Focus on quality: Laying the foundations for a results-oriented model

Despite education spending in line with OECD standards, the quality of Mexico’s school system has lagged significantly behind the organisation’s other members. A powerful teachers’ union has traditionally stood in the way of efforts to reform the sector. Having made considerable advances in extending coverage, particularly at the basic education level, the attention has now shifted towards improving quality.

In an historic move for the country, the current government passed a structural reform aimed at improving the overall quality of the education system through the establishment of a results- and performance-based educational model. The sector, which was selected as a pillar for economic and social development in the National Strategic Plan 2013-18, is key to raising the competiveness of the economy.

SYSTEM: The school system is divided into three main levels: basic, upper secondary and tertiary education. Basic education comprises pre-school, primary school (which includes grades one to six) and secondary school (grades seven to nine), and represented 73.4% of registered students in the education system in the 2012/13 school year. Of the 25.9m students in the basic education system, 4.8m are registered in pre-school, 14.8m in primary school and 6.3m in secondary school.

Upper secondary schooling is the equivalent of high school in the US, comprising grades 10-12, and can be of two types; general programmes ( technical professional programmes. For the 2012/13 school year, 4.4m students were registered at the upper secondary level, 12.6% of total students in the school system. Tertiary education corresponds to graduate and post-graduate degrees. For the same school year 3.3m students were registered at this level, that is 9.4% of total students in the system. The remaining 4.6% of students were enrolled in training programmes.

The Ministry of Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Publica, SEP) is responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of national policies. The National Institute for Educational Assessment and Evaluation (Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación, INEE), created in 2002, oversees evaluation of educational activities at the basic and upper secondary level, while the National Assessment Centre for Higher Education, in operation since 1994, assumes a similar role at the higher education level.

COVERAGE: The demographic boom experienced by Mexico, which saw its population quadruple from 25m in 1950 to more than 100m by 2000, has placed pressure on the education system. In the 2012/13 school year, the number of students registered in the system reached 35.3m, including training programmes, an increase of 359,600 students from the previous year. Despite this, in the past decade Mexico has made strides forward in coverage in basic education, and is close to achieving universal coverage in this age group. For the 2012/13 school year, coverage in basic education reached 95.7%, an increase from 91.5% in the 2005/06 school year, according to the SEP. However, coverage in upper secondary and tertiary education remains a challenge. According to the SEP, coverage in upper secondary education increased 8.7% from 57.2% in the 2005/06 school year, but remains low at 65.9% for 2012/13, in large part due to a high drop-out rate connected to social and economic difficulties. “In the 2011/12 school year, a soaring 15% of upper secondary students dropped out of school. In 2013/14, the number decreased to 13.4%. However, our goal is to reduce this figure to 9% for the 2017/18 school year. With the goal of increasing coverage, in February 2012 the previous government made upper secondary education mandatory, with hopes to achieve 85% coverage by 2016 and universal coverage by 2022. To improve drop-out rates, we have put forward several initiatives: a comprehensive programme called “Yo No Abandono” (I will not abandon school), which provides 182,000 scholarships as well as an early warning programme and a tutoring programme," Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, secretary of education, told OBG. Coverage at the tertiary level is particularly low, at just 28.6% of the population between 18 and 22 years old (not including post-graduate schooling). Though coverage for this age group has increased slowly from 23% since the 2005/06 school year, it remains tertiary education’s biggest challenge. One useful indicator to measure the reach and efficiency of the system is the average grade that 15-year-olds and older have completed. In the 2012/13 school year this average was 8.9 years of schooling, according to the SEP, a very modest increase of 1.3 years over the previous decade. According to the SEP, of every 100 students that started primary education in the school year 1996/97, only 20 finished tertiary schooling in the 2012/13 school year.

QUALITY: Having made good progress in extending basic coverage over the past decade, the challenge now seems to be raising the quality of the education system. While Mexico’s scoring in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown some improvement from the first edition in which Mexico participated, in 2003, Mexico’s scores remain low. Mexican students’ scores in math improved 28 points, from 385 to 413 between 2003 and 2012, one of the most important increases among participating countries, bringing Mexico slightly closer to the OECD average of 494, though it still has a way to go. In the 2012 PISA, 55% of Mexican students still did not reach basic competencies and only 1% of 15-year-old students achieved high competency levels.

