighborhood! But there were kids from Hillsborough, Burlingame, Foster City, etc who attended, as well as lower income kids from Redwood City, San Mateo and Half Moon Bay…. but despite being in the same place, it was still a pretty segregated school.
    Though I do agree with the whole point that AT LEAST in the U.S. these private schools do offer some time of financial assistance. Beyond that though, it still seems that it's very few that see beyond the invisible class lines. I just don't know enough about day to day in a private school but I wonder if perhaps all the scholarship kids hang out together and not with the kids who don't need help paying.
    As for Chilean peeps putting their high school on ressies, a little bogus in my book but then again, if it's a super good school, isn't that a highlight of your education? Isn't it the equivalent to those top tier companies who ask about your GPA? (I always hated those questions!)
    That said, I do believe Castilleja has very good principles of teaching women to be leaders! I wish all schools had a little of that!!

  7. Emily says:

    KeM, good lord that is a comment and a half :) But I think you brought up some good points.
    1. I'm only talking economic diversity, so this argument doesn't really apply.
    2. I don't know how well the majority of private schools try to get their financial aid out there. I know mine prides itself on that, but I also know that's not the norm. I'm not trying to deny that most private school students in the US are firmly upper and upper middle class. I don't think it's an ideal situation, but I do think it's better that people can at least have that dream and then if they're motivated enough to look into it see that there's the option of a scholarship. I was just trying to find some rankings of US schools because I know my high school has been considered one of the best in the US but didn't have facts, and it's hard! US News just looks at public schools, and the only semi-relevant thing I found is this link, which looks at the top 50 schools in terms of percentage of acceptance to some top universities:

    dre, at my school nobody knew who was getting financial aid. I don't even know if I was – I just never thought to ask my parents. But that's one school, and I'm sure you're right that others are very segregated. I guess I feel that at least you're a bit more aware of "how the other half lives" (regardless of which half you're in), even if you only talk to them in class.

    To both of you, I don't think putting your high school down is the same as saying your GPA because if you have money, you can often buy your admission (in the US and Chile) whereas it's harder to buy straight A's. KeM, I think you're right that the East Coast prep schools get brought up more – it's kind of a cultural thing from what I've seen, I know people from Harvard Westlake who definitely don't talk about it like Groton or Andover students do. But I don't think it applies across the board to quality high schools like it does here, where pretty much everyone knows all the good schools. There are a lot on the list in the link above that I've never heard of, while those historic prep schools do have more name recognition even if they're not necessarily THE best vs. a less well-known private school (again, using the WSJ list). I should say I've never applied for a post-college job in the US, so I don't know if this comes up in an interview once you've got your college degree completed!

  8. Annje says:

    This is something I think about a lot since I do have kids and we are planning on moving to Chile… This is the hardest part of that decision, so it is interesting to read these comments. My husband is not impressed with the school system here in the US and I have some issues with the school system in Chile. I honestly don't know which one is better.

  9. Annje says:

    Vinko, I would love to hear your experiences with kids in Chile.(sorry for the 2nd comment)

  10. Valentina says:

    I know that you know will be easy and faster for me to write this in my language… so
    here I go…

    He trabajado en Chile, especificamente en Santiago, en colegios buenos y malos.. y ahora estoy aca en Minnesota trabajando en uno que es publico y por lo demas muy bueno.

    Mi opinion como profesora, estando en tu pais y en el mio, es que la educacion que veo yo aca en los Estados Unidos es algo mas facil a como se presenta en Chile… pero tambien es por la manera diferente en como la enseñan.

    En mi opinion si fuera tu, educaria a mis hijos fuera de chile, si tienes la oportunidad y los medios como hacerlo, hazlo, yo siendo tu hija en un futuro te lo agradeceria, aprendera mas y de diversas culturas sea en el estado que la eduques, estara rodeada de otro tipo de gente. Si lo haces en chile, no te guies por los nombres o el estatus del colegio, eso no hace A UN COLEGIO UNO BUENO.. guiate por los resultados en sus pruebas, tanto en la enseñanza basica como media.. en los profesores, los años que lleva impartiendose.. esas cosas importan, el resto no.

    Yo en la escuela que estoy ahora aca, me siento plena y feliz como profesora, y puedo decirte que el estres que puedo sentir aqui al agotarme luego de un dia largo no se compara a lo que podria sentir haciendo lo mismo en chile.

    Es otra cosa.



