A Focus on Security Sidelines Education in Mexico

Standard

Originally published by Americas Quarterly on Nov. 19th, 2014.

This was supposed to be a banner year for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In the last quarter of 2013, his party was able to push through what were then called historical structural reforms to modernize the Mexican education system and boost the national economy and energy sector.  If 2013 was the year for lawmaking, 2014 was supposed to be the year for implementing reforms and beginning to reap their benefits.

However, instead of the anticipated stability, the end of 2014 has proven to be one of most politically turbulent times in Mexico’s recent history. There are no stories of a buoyant economy or a modernized education system to speak of.  On the contrary,  a flurry of disturbing stories have dominated the Mexican news cycle: the state-sponsored mass murder in Guerrero;  strikes at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute—IPN); protests and police violence at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico—UNAM);  a railway contract scandalimplicating Peña Nieto;  and waves of viral videos showing police repression, abuse and violence throughout the country.

Against this clamorous background, the $4.7 trillion peso federal budget approved last week by Mexico’s Lower House of Congress allocates 188 billion pesos to police and security projects—a 3.3 percent larger investment than the government made in 2014. Congressman Pedro Pablo Treviño Villarreal, who presided over the budget committee, specified that a portion of these additional funds would help harmonize the police and security forces among the different states and municipalities of Mexico.

The sectors taking a hit in 2015 will once again be education and tourism. In 2012, Education represented 5.2 percent of the country’s GDP. The approved budget for 2015 drops this figure to 2.8 percent, and the Tourism Ministry will receive a 9.1 percent budget cut from last year.

That’s no surprise. With the Ayotzinapa tragedy still unfolding and both the rulingPartido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) and thePartido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) taking hard political hits, the Lower House decided to capitalize on the public’s concerns byraising the budget for the Victims Treatment Executive Commission from 186 million pesos to 958 million pesos—more than five times the amount proposed by the Executive Branch. Congressman Miguel Alonso Raya from the PRD said that the additional money will be used to set up an assistance fund for the families of victims of organized crime, but did not specify whether or not the families of the 43 student-teachers murdered in Guerrero would have access to the fund.

Meanwhile, the relative cuts in the education and tourism budgets stand as clear evidence that the budget is short-sighted, insofar as it focuses on throwing money at the manifestations of a problem instead of investing in long-term solutions to it. While energy and economic reforms were flying through Congress with relative ease last year, I pointed out the shortcomings in education reform, which are now beset with a lack of development funding.

Congresswoman Lucila Garfias has argued that deciding to allocate only 2.8 percent of the GDP to education reveals how little progress has been made: “When resources in the country are insufficient and the challenges are many, it is essential to prioritize the quality of public education. The decision to restrict these funds places the success of education reform at risk.” Another one of the few voices opposing the 2015 budget, CongresswomanLuisa María Alcalde Luján, chimed in to say that the composition of the budget was fueled by short-term electoral interests and that “…this budget, like the one for 2014, punishes our public universities, schools and research centers.”

It is easy to go for the apparently popular solution. It is easy to say that it is in public interest to favor short-term security over long-term education and job creation. Like many Latin American countries, Mexico is not free of populist rhetoric in its political class, regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit on. Unfortunately, the 2015 budget is once again a populist solution. And like Argentinian journalist Mariano Grondona once said, the problem is that “populism loves the poor so much, that it multiplies them.”

The PRI’s leader in Congress, Manlio Fablio Beltrones, called the 97.6 percent approval vote for the 2015 Budget “a historical consensus.” As long as fixing the education system in Mexico continues to be a lower priority, it is a historical consensus that should worry all of us.

About these ads

Mexico is Flunking in Education

Standard

Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico is Flunking in Education“, published on July 25th, 2012. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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.

