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Profiting from Education Reform in Mexico

by Published on
Eva Hershaw
A protester leads chants in Mexico City's main square, the Zócalo, hours before federal police clear the area Friday, September 13.

On September 12th, the Mexican government gave an ultimatum to the tens of thousands of teachers who had been camping for more than three weeks in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s massive central plaza: everyone out by 4 p.m. the next day. The teachers stayed.

By 4 p.m. on September 13th, helicopters hovered above the iconic cathedral that sits at the northern end of the main plaza; at 4:10 p.m., the orders were givens. Hundreds of police helmets appeared through the smoke left by burning debris. The police chased teachers and other protesters through the central historic district, beating their shields and yelling orders. In a series of disorganized confrontations, protesters and police exchanged tear gas canisters, homemade explosives, sticks, bottles and rocks. Several teachers left in ambulances; a few police officers hobbled back to their cars. By 6:30 p.m., the sun began to set on a relatively quiet capital city.

Teacher-led protests have rocked Mexico City off and on this year as the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has unveiled sweeping new reforms to the country’s public education system, changes patterned after the American standardized testing and accountability regime. The protests in mid-September erupted after the Mexican Senate voted 102-22 to approve a set of “secondary” laws: tying hiring and firing decisions to mandatory standardized testing of teachers and students; taking teacher appointment power away from Latin America’s largest labor union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE); and increasing the financial autonomy of public schools.

The muscle behind the overhaul includes many of Mexico’s most powerful and profitable corporations and a smaller set of American companies that stand to directly benefit from the private evaluation and testing services.

Proponents of the reforms claim they are a necessary first step in improving a broken education system that last year ranked last among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The reforms, they claim, will weed out incompetent teachers who are to blame for the education system’s shortcomings, echoing similar sentiments in the U.S. Mexican teachers frequently buy, sell or inherit their positions through a corrupt patronage system.

Opponents of the reforms, however, maintain that powerful business interests have hijacked the political decision-making process, leading the misguided call for more evaluations and testing—an argument that will sound awfully familiar in the United States.

Test-based accountability got its start in Texas, spreading nationally with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Texas is where, in the words of education advocate and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, “all this testing madness started.” Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it found its way south of the border.

“With these educational reforms, Mexico has been the ultimate copycat,” said Luis Hernández Navarro, editor of La Jornada and author of numerous books on the Mexican education system. “And what’s worse, we are copying a system that has not worked in the United States. We are fighting the same thing as teachers in Chicago and California.”

Teachers and protesters camp for weeks in Mexico City's main square, the Zócalo, before federal police clear the area Friday, September 13.
Eva Hershaw
Teachers and protesters camp for weeks in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo, before federal police clear the area Friday, September 13.

Standardized testing has become a landmark of the public education system in the United States, a tool used to evaluate students, teachers and an entire educational system. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, American students are tested every year beginning in third grade. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has acknowledged serious flaws in the tests and the National Research Council reported that there was no evidence that standardized testing adequately measures performance.

Nevertheless, standardized testing has become highly profitable for educational service providers. Last year, the Brookings Institution estimated that state-level spending on standardized testing reached $1.7 billion. Six vendors accounted for 89 percent of the total, with UK-based Pearson Education accounting for the largest share at 39 percent. In Texas, the company is paid an estimated $2.1 billion annually to develop new test questions, according to the Texas Education Agency. Last year, the company recorded sales worth $5.7 billion in North America alone, while worldwide sales reached $9.7 billion with profits recorded at $1.5 billion.

The company has celebrated the education reforms in Mexico. Pearson Mexico president Philip de Vega called it “an opportunity to show Mexico the diversity of tools that our company possesses.” Mexico has been a key market for Pearson. The company has secured contracts with some of the country’s largest public and private universities and is developing textbooks, evaluation tools and prep courses for teachers who will be tested under the new reforms. Earlier this year, Pearson acquired the distribution rights of Voxy, a U.S.-based English language platform doing business in Mexico. “What we offer here in Mexico are direct adaptations of our U.S. programs,” he added. “They are simply adjusted to include local content.”

