Mexico Lowers the Bar on Education


Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico Lowers the Bar on Education” , 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It’s a common challenge in all of Latin America: run-down public school systems are insufficient, inadequate and outdated.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.

Mexico looks for child geniuses


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

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 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.