  11. Vinko says:

    Whatever the differences are that exist between the education that a child receives in Chile, the US or anywhere else in the world, I think we all can agree that it is what we (parent – child) make it. True, there are schools everywhere that will fail our children whether it be from a lack of funds, lack technology or teachers that just shouldn't be teaching but we, as parents and future parents, will always have the power to take an active roll in our children's education. And I think that is what really counts.

    My family is lucky that in that we do have the choice to be here (in Chile). I know that I could go back and slide right back into my comfort zone and put my children in a system that I don't have to worry to much about but I feel that if I did return I'd be denying them a great opportunity to learn something that not everyone gets the opportunity to learn, especially at such a young age. I hope that when my children are finishing collage (or doing whatever they choose to do) that they will look back and remember this time in their lives as a learning experience which will continue to help them feel free to explore, try new things and not be afraid to take on new challenges.

    I will never blindly hand over the keys to my children's education here or anywhere else. I will be there every step of the way and as long as I continue to take an active roll then no matter where I'm located physically and to what system my child belongs non of my children will be left behind.

  12. Emily says:

    Valentina, gracias por compartir tu perspectiva…siempre es interesante escuchar "el otro lado." Estoy de acuerdo contigo que los colegios conocidos no siempre son los mejores. Lo mismo pasa en EEUU, con colegios y universidades. Como papá (y después como estudiante cuando se trata de la u) hay que hacer una investigación más profunda respecto el contenido de los cursos y los métodos de enseñanza y no simplemente guiarse por precio o reputación.

    Vinko, great point. At the end of the day, parents are a huge part of education! Sounds like wherever your kids end up, they'll do just fine.

  13. amber says:

    Really interesting topic and one that Jim and I discuss every so often – not in terms of education in two different countries, but the differences between public and private schools. I was a K-12 public school kid, he was a K-12 private Catholic school kid. It will be tricky when we have kids to decide what we'll do for schools. I loved that I grew up in a neighborhood and in a school system that was incredibly diverse. I had white friends, black friends, asian friends, latino friends, etc. I think those social interactions helped me to grow as a person just as much as the actual teaching did. Jim, on the other hand, went to schools that were much more "white." Although, I guess his HS (well-known in the LA area) had quite a bit of need-based financial aid in order to provide balance to the student body. Basically, the school was all about having a really smart student body and then for those students that couldn't afford tuition, aid was provided.

    While he is just as comfortable being friends and working with various types of people as I am, I have plenty of friends that grew up in very white areas that had a wee bit of culture shock upon entry to college. My guess is we'll go private school and will look for schools that provide a bit more real world balance in their student body. We also hope that our neighborhood, which is very diverse, will help with that as well.

  14. SPW says:

    all this really hits home for me – we are moving to Santiago in january and I need to find a school for my 10 and 13 year old boy and girl – but – my husband's whole salary at U Cathlico would be taken up by tuition at Santiago College or the Grange – – are there any reasonably priced private or public schools? I agree that US schools arent perfect, but at least for a middle class family in the midwest you can send kids to a safe place without going into serious debt. Any suggestions would be wildly appreciated. We are really flexible ..

  15. Vinko says:


    As you probably already know, January is right the middle of summer vacation for school kids here in Chile. So if you have general an idea as to where you're going to live, it might be a good idea to call a few of these schools and get the details about next years admission requirements as soon as possible. I wouldn't normally advise anyone to actually call an organization here as its so easy to get "blown off" over the phone but you don't have a lot of options being so far away.

    This will be our kids first year in school as well, so I don't have a lot of first had knowledge about the actual school environment. However, for the most part the schools that we've been to seem pretty nice.
    You'll want to be sure to bring a copy of your kids transcripts as you'll eventually have to get it certified by the Ministry of Education of Chile and the school your kids will be going to will want a copy.
    Some of the schools here will want to give your kids a general knowledge test. The test will usually consist of "Spanish, English and Math", so if your kids speak little to no Spanish you'll want to let the school know so they can keep it in mind when they give the test. Also, keeps in mind that there are only a few schools here that will actually teach your kids in English. If you expect to have a difficult affording the likes of Santiago College or the Grange, then your most likely looking at a school that will teach, what Chilean schools like to call, "Intensive English." Intensive English, to me, just means that your kids will be studying English a few extra hours a week, but I may be wrong. Again, if your kids don't speak much Spanish, be prepared to find a tutor to get/keep them up to speed.

    Here is a link to a 2006 publication of The Best Schools in Chile 2006. Its a little old, but if should give you a general idea about what your options are.

    Good luck.

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