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Test the teacher? Educators balk at Mexico's reforms

The powerful teachers' union opposes the new education reform enacted this week, but supporters say it could improve competitiveness and boost Mexico's standing in the global economy.

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Students dressed for the cold weather are reflected in a puddle of water at a school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January. Mexico enacted an education reform that took effect this week – a reform staunchly opposed by the powerful teachers’ union.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters/File

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Imagine a school where a teacher who doesn’t show up for class, or doesn’t hold a degree, or fails or refuses a mandatory evaluation can’t be fired. Imagine a school that routinely hires and promotes teachers on the basis of favors rather than merit.

Those are some of the practices Mexico hopes to change with an education reform that took effect this week – a reform staunchly opposed by the powerful teachers’ union, but one supporters say could greatly improve the competitiveness of schools and boost Mexico’s place in the global economy.

“Education is a great engine of transformation, social mobility, competitiveness, productivity, and social development,” says Monica Tapia of the Citizen Coalition for Education, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the system. “Mexico spends so many of its resources on education. But we’re not achieving learning.”

The reform strips the education union – arguably the most powerful in Latin America – of its influence over the hiring of teachers. It provides for a system of merit-based pay and promotions, subjects Mexico’s estimated 1 million teachers to evaluations, and requires exams of those entering the profession. All with greater oversight by the federal government.

Although the union has threatened to fight any legislation that puts teachers’ tenure at risk, its most vocal critic was abruptly silenced this week – at least temporarily – when, a day after the reform took effect, the government arrested union leader Elba Esther Gordillo on charges of embezzlement.

The reform doesn’t specify how teachers will be evaluated, or what the incentives or consequences might be. That will be up to an independent institution to decide after additional legislation is put in place.

“We know from our experience in the US that [evaluations are] rife with challenges and easier said than done,” says Lucrecia Santibañez, an education researcher with the RAND Center for Latin American Social Policy. “Everything hinges on those evaluations. If they end up being unreliable, low stakes, then it’s going to be a great missed opportunity to effect some change.”

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Low return on investment 

Mexico spends a greater percentage of its budget on education than any other country in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and it has achieved nearly universal basic education. Yet across numerous metrics, Mexico gets a failing grade.

Fewer than half of students finish high school here. Mexico’s graduation rates are among the lowest of the OECD, and it falls behind Brazil and Chile.

Mexican students lag in math, science, and critical reading skills. In an international test of math skills – considered an indicator of a country’s higher skilled talent base  – more than 25 percent of Korean students tested “advanced,” as did 18 percent of Canadian students and 10 percent of US students. Fewer than 1 percent of Mexican students ranked at the advanced level.

The importance of these performance indicators are heightened as Mexico strives to achieve greater economic growth, especially in industries such as aerospace and information technology, and to reduce glaring inequality. 

Aptitude statistics among teachers are equally weak. Eight in 10 teachers who took a non-mandatory 2008 evaluation exam didn’t pass, according to Mexicanos Primero, a nongovernmental organization advocating teacher evaluations and education reform.

In Mexico, just 16 percent of teachers earn their position competitively. The rest obtain a teaching plaza by a variety of means – “inheriting” it from a retiring friend or relative, obtaining it from the union, paying for it, or entering the profession by means of a guaranteed post upon exiting a teacher’s school.

The vast majority of Mexico’s education budget pays teachers’ salaries – but historically the state has had minimal control over their management. The new adherence to evaluations could put that power back in the government’s hands.

The teachers’ perspective 

But teachers worry that a standardized test won’t accurately measure their ability in the classroom. It's an argument that echoes opponents of similar standardized testing efforts in the United States, especially those linking students' exam performance to teacher incentives.

Mariana del Rocío Aguilar Bobadilla, director of a Mexico City campus of the National Pedagogic University, notes that teachers in Mexico frequently work in diverse contexts. This includes city teachers contending with overcrowded classrooms, and rural teachers instructing multiple grades at one time.

Many teachers are open to evaluations if they are used to point out areas of weakness to work on – but they’re against any single exam that could make or break their career.

There is a lot on the line for them: Teaching can be a cushy job in Mexico, thanks to the powerful union to which the vast majority of teachers belong. Although starting wages are low, teachers in Mexico can earn a solidly middle class salary, between $1,000 and $2,000 per month; in some states, end-of-year bonuses amount to nearly half a salary. Many work just five-hour school days.

Proponents of these new regulations say they hope that at the very least they will rid the country of the practice of "phantom" teachers – people who may be collecting a salary but who never set foot in a classroom.

Ms. Aguilar Bobadilla notes that some 75 percent of teachers already participate in a voluntary program that ties some pay incentives to evaluations; she is critical of the fact that the government rarely consults teachers on the reforms that will affect them profoundly.

“We agree in that we want to see better results,” she says. “But perhaps we don’t coincide on which paths to take to get there.”

A better life?

The prevailing belief among parents, society, and in government is that education will afford children a better life in the future. But in Mexico, is it true?

In Mexico, unemployment rates increase with greater education, according to a 2012 OECD study. College-educated Mexicans were more frequently unemployed than those with a primary or secondary education, which suggests that the labor market still overwhelming requires low-wage workers. Although Mexico is currently graduating more engineers than ever, that pattern has held steady for a decade.

Mexico now has a unique opportunity to reflect on the kind of education system the country needs for the future – and a chance to bring together teachers and society into a common dialogue, says Felipe Hevia, a professor studying the issue of education at the Veracruz-based research center CIESAS-Golfo.

“The reform opens the door to discussion,” Mr. Hevia says, “And it foments the possibility that if we really think it through, we have a chance as a society to decide what type of education we want. It’s an opportunity to break down the fight between society and teachers.”

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