Meet John Fetterman

Standard

John Fetterman is an American politician who is mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Fetterman is a native of York, Pennsylvania. He attended Harvard University where he earned a master’s degree in Public Policy. He moved to Braddock in 2001 to work for AmeriCorps, won the mayoral election in 2005, and was re-elected in May 2009.

And this is his picture:

I think it’s awesome that a guy with this look was not only elected, but re-elected. Talk about not judging a book by its cover. Really, look into this guy’s life and achievements. Cool dude.

Mexico Lowers the Bar on Education

Standard

Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico Lowers the Bar on Education” http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/2606 , published on Jun 23rd, 2011.

Please feel free to visit and comment.

Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

————————-

It’s a common challenge in all of Latin America: run-down public school systems are insufficient, inadequate and outdated. Specifically in Mexico, negligence regarding education has widened the divide between the nation’s poorest and richest, leaving little hope for children graduating from public schools actually making a name for themselves and growing out of poverty. Mexico spends a larger portion of its GDP (about 5 percent) than countries like Uruguay, Chile and China, but it’s not about the amount of money spent. It’s the quality of education provided.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education (SEP) continues taking one step forward and two steps back in this regard, mainly hindered by its inability to negotiate with the ever-combatant teacher’s union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or SNTE) which has become a mob of ramblers who’ve taken education hostage. 

The most recent news regarding the eroding quality of our school system is an agreement reached by the SEP and SNTE on filling new teaching positions. This year the Ministry of Education and the SNTE (led by Elba Esther Gordillo) declared that candidates will be eligible to become teachers if they pass a meager 30 percent of questions on the Examen Nacional de Habilidades y Conocimientos Docentes (National Test on Teaching Skills and Knowledge).

Ironically students in Mexico need to get 70 percent or higher to pass each subject. This, however, does not seem to bother José García, a member of the Comisión Rectora de la Alianza por la Calidad de la Educación (Guiding Commission of the Alliance for the Quality of Education) of the SNTE, who blatantly defends the policies. “It’s the students who need to show they know to subject matter, not the teachers,” he says. Crazy as this may sound.

As if having a 30 percent pass grade for teachers wasn’t enough, candidates now receive a set of guidebooks to help them prepare for the test. The fact that this information is readily available online, allowed me to dig deeper into the subject and find matters to be even worse.

On the one hand, candidates are not screened from criminal records. The only documentation requested for eligibility is their university title or proof of having taken a final professional exam (depending on the grade they aspire to teach), their voter card, the CURP (a registry number), and completion of a couple of forms.  These are people who are going to have unsupervised access to our children with a lasting effect on their development. You’d think somebody would want to look into their backgrounds, right?

Moreover, it is practically impossible to fail the National Test. To cite a specific example, a high school math teacher’s exam consists of 80 questions, 20 of which are actually about math. The exam is divided into four sections: curricular content (actual subject matter), scholastic competencies, logic, and ethics. It is understandable that you would want to evaluate skills to teach, think and have a moral conscience. However, the way the exam is now set up (only requiring the candidate to have the right answer on 24 of the 80 questions) a candidate to a math teaching position could score zero on subject matter and still have a very good chance of being eligible to teach it. 

Add criminal deviance and a skewed view on ethics into the mix and guess what? He can still make it if he has logical thinking and just a little bit of scholastic skills!

Each question in the exam is followed by four possible answers, one of which is correct. Does it take a genius to point out that just based on simple probability candidates are going to get 25 percent of the answers right? It seems all we’re asking our future teachers to contribute is an additional 5 percent of brilliance (or luck).

It is no wonder that regardless of the amount of money being poured into education (and seeped through corruption into the unions), our students are less and less prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.   

*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.

As a general rule… On cause and effect and feelings

Standard

As a general rule, you will find that every elementary school classroom has one kid genius and an idiotic teacher who reprimands him/her for showing it.

Mexico looks for child geniuses

Standard

Here’s a link to my most recent article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico looks for child geniuses”

http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/2126

Date published: Jan 19th, 2011 I hope you find it interesting. Please feel free to comment.

