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What Went Wrong with Mexican President Pena Nieto's Promised Education Reform?

Ana Canedo - GPPR
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March 12, 2016
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Caught in a vicious cycle of drug trafficking, gang violence, and endemic poverty, there are only a few teachers brave enough to work in the villages in the heart of Guerrero. Maximino Villa Zamora is one of them. (Al Jazeera English)

Mexico has long been regarded a rising star among Latin American emerging market economies. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s major constitutional reforms prove Mexico is moving in the right direction. However, as Peña Nieto launches into the second half of his term, optimism is fading. Many reforms have produced discouraging outcomes and scanty secondary laws have left significant issues unresolved. Among the set of structural reforms that were passed by Congress, the overhaul of the education system has proven to be the most limited in its scope. Moreover, what little opportunity remains for improving the quality of Mexico’s education system is being stalled by opposition from the teacher’s union.

Mexico’s educational performance has improved in recent years and enrolment rates have increased – the proportion of students entering first grade that later finish sixth grade exceeds 96 percent and the literacy rate for the population aged 15 to 24 years is close to 100 percent. However, OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) performance indicators show that Mexico remains behind global comparatives. Improving the quality of education has long been regarded a top priority for the incumbent government and much remains to be done.

At present, Mexico’s student performance ranks among the worst among the OECD countries, as displayed in figure 1. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 report, Mexican students fall short in critical reading, math and science skills, with alarming shortcomings in math. While 41 percent of Mexican students did not reach the basic level reading comprehension skills required by PISA, 55 percent did not achieve the basic level of math skills. Mexican student’s overall poor performance is endemic throughout the system; for example, math tests fall 81 points below the OECD average, the equivalent of having a 15-year-old student falling behind nearly two years of formal schooling.



Mexican students also tend to drop out of school very early. While primary education is practically universal, less than 40 percent of young adults aged 25-64 have graduated from high school – almost half the average among OECD countries. Mexico also has one of the highest secondary education dropout rates. Only 53 percent of 15-19 year-olds are enrolled in upper secondary education, compared to an average of 84 percent in other OECD countries (Kattan and Miguel: 2014).

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