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The 2012 Education Reform in Mexico: From Intention to Action

Eduardo Andere - Wilson Center
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December 27, 2012

Children play in the dirt yard of the two-room elementary school in Los Mochis, Mexico. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

For decades education in Mexico has been trapped by suspicious arrangements between the national agency for education and the main teachers union.

It is commendable, that new President Peña Nieto aims to recover, from the Teacher’s Union (SNTE), the education policy decisions that the National Education Act confers, mainly, to the National Department of Education (SEP) and other local education authorities (articles 12 and 13).

On several occasions since 2003, I have warned about the perverseness and inadequacy of the close SEP-SNTE relationship. That relationship has given rise, over the years, to an undue but allowed influence from the SNTE over education policy matters. However, the ill-fated relationship came to a climax with President Calderon’s government. The SNTE and SEP not only wrote and signed a detailed education policy document called the Alliance for Quality in Education, but also gave several key governmental positions to the union. The son–in-law of the SNTE’s leader was appointed assistant secretary to SEP.

On December 10 of 2012, President Peña Nieto, in a landmark but risky act in the history of education policy in Mexico, sent an educational reform initiative that carries a clear message: divorce.

Peña Nieto’s initiative has two main stated goals:

1) To change the power relationship with the union; and,

2) To improve the quality of education.

The first goal is all about a political strategy game. We don’t really know what will happen, since by definition strategic games are interactive. The second player has not reacted, yet. We have to wait and see for a little while.

The second goal, much more educational-driven per se, it is questionable since the whole Reform (to be enacted through a change to the National Constitution) is based on a faulty assumption, i.e., that the main factor associated with student learning (such as that measured by the US National Report Card), is teachers: “teacher’s performance is the most important factor in learning (…) and the leadership of those who hold managerial and supervisory functions is decisive.” The Reform Initiative dismisses the importance of cultural, learning environments and poverty issues, that the literature since the US Coleman’s report, recognizes as the most important factors explaining the variance of students’ performance.

The new package of reforms must be analyzed with a clear and objective mind. The question is, besides the strategic move yet to be seen, if the Reform Initiative will indeed improve the quality of education.

I worry that the initiative is drafted under shaky assumptions, but also because it elevates to a national level agency accountable only to the State and the Federal government, the entire evaluation policy from K to 12. It is a highly centralizing move, that not even the national and state legislatures or the President will be able to dismantle without paying a huge political cost.

The new law, if approved, will empower today’s more modest national evaluation agency with new and ample faculties. This recreated agency (INEE) will dictate the way evaluation and assessments will have to be conducted from border to border. But not only that, national and state education authorities will have to follow INEE findings and instructions. Five members designated by the President but approved by the Senate will form the agency.

With total lack of legislative technique, the Intended Constitutional Reform is written in detail, leaving no room for original adaptation to educational and local realities. Sometimes, it is read as mimicking the US Education Reform movement: measuring up; assessment, accountability and extrinsic incentives, that will kill intrinsic motivation and promote a pedagogy of “teaching for the test,” or worse, cheating.

The Initiative also outlines—in excruciating detail—policy changes that have nothing to do with its main goals: the creation of a national agency for evaluation and a teachers’ career system. These changes impinge upon issues such as: school managerial autonomy, the establishment of a national information system in education (with the help of an external player, i.e., the National Institute of Statistics and Geography), full-day schooling, and a ban on junk food in schools, which will probably increase street vendors outside its walls, and illegal trade inside.

The Reform Initiative has enthused elitist groups, such as politicians, business people, high-level bureaucrats, op-ed writers, leaders of some conservative foundations and media commentators. They support it because they see it as a way to get rid of the Teachers’ Union power and put teachers under strict control. In my humble opinion, neither of these things will happen.

Dr. Eduardo Andere (PhD Boston College, 1992), is an analyst and writer on education, education policy, comparative education and learning.

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