Here is a copy of it:

____________________________

The Secretaría de Educación Pública or SEP (Ministry of Education) in Mexico has traditionally been known for being slow, over-bureaucratized and square-minded. Low quality levels are reflected year after year through a series of international comparative studies. One need only consult the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to see in disgust how Mexico’s constant is to come up last in the OCDE countries year after year.

Vidal Garza, a friend and editorialist for a major newspaper in Mexico, writes that the problem is even more apparent when you look at the amount of money we spend on our public schools: “Mexico invests 5 percent of its GDP on public education. The average annual expense per student in elementary school is $1,604, yet we fare deficiently in PISA. We do worse than Uruguay, Chile and China, which actually spend a lot less per student.”

To make things worse, The SEP (and Mexico as a whole) is in a constant battle with the SNTE, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, a corrupt teacher’s union that promotes strikes and teacher absenteeism as a the means to advance a political agenda. SNTE has filled our public schools with undedicated, unqualified and mediocre people who should not even have the honor of being called “teacher.” Granted, this is a generalization but a real one. I have met a couple of very good teachers in the public system; unfortunately today they are a rare breed.

It is no secret that we need to improve productivity in terms of education in Mexico. That’s why I was pleased to see a spark of progressive thinking on the part of SEP when I learned that they will be instituting a program to identify overachievers and children with higher intellectual proficiency in elementary schools with the intent to “credit, promote and advance them” in an accelerated manner. For example, if a child in 3rd grade shows the intellectual capacity of a 6th grader, the program will identify, prepare and eventually advance him/her to a 6th grade classroom. SEP estimates that around 10 percent to 15 percent of kids could benefit from this program. 

This is great news for the smarter kids. It is not my intention to brag, but when I was in elementary school I always felt that I was being held back in the classroom. For a child with thirst for knowledge, there is nothing less stimulating than learning at a slow pace or having to go over the same material he/she already knows by heart because others take longer to understand it. These 10 to 15 percentile smart kids need to catalyze their capabilities and be inserted into a more challenging setting. It is great to see that SEP is finally working to do something about it. According to the theory of evolution, if an organ is not being used, it ends up atrophying. I am a firm believer that an under-stimulated brain does not develop to its full capacity and now smarter kids will have a better shot.

I do however have to play devil’s advocate and point out some important side issues that should not be overlooked:

1. In transferring kids to a higher-grade classroom, the program needs to make sure that these younger, smart kids do not become the target of bullying by the older kids. Also, they need to not only have the intellectual skills, but the emotional intelligence to be in a classroom with older kids.
2. The crash-course preparing a child for a higher grade will NEVER substitute the social interaction with his/her peers vs. being inserted into an older social setting. Hopefully the psychological implications of these changes are being observed as part of the program, especially in regard to the early puberty stages.
3. Advancing a smart child has important implications in regard to the rest of the class. The smart kid sets the bar for the rest in the group. He/she becomes the one to beat when it comes to getting good grades. If they are set aside from children their own age, what will happen to the “average” kids? Does the program take this risk of further promoting under-achievement into account?
4. When the smart child graduates from middle school and is ready to enter university level (here or abroad), we have to make sure that he/she will not be denied access due to young age. Let’s make sure we are not breeding child geniuses who will have to wait to continue their studies.
5. The generalized problem with education is not that we are holding back child geniuses (after all, on their own estimations these amount to 15 percent of the kids at most) but that our teachers are inadequate. If you advance a 3rd grader to a 6th grade classroom with a mediocre teacher, you cannot expect that our PISA standings will improve. Granted, you are helping the individual child in some way, but the bigger issue still needs to be addressed.

This list of issues is by no means exhaustive. I am sure you can think of some others and hopefully SEP is thinking about them also. The point is that this program is a small ray of hope for our future in education. Now if we could only figure out a way to get rid of the SNTE…

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. 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.