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Student 'Normalistas' Fight Changes in Mexican Education System

David Agren - USA TODAY
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December 9, 2012
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Carlos Pedraza, 21, is among the rural teaching college students who brought tractors and farm animals to a protest camp in Morelia, Mexico. (David Agren/USA TODAY)

MORELIA, Mexico — College student Eduardo Díaz considers his participation in protests to be as much a part of his higher education as classwork.

For weeks, Díaz and other students who are going to school to become teachers in rural Mexico occupied the historic center of this colonial town — along with a bevy of farm animals, a tractor and a foosball table — to protest attempts to modernize their courses.

"The social struggle, along with basic education ... we learn both," says Díaz, 22.

New President Enrique Peña Nieto says one of his priorities will be the overhauling of Mexico's education system to promote skills needed for the 21st century. But to do so he must confront the rural outposts of the Normal schools, the colleges where professors have for decades been training aspiring teachers in activist politics, Marxism and social justice.

In many areas of rural Mexico, these college students known as "normalistas" have taken to the streets and hijacked buses in sometimes violent protests against any changes to the education system. Some protests have been going for months.

Encouraged by their professors, the students have protested the teaching of English and computer skills to rural children. They've demonstrated against the strengthening of teacher evaluations, changes to labor laws and the elimination of the practice of allowing teachers to sell their jobs to the highest bidder.

"(The normalistas) want the old rules of the past to persist," says David Calderón, director of the education advocacy group Mexicanos Primero. "That's at the bottom of this."

Established after the 1910 revolution, the rural Normal schools were created by the Institutional Revolutionary Party to calm rural and indigenous areas and to use teachers to blunt the influence of the Catholic Church, viewed with suspicion by anti-clerical revolutionaries.

Normal schools in urban areas have updated curriculum to adapt to the times and desires of students and parents. But the rural teacher college students and their protests persist as anachronisms as a more modern Mexico passes them by.

Peña Nieto, who was inaugurated Dec. 1, ran on a platform of improving economic performance in part by changing the education system. In his inaugural address he vowed to end the practice of teachers treating their positions like personal property, in which they can sell their job upon retirement. He also pledged to improve teacher evaluations and training.

Mexican students score among the lowest in the standardized tests supervised by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But proposals for change have been floated in the past and dropped following protests from teachers and students alike. Strikes in states such as Oaxaca and Michoacán are common as is allowing teachers to work for union political projects instead of classroom work.

In Morelia, Díaz and his fellow teaching students don't want English or computer training added to their curriculum. They disagree that the skills are needed in the remote regions of Michoacán.

This rugged state, which unfolds across western Mexico, is home to indigenous Purépecha Indians and a region where every winter 100 million monarch butterflies fly into Mexico from the U.S. and Canada. It has also been a battleground in the crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime.

English education in Mexico is taught in public schools beginning in kindergarten, but not in rural areas here.

"What do you do (with English) in these schools where the kids don't even speak Spanish?" asks normalista Carlos Pedraza, 21.

Pedraza says that they tried to convince the government of the rightness of their position.

"They didn't listen so we had to take more radical action, like hijacking buses," he says.

Federal police raided the Escuela Normal Rural de Vasco de Quiroga on Oct. 15 and apprehended 49 normalistas for allegedly burning some of the hijacked buses.

In the state of Guerrero, home to Acapulco, students have blocked the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, stolen buses and taken over radio stations to stop changes such as the guaranteed lifetime jobs that can be bequeathed or sold to others.

In the face of the normalista protests, the federal government backed down on plans to introduce English instruction.

Normalistas, many of whom speak the Purépecha language, say they deserve the perks Peña Nieto wants to eliminate because they must teach in neglected schools that lack roofs, running water and electricity.

Peña Nieto belongs to the PRI, which controlled Mexico politics uninterrupted for 71 years until 2000. So it is his own party that created and continued the education policies he says he wants changed, and previous presidents have caved to normalista demands in the face of violence and vandalism.

"They've found that this an effective way to exercise political power," education researcher Marco Antonio Fernández says. "Being violent pays off."

Calderón says Peña Nieto faces a significant challenge in confronting the rural teachers. The perks they receive have been part of a "grand bargain" between rural students and past governments for years, guaranteeing political support and quiet.

Michoacán teachers, allies of the normalistas, cut classes for frequent protests and "increasingly own the (state) public education secretariat," says Isaac Reyes, editor of the Michoacán news wire Quadratín.

The crusade against English, technology and other changes will only hurt those they are trying to help, he says.

"Those who don't know English and computation are the illiterates of the 21st century," Reyes says.

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