For opponents of Peña Nieto’s education reforms, the Mexican education system is clumsily following the path to privatized education and standardized testing blazed by its powerful northern neighbor. According to researchers from Mexico’s National Pedagogic University and Iberoamerican University, Lucía Rivera and Carlos Muñoz Izquierdo, Mexican schools are increasingly competing for federal money in an educational system dictated by private interests, a practice clearly established in the United States.

“Education reforms in Mexico have essentially been a business proposal,” said Hugo Aboites, a Harvard-educated professor at the Mexican Autonomous University. “It is a proposal aimed to promote economic development.”

In Mexico, education reform’s biggest cheerleader has been a group called Mexicans First. Described by its members as a diverse, independent citizen’s initiative, Mexicans First is comprised of some of the top brands and corporations in Mexico: Televisa, Palacio de Hierro, Modelo Group—manufacturers of Modelo, Corona, Pacifico, Negra Modelo beers—as well as dairy giant Lala, Aeromexico, Cinépolis, Bimbo and Santander.

Two months after Peña Nieto was elected, Mexicans First published a document entitled “The Time is Now: 2012-2014 Goals.” Among the many recommendations, the report called for curtailing the power of SNTE. Indeed, the union was once a close political ally of the PRI, the political party which ruled Mexico for 71 years, until 2000, but has recently returned to power with Peña Nieto’s election. The PRI, through the union, has long-controlled the sale and inheritance of some teaching jobs. Yet shortly after Peña Nieto took office in December, he orchestrated the removal of long-time SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo, who was accused of embezzlement of funds and jailed in February. The report also called for more teacher evaluations and test-based accountability as well as greater autonomy of the governmental National Institute for the Evaluation of Education (INEE), the body that oversees testing and evaluations. In April, a member of Mexicans First, sociologist and OECD advisor Sylvia Schmelkes, was installed as head of the INEE.

“The report published by Mexicans First, together with OECD proposals, essentially wrote these reforms,” said Aboites. “These businesses want our children and students to be good capital for our growing capitalist country. Bimbo and Televisa. This is the government’s agenda.”

The quality of the Mexican educational system varies greatly from state to state. The first teachers to arrive in Mexico City, and the ones who have stayed the longest, have come from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, some of the poorest and most rural states in Mexico.

“No one here in the capital has any idea what it’s like to ride a bus for hours to teach to children that don’t speak Spanish in schools where there is no running water,” said Citlali Santiago, who at age 24 has been already been teaching for three years. “National standards say that by the first year of elementary school you should be able to read. In Oaxaca, that is when many children are learning to speak Spanish.”

Similar criticisms were leveled against No Child Left Behind, whose standards for teachers and students were especially problematic for small, rural schools to meet. Similarly, in Texas studies have shown that such high-stakes testing was largely failing already marginalized populations, particularly Latino youth. In the early days of testing in Texas, schools could even exempt test scores from students with limited English.

“We can compare the Mexican education system to a poorly marked highway full of potholes,” said Pedro Hernández, a union leader. “We teachers have been asked to drive an old, rattling, poorly running truck down this road. We can’t simply blame the driver for what they’re able to do in these circumstances.”’

Although the teachers have understandably struck a nerve in the capital, costing local businesses an estimated $60 million in lost business to date, their voices join those of teachers across the United States and throughout the world who have denounced the increasing importance of standardized evaluations in education and the role of private companies in the decision-making processes that most affect students and teachers.

On Wednesday, union teachers marched with other protesters, surrounding the Angel of the Revolution on Reforma Avenue. Thirty nine protesters were detained and 12 police officers were injured.

“We’re not going anywhere until this is resolved,” said Pedro Hernández, a teacher from Oaxaca. “We are no longer a teacher’s movement, but a disciplined army of concerned citizens.” Laughing, he added, “And what’s more, we’ve learned how to effectively use the Metro.”

  • disqus_cfBevsr42L

    ah. lovely, Mexico starts to destroy the one thing they were doing right.

