By Justin Lesniak
Staff Writer

From the start of his administration, President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico has promised to push for major reforms in the Mexican government and society. After his first year in office, one of his signature achievements has been passing badly needed education reform. The Center for U.S.-Mexican studies here at UC San Diego recently hosted an event on this contentious issue. In his talk at UCSD and in an interview with me, Marco Fernandez of Mexico Evalua addressed the particular challenges of education reform as well as what the current reform has accomplished and what remains to be done. What follows is a synopsis of the interview and lecture.

Education reform in Mexico is overdue. Just 70.8 percent of three- to five-year olds in Mexico are enrolled in preschool. In secondary education, which has been mandatory since 1992, only 80 percent of those students that should be enrolled are actually in school, and only 17.3 percent of 25- to 64-year-olds have a college degree, compared to an OECD average of 35.1 percent. Aside from enrollment, there are major problems with the quality of education in Mexico. Data from 2012 PISA testing by the OECD shows that Mexican 15-year-olds are far below the OECD average in reading, science and math. Although they have gained ground in the past few years, cheating is rampant in Mexico, and no one knows for sure whether any gains being made in tests scores are due to cheating or to learning.

Getting this reform right is a critical issue for Mexico’s future. Latin America actually will see its population crest and begin to fall in the coming years. This means that an economic structure based on cheap labor input to supply U.S. manufacturing is not sustainable in the long run. As the working age population begins to shrink, wages will tend to go up due to reduced amounts of labor available. Some type of education reform is essential for Mexico’s economic prospects in the medium to long term.

However, education reform in Mexico is particularly difficult due to a large entrenched teachers union and a lack of transparency and clarity. The teachers union in Mexico is the largest union in the world by membership. According to Fernandez, the teachers union in Mexico derives its power from five factors. First and foremost, it has developed a tremendous ability to mobilize people and take to the streets, disrupting life in Mexico. Related to this is a proven ability to mobilize voters in state and federal elections. The third factor is money: with over 1 million members paying mandatory dues and state and federal governments providing funding, this is a powerful organization. Using these first three elements of power, the union has captured several high profile political posts in state and federal government, in essence becoming its own regulator, and has started a political party that has won congressional seats at the state and federal level. It will be extremely difficult for any major reform to pass without the approval of such a strong and politically powerful entrenched group.

The recent reform has not done enough to address the problems. For Marco Fernandez, the reform is “sending mixed signals” because, “The government has jumped in an agenda of reform without having planned along the whole path.” For example, a key provision of the current reform is implementing a new system of teacher evaluations in Mexico. On the surface this is a good goal, but the government does not have a clear plan of what the evaluations will be, if teachers will have access to the feedback and how specifically they will be used. On this issue, Fernandez recently attended a meeting of experts at the World Bank who warned that “if you make high stakes testing then you have big problems.” Specifically, “you have that important parts of the curriculum are not taught because teachers only care about the topics that are going to be in the standardized tests.”

Other pieces of the reform are clearly not helping the education system. An example is the structural recentralization of education. Since 1992, labor relations and wages for teachers in Mexico were handled by the state governments while the curriculum and evaluation of teachers was dealt with by the federal government. This created gaps in government power that the teachers union could exploit by lobbying different areas of the government for advantageous deals. In the reform the central government has decided to recentralize wages, but still gives the state governments the authority to hire and fire.

“This is a mistake,” according to Fernandez, the solution should have been “punishing states for the misuse of federal funds” when they used federal education money to give out benefits “such as Christmas bonuses, special bonuses for being on time, things like that that seem to be kind of ridiculous.” When you recentralize the payroll “given that you are not centralizing the labor relationship between teachers and authorities, [which] continues to be in state hands, that’s going to create a problem” in the implementation of the reform. It will make it difficult to coordinate the wages, teaching standards and personnel decisions in education while still allowing the union to lobby the state and federal governments for extra benefits.

The education reform is just getting started. According to Fernandez, people are just starting to sit down and ask questions like “what are going to be the instruments for the assessment of teachers, how are you going to use the information precisely to improve the teachers academic formation, are teachers going to receive feedback real feedback of what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong to improve their teaching.” Fernandez explained that “all those are things that don’t seem to be very clear in the reform and the definition of these details that are coming in the future [are] the heart, I think, of the implementation of the education reform.”

The points raised here are just some of the many issues and challenges involved in complex education reform. The need for some sort of reform of meaningful education reform in Mexico is clear and essential to the country’s future. The recently passed reform has some good points but much of its success will come down to implementation. If the Mexican government can successfully implement reforms now, the country will surely benefit in the long run.

Photo by Foundation Escalera

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