Mexico looks for child geniuses

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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:

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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.