In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14”, Mexico scored particularly low in terms of the quality of maths and science education, ranking 131st out of 148 countries. It ranked slightly higher in the quality of primary education (124th) and higher education (119th), and substantially higher in the quality of management schools (65th).

SPENDING: The lack of quality in education is surprising considering Mexico’s spending on education is high by OECD standards. In 2010 public expenditure on education represented 20.3% of total public expenditure, the second highest among OECD members after New Zealand. However, Mexico had the lowest expenditure per student, with the vast majority of the budget (91.7%) being spent on staff compensation. In 2013 the education budget increased 1.7% from MXN978.44bn ($76bn) in 2012 to MXN1.03trn ($80bn). The federal government is responsible for 61.9% of education expenditure, while state governments contribute 16.5% and the private sector provides 21.6%.

POWER PLAY: The lack of quality in the basic school system, despite high spending, has often been linked to the lack of teacher qualifications and the overwhelming control that the National Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE) has enjoyed in terms of hiring and promoting teachers. Since its creation in 1943, the SNTE has developed a corporatist relationship with the government and assumed a political role, enjoying representativeness in Congress. Hiring and promotion practices often involved the sale and inheritance of teaching positions, along with other alleged corrupt practices. In a political scandal in early 2013, SNTE’s leader for more than 20 years, Elba Esther Gordillo, was charged and imprisoned for the embezzlement of MXN2bn ($155.4m). As of early 2014, Esther Gordillo remained in custody.

A first census of Mexican public pre-schools, elementary and middle schools conducted by the SEP and INEGI – the results of which were made public in early 2014 – revealed that 13%, or 298,200, of those registered on schools’ payrolls (of a total of 2.25m) do not actually turn up to work. According to the survey, 115,000 had quit, retired or died, 113,300 had another job, 39,200 could not be located and 30,700 were on leave. Of the 2.25m, 978,100 were actual teachers and 971,00 corresponded to other staff.

INFRASTRUCTURE: With very little of the budget being invested in facilities, this area represents another major challenge. Many schools lack infrastructure and are unable to meet students’ basic needs. In fact, the census of schools showed that 41% of Mexico’s 207,682 schools have no sewage system and 31% lacked potable water. Given these challenges, efforts to increase the use of information and communications technologies in basic education schools have been undermined. According to INEE, in the 2008/09 school year 50% of primary schools had no computers for educational use, while this rate was 27% in lower secondary education. In 2013 the government began a pilot programme to provide one laptop per student in grades five and six. The programme is expected to benefit 240,000 students. Still, infrastructure shortages pose a challenge. Alexandra Zapata Hojel, project leader of at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, told OBG, “What the programme didn’t anticipate was how many schools don’t have electricity to charge the laptops. There is a lack of basic infrastructure and the ministry has yet to develop educational programmes to make the best use of the technology.”

REFORM: For the past few years Mexico has made efforts to improve the quality of the education system, although progress has been slow, in large part due to opposition from teachers’ unions. Reforming the education system was part of the previous government’s agenda, which oversaw the implementation of the Comprehensive Reform of Upper Secondary Education. Among other things, the 2009 reform introduced the Sistema Nacional de Bachillerato, a national system, which sought to standardise curricula across the country and introduce a certification process.

The priority given to the sector has continued with the current government, which made the sector a pillar for economic development in the National Strategic Plan 2013-18 and passed, in the autumn of 2013, an important sector reform which sought not only to raise the quality of the education system but also to change Mexico’s educational model.

Traditionally, Mexican schools enjoyed very little autonomy, with no control over the hiring and promotion of its staff. The reform established a management and information system, Sistema de Información y Gestión Educativa, designed to strengthen the management autonomy of schools by facilitating access to information among authorities and institutions. The first census has already proved useful at detecting irregularities in payroll accounts, as well as pinpointing infrastructure deficiencies, as shown above. The reform also established the National System for Evaluation, administered by INEE, which seeks to continue the assessment of student performance as well as the quality and results of the educational system.

ENLACE: Following the reform, INEE became responsible for the implementation of a new standardised student assessment test that will replace the existing test, the National Assessment of Academic Achievement in Schools (Evaluación Nacional de Logro Académico en Centros Escolares, ENLACE), which was implemented at the national level since 2006 for basic and upper middle levels and overseen by the SEP. While ENLACE was originally intended to be a diagnostic and formative assessment instrument, over time it developed into a ranking mechanism for schools and became tied to teacher rewards, resulting in unintended negative effects such as teachers teaching specifically for the exam, as opposed to developing student’s overall skills.

