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Mexico is Flunking in Education

Arjan Shahani - AQ Online
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July 27, 2012
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On July 22, the Mexican Education Ministry (Secretaría de Educación Pública, or SEP) published the results for the Knowledge, Ability and Teaching Skills National Exam, the annual test the Mexican government uses to award teaching positions in the country. The outcome paints a grim picture for children seeking quality education in Mexico.

A year ago, I wrote about the fact that the test in itself is not exigent enough and that the passing grade is a meager 30 percent. Back then I took a deep dive into the way the test is structured and concluded that it was practically impossible to fail. Well the results are in, and unfortunately, I underestimated the level of ignorance in the people responsible for preparing Mexico’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow. There’s something categorically wrong in Mexico’s education system when out of 134,704 people that took this simple test, over 70 percent don’t get half of it right and only 309 (0.2 percent) get a perfect score.

Of the over 18,000 teaching-position vacancies that will be filled this year, 309 applicants are up to par based on the already low standards SEP was able to negotiate with the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE). The rest of our new teachers present huge deficiencies in curricular content (actual subject matter), scholastic competencies, logic, and/or ethics.

This test was applied in all Mexican states except Michoacán and Oaxaca, where the teacher’s union is controlled by the National Educational Workers Coordinator (CNTE), a group which has opposed teacher evaluations in general and is even more radical than Elba Esther Gordillo’s SNTE. One can only imagine what the outcome of the test would have been in these entities. And if the teachers are flunking out, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what is happening with the students, which is good, because we apparently don’t have too many of them anyways (geniuses, not students).

Election after election, Mexico has heard the same story. In every race, candidates point to education as a critical issue and yet these promises seldom become more than empty political rhetoric. There are a number of reasons for this:

Amount of money is not the main issue. Contrary to popular belief, the education problem in Mexico has less to do with available federal budget resources and more to do with their allocation. About 5.3 percent of Mexico’s GDP goes to education. That’s more than Canada, Costa Rica and Australia and just under the United States. The problem is that while these countries actually invest in the quality of their teachers and improvements in infrastructure, Mexico’s education budget is funneled through depraved unions and very little actually seeps through to the schools.

There is no short-term incentive for long-term projects. Mexico’s federal projects and plans are created on a six-year window. Without reelection the president has no real reason to invest in a project that will not deliver tangible results during his tenure. The Minister of Education has little hopes for running for president (though Ernesto Zedillo did and won and recently Josefina Vázquez Mota had a run for the position but failed miserably) and even so, they can always blame the unions for the education having stagnated. Conversely, union leaders, which do not change every six years, have clear interests in maintaining control and power so it is in their interest to favor teachers above student development. The less that they have to hold their constituencies accountable for quality in the work, the more likely they are to continue reaping the benefits of leading the unions.

Our education system is based on memorization and not critical thinking. Students are “taught” to memorize dates and events, multiplication tables, etc. but going back to the question of quality in education, Mexico still has a long way to go. Here, the overwhelming role catholic religion plays in our children’s youth does not help at all. Mexico is not breeding thinkers or leaders; we’re raising followers and record players. We cannot keep pouring money into a system that’s broken in its core. A complete revamping of what is taught and how it is taught is needed for the system to evolve.

Myopically, low levels of education serve the political parties’ interests. It’s easier to get votes out of a dumbed-down constituency than a critical one. There is no clearer example of parties’ narrow-minded take on elections than the presidential race Mexico has just completed. Moreover, as long as our national economic projects continue to point toward cheap labor as Mexico’s source of competitive advantage, there is no real incentive to migrate to an economy of knowledge.

Literacy rates are can easily deceive. According to the CIA World Factbook Mexico has a 86.1 percent literacy rate but evidently, knowing how to read and understanding what it is that we are reading is not the same. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) places Mexico’s reading comprehension levels second to last among OECD countries. Canada, which spends less of its GDP on education is almost on top of the list, only bested by Finland. It’s clear that having an over 85 percent literacy rate is in itself, nothing to brag about.

What’s the solution?

More important than “what”, “who” is the key to solving the education problem in Mexico. There are at least two specific groups that need to band together in order to pressure the government to deliver on education programs.

Organized civil society has to take a more active role in ensuring that governments are accountable for what they promise. We have to demand more from our elected officials. Hopefully the social mobilization momentum created around the recent elections can be proactively directed toward this endeavor. The second group that needs to take an active role in education is not surprisingly, the private sector. More businesses need to understand that by fostering, promoting and supporting better education programs, they are investing in more wealth creation capabilities in their consumers and thus, more business. It just makes sense for big business to partner with civil society and government in implementing effective education programs which will give them return on investment in the long run.

Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority - an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

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