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New textbooks in Mexico riddled with errors

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Ivan Pierre Aguirre/AP

(Read caption) An elementary school student stands in a hallway as she waits for the first day of classes to begin, in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 19. Elementary school children across Mexico returned to classrooms Monday beginning their lessons using new government issued textbooks riddled with mistakes in spelling, grammar, and geography.

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The return of 26 million children to school today has put the weaknesses of Mexico’s education system on display – errors in new textbooks and teacher strikes have become a national scandal. 

Elementary school children across Mexico began their lessons using new government issued textbooks riddled with mistakes in spelling, grammar, and geography. And hundreds of thousands of students were without teachers, as many took to the streets to protest a problematic overhaul of the country’s failing education system. 

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The Education Department has admitted to 117 errors in spelling and grammar in a Spanish language and a geography textbook for elementary schools – errors that were apparently only caught after the books had been edited and sent to the printer. Some 235 million elementary school textbooks were distributed.

Education Secretary Emilio Chuayffet called the errors “unforgivable” in a speech earlier this month and announced that an investigation is underway to determine who is responsible. He said that the respected Mexican Academy of Language would formally review the texts, and teachers will be given a workbook with corrections. 

“How can we foment a student’s ability to reason if on the one hand he learns the rules of language and, on the other, he sees that his study materials don’t follow them?” asked Mr. Chuayffet in an Aug. 5 speech. 

In more than a few classrooms, teachers won’t be on hand to discuss an answer to that question. A wing of the powerful teachers’ union in Michoacan and Oaxaca has declared a strike of uncertain duration, which the El Universal newspaper estimated could leave more than 2 million students in 24,000 schools without classes.

The teachers are railing against an education reform that will subject them to performance exams and give the government the right to fire new teachers who don’t meet the mark. (Current teachers who under-perform may be removed and placed in another government job.) Observers say it’s a step toward remediating the corruption that lets teachers inherit, or even purchase, their jobs.

Many of Mexico’s teachers lack the education and training they need to teach effectively, according to a recent study.

The El Economista newspaper reported recently that teachers in at least nine states performed so poorly in their 2012 evaluation exam that they require immediate retraining. Five in 10 teachers in the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Tabasco scored low enough to require retraining.

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The education system reflects inequalities that persist in Mexican society – in which 53.3 million people, or nearly half the population, remain poor. Students with the resources to attend private schools will have more access to technology, including basics like computers and Internet, than their public school counterparts. They’ll also get more hours in class than public school students, whose classrooms are frequently divided into two shifts to accommodate the large enrollment. 

Unequal resources further divide public schools, with urban classrooms being better equipped than schools in rural regions.

An editorial in the La Jornada newspaper lambasting the deterioration of the public education system offered perspective on what’s at stake, saying “it’s particularly grave when considering that one of the principal instruments for escaping economic mediocrity, the decomposition of institutions and the spiral of violence is quality education for the whole populace.”