To prevent this, INEE is in the process of designing a new standardised test, which is expected to begin being implemented in 2015. Zapata believes the cancellation of the exam before the new one takes effect represents a major step back for the country, which now loses any indicator for a year and a half, until the new exam starts in 2015. “The difficult part was not passing the reform, it is the implementation. The cancellation of ENLACE is a great victory to the union. To begin a new exam will again require a significant level of political effort for something that was already being implemented for seven years,” she told OBG.

TEACHER EVALUATIONS: The most controversial of the changes, and one which led to months-long protests that rocked the capital, was the establishment of the Professional Teaching Staff Service, a measure which introduced mandatory evaluations for the hiring, promotion and permanence of teachers and teaching staff in basic and upper secondary public education. Given opposition from the SNTE and its smaller right-wing arm, the National Coordinator of Educational Workers, the government had to reach several compromises. In one compromise, the current government has announced that the results of teachers’ evaluations will not be made public. Advocates believe that this is key to upholding transparency, and represents another victory for the powerful teachers’ union. Zapata told OBG, “To break the control of the union, there are a few steps that need to be taken. One of these is the implementation of universal evaluations for teachers and students, which are then connected to compensation, as this is key to achieving transparency and efficiency. This is what was announced when the reform was initiated. If the results [of teacher evaluations] are not made public, then there is no way to check that they are taking place.”

Following the reform, new teachers will be subject to an evaluation after their first year. If they fail, they will undergo a second evaluation in the second year.

PRIVATE SECTOR: The public education system accounts for around 86.9% of total student numbers, due largely to the segment’s dominance at the basic and upper secondary levels. The private system, which is responsible for the remaining 13.1% of students, is predominantly active at the tertiary level. Over half of all post-secondary institutions are private, attracting a third of total tertiary enrolment. These institutions are financed primarily through fees paid by the students.

While some private institutions have achieved significant development and public recognition, it should also be noted that some smaller institutions are known for poor quality. Luz del Carmen Dávalos Murillo, director of the Faculty of Education at Anáhuac University, a private institution, told OBG, “There are around 3000 universities, 2500 or more of which are private. However, less than 10% of them meet international standards for infrastructure and research labs.”

ACCREDITATION: Mexico’s quality assurance system for tertiary education includes different accreditation and assessment procedures. The accreditation process is voluntary and characterised by multiple actors and little direct intervention by the SEP. The Council for Accreditation of Higher Education entrusts the accreditation of programmes offered by public and private institutions to several delegated bodies. For private tertiary institutions, approval of study programmes is granted through the recognition of official validation of studies (reconocimiento de validez oficial de estudios, RVOE). There is, however, no single quality assurance agency, and the RVOE can be awarded by the SEP, state education authorities or some authorised public tertiary institutions. Since public universities require accreditation to receive funding, quality is more uniform among public institutions. They also tend to have more diverse offerings. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mé xico, the largest public institution in the country, offers some 100 undergraduate programmes, for example.

LABOUR MARKET: A challenge for tertiary education is a mismatch between the skills needed in the labour market and the skills with which students are graduating. This, coupled with the economic difficulties some students face, has contributed to high drop-out rates at the tertiary level. Maria de Lourdes Dieck-Assad, dean of the EGADE Business School at Tecnológico de Monterrey, told OBG, “Graduate students in executive programs seek to combine professional responsibilities with study. There is a strong demand for programmes that are global in vision and experience, and that focus on building leadership competencies that can be immediately applied in a real world context.” A 2012 OECD study found unemployment rates were higher among Mexicans with more education. The same study revealed that Mexico registered some of the lowest graduation rates from vocationally-oriented upper secondary programmes among OECD countries; only 4% compared to the OECD average of 46%. Better alignment between labour market needs and university programmes is a key goal in the National Development Plan 2013-18.

OUTLOOK: The education reforms represent a decisive step in breaking the control that teachers’ union traditionally held in the sector. While educational results will take a few years to be noted, the reforms lay the foundation for a results-focused model, based on evaluation and development. The sector, a central one in the goal of economic development, is now set to support further professionalisation of the country’s workforce.

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