Reforming Mexico’s education system
Plans to overhaul the education system in Mexico moved ahead in early September, as both houses of parliament approved the secondary laws that will provide the detailed regulations for a reform programme first revealed late last year. While passage of the legislation has been viewed as a victory for President Enrique Peña Nieto, a number of questions remain regarding the efficacy of the proposed changes.
Mexico is in line with other OECD nations when it comes to spending on education, which stood at 6.2% of GDP in 2010, the latest data available. However, the country differs in one important respect – some 80% of government expenditure on education is allocated to teachers salaries, far higher than the OECD average of 62%.
The outsized outlay for teacher salaries is due, in part, to the strength of the 1.4m-member National Education Workers Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE), which has near-total control of hiring, promoting and firing teachers. With little official oversight, the SNTE has presided over a system in which positions can be inherited from family members or simply bought. A teaching job in Mexico’s union-dominated schools can be a valuable asset, virtually guaranteeing stable, long-term income. Some teachers earn lifetime tenure after six months, while firing those who underperform is nearly impossible.
At the same time, educational attainment has suffered in recent years. In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment – a test of 15-year-olds’ academic abilities – Mexico ranked last in the OECD for reading, maths and sciences. Participation in post-secondary programmes is low, with 21% of young Mexicans expected to graduate from a university-level education programme, compared to an OECD average of 40%.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Competitiveness Report, Mexico ranked 124 out of 148 countries in primary education quality; the higher education system placed 119. The education reforms – part of President Peña Nieto’s wide-ranging Pact for Mexico agenda – seek to improve the quality of schools by boosting government oversight. Competency tests for teachers will be introduced, including entrance exams for new hires and annual assessments for acting teachers. Moreover, those who repeatedly fail assessments can lose their jobs.
Supporters of the reform programme believe that holding teachers accountable to uniform standards will improve education outcomes. Meanwhile, those who oppose the changes contend that they are essentially labour regulations, not true education reforms.
“The educational system in Mexico will not improve until there is an adequate preparation of teachers,” Enrique González Álvarez, the rector of La Salle University in Mexico City, told OBG. “The reform is geared towards teachers, but not for their better preparation. It does not address the quality of the teachers,” he said.
Teachers’ unions have vigorously opposed the proposed changes. The politically formidable SNTE – the union has its own political party with members elected to Congress – lobbied against the reforms until, in February 2013, its leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, was arrested and charged with embezzling $150m of union funds. Her arrest cleared the way for the rise to prominence of a smaller union, the National Coordinator for Education Workers (Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, CNTE).
Throughout 2013, the CNTE has staged disruptive protests across the country. In early September it effectively paralysed Mexico City, forcing Congress to meet in a convention centre and President Peña Nieto to delay his state-of-the-nation speech.
The union has extracted key concessions from lawmakers. New positions will be reserved for graduates of union-controlled training schools for the next two years. Additionally, teachers who repeatedly fail annual assessments will be able to appeal to local officials to keep their jobs. Both of these modifications from the original plan weaken the reforms and will delay, perhaps by years, any positive impact they may have.
The challenges facing the education system are considerable and not limited to the quality of teachers. Although Mexico spends close to the OECD average on education as a percentage of GDP, its gross expenditure per student is the second-lowest among OECD members. Unless additional funds can be allocated to education, any improvements will likely depend on an increase in the quality of teaching. However, even with the new legislation in place, it may take years to clear schools of inadequate educators. In the meantime, the system will be relying, at least in part, on some of the same teachers the reforms are meant to remove.