Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Chile launched P-900, a national program to support poor schools

After almost two decades of military rule (1973-1989), the newly elected democratic government inherited an educational system characterized by high inequalities, which were largely the outcome of the decentralization and privatization initiatives undertaken by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

At that time, according to data from the National System of Measurement of the Quality of Education (SIMCE), a large gap in achievement (25 points) existed between private and public schools. Likewise, repetition rates in public schools were three times higher than in private ones. In the schools where students had lowest achievement levels, the educational level and the income of their families were also among the lowest.

To address this situation, the democratic government designed a comprehensive policy to support those schools with the lowest academic achievement and with students of  the lowest socio-economic background. The rationale behind this policy was that, in order to promote equity, it is necessary to provide special attention to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to compensate for the negative impact of poverty on their educational opportunities. Shortly thereafter, the policy was translated into a specific program.

Indeed, in 1990 the government launched the P-900 (Programa 900), which targeted the the bottom 900 schools of all 13 regions of the country in terms of students with low socio-economic background and of low academic achievement. The program had six key objectives:

  1. to improve reading and mathematic skills of learners in the first four grades;

  2. to improve the quality of the teaching-learning process;

  3. to train supervisors to act as advisors in pedagogy;

  4. to increase teacher responsibility;

  5. to promote group work among teachers; and

  6. to integrate school and community.

The program consisted of a comprehensive strategy of support that included the distribution of textbook materials for students, and guides for principals, teachers and tutors with suggestions for remedial instruction to the slowest learners. The implementation of the program started with the improvement of the physical plan of schools and provision of basic equipment. School libraries with reading and audiovisual resources for the initial grades were ensures, as was the maintenance of school buildings. School supervisors throughout Chile were requested to focus their efforts on the P-900 schools.

The strategy also included regular training for supervisors and teachers (using participatory models) in the use of the didactic materials, in adopting new pedagogical approaches, in increasing studentsí self-esteem, and in strengthening school-community relations. Young tutors from the community were trained in remedial instruction.

All schools were located either in rural areas or in extremely poor urban areas. Although the programme started with 900 schools, by 1992 the number of participating schools reached 1,385 schools, which represented 15 per cent of Chilean public primary schools. Focusing on the first four years of basic education, by that year the programme was working with 222,491 students and 7,267 teachers. While until 1997 the P-900 focused on the first four grades, as of 1998 it expanded its activities to all grades of primary education.

After a decade of implementation, it is pertinent to raise what is perhaps the key question around any educational reform: did P-900 make a difference in terms of learning achievements? After the most recent tests, conducted in 1999 by the National System of Measurement of the Quality of Education, a noticeable improvement occurred in the areas of mathematics and language with respect to the scores obtained at the beginning of the program. Moreover, it was found that the progress made by students in P-900 was significantly higher than the progress made by comparable public schools which were not part of the program.

While there is no doubt that education alone cannot drastically alter the unequal opportunities that derive from class inequalities (see Bowles and Gintis 1976), recent initiatives like P-900 in Chile, Escuela Nueva in Colombia, Conafe in Mexico, or BRAC in Bangla Desh show that massive programs to improve learning among the poorest children can make a difference, and challenge the cynical claim that these efforts are necessarily condemned to failure from the beginning because the structural socio-economic context overdetermines educational achievement.

Indeed, the success of the P-900 program in improving the achievement of poor students suggests that education can make a modest contribution in equalizing educational opportunities through pedagogical innovations and policies of positive discrimination that favour the most disadvantaged sectors of society. Such contributions, however, in order to be significant and sustained over time, have to be complemented with other social and economic redistributive policies.


Reimers, Fernando. A framework to analyze the implementation of educational innovations in Latin America. p. 3-6 [Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society, Kingston, Jamaica, 1993].

Guttman, Cynthia. All children can learn: Chile's 900 Schools Programme for the underprivileged. Paris, UNESCO, 1993. 31 p. (Education for all: Making it work).

Daniel Schugurensky (OISE/UT)

Citation: Schugurensky, Daniel (2002). 1990: Chile launches P-900, a national program to support poor schools. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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