    • petunya

      cfBevr42L, did you read the article? Mexico’s educational place in all OECD countries is dead last. Is there anything right about that? In their most prestigious university, UNAM, professors show up or not, on time or NOT. Every school day Mexico City parents get in cars to drive their children to the best school they can afford. The Devil takes the hindmost to the public schools. Many teachers got their positions through nepotism or bribery, but have no education to qualify them for the job. The testing is insane, but they have to start somewhere with something objective. Otherwise, it is all corruption all the time. Pearson and its ilk are vultures, I am not defending them. Buy Mexico hasn’t time to develop its own testing while battling the

      “sindicatos”. Go live in Mexico for awhile before you make pronouncements on things you know nothing about.

      • disqus_cfBevsr42L

        Petunya, I know I shouldn’t engage, given your aggressive and belittling tone, but not only did I live in Mexico for more than a decade, I am married to a veteran Mexican public school teacher who has taught for over 16 years in public schools, and both of my children currently attend a Mexican public school.
        Mexican Education is by no means a monolith of failure. Considering the resources, impediments and conditions of the country, they are achieving remarkable results, which are improving every year. I am a US public school teacher,(living on the border gives us the unique opportunity to participate in the education in both countries) and elementary students coming over here often enter with better math skills than our students, even given the language barrier. I have also worked in several schools that actively recruit Mexican teachers, who have been some of the best educators I have ever had the privilege of working with.

        On behalf of all the dedicated public school teachers I know and admire, I resent your slur on what they do, their qualifications (which are more specialized than US teachers) and their motives.

        i would also let you that there are always many, many different perspectives on issues, and you are quite rude in declaring me ignorant with no background knowledge on who I am, what I have studied, or where I have lived.

        I am by no means saying their is no room for improvement in public schools, but I do have a healthy dose of skepticism about the likelihood of this reform bringing about any positive change.

        I tend to see this push for reform as a not so subtle push to take over the One, somewhat-stable, somewhat-not-completely-run-by-narcos government establishment left in the country. They are certainly not basing reform on globally recognized educational research or best practices, not even trying to maintain an appearance of the best interest of students, so it makes me (and every dedicated teacher I know) wonder what the real agenda is.

        • petunya

          Obviously, we lived in 2 different Mexicos and I cannot speak to the border situation. But let’s face it the southern border is not typically Mexican as the northern one is not typically Estadounidense. There is a need for reform, it is not a slur on teachers to say that. I who have both a daughter and two nieces who teach, a mother, sister, grandmother and aunts who taught.
          When the “entitled” think that they don’t have to show up, don’t have to have qualifications what hope is there for the kids?

          Corruption is endemic in Mexico. The kids in rural areas are lucky if they learn to print their names. After 6th grade they didn’t have to go to school at all and many families found it a good idea to pull their girls out.
          My maid en el DF asked me for whom she should vote, she was worried that if she voted for the wrong candidates her children would lose their scholarships. These are public elementary and jr high students. Why are there “becas” for that? There aren’t. But a brain washed poor woman has no idea.

          Some schools and some teachers may be doing a good, even heroic, job there (as here) but they are not the norm. And the OECD results (and my reply) spoke to that. And only that.
          I defer to your experience on teaching/ learning on the border.

          • disqus_cfBevsr42L

            There are definitely areas of need. But will political reform reach them?
            “Becas” are a common practice of awarding a small subsidy to families in need/high performing students to help with the cost of school supplies, uniforms and transportation. Generally these are funds the parents and teachers raise during the year. Your maid knows what she is talking about, but I now doubt that you know anything whatsoever about the nuts and bolts of Mexican education.
            Since I am familiar with the extended and complex process of getting hired to teach in a Mexican public school, I have real doubts about widespread lack of qualifications, though there are without doubts pockets of corruption etc. But in the last 10 years, the SEP has become increasingly stringent and objective with teachers, I think they are well on the way to righting themselves.
            Many, many of the problems that people are talking about solving with an educational reform are cultural problems. This is a simplistic look at the OECD ranking does not reflect the actual educational situation in Mexico. The OECD ranksings remind me of people looking at their neighbors Lexus and jealous because they have a tractor. Well, a Lexus wont get very far when you need to plow a field. And it requires specialized parts, fuel and maintenance. And that is what politicians and upper-class busy-bodies don’t understand. There are many factors that come into play that affect education and the majority are socio-economic limitations, not the wholesale failure of the education system.,d.b2I

          • Gary Orfield

            People from the U.S. should not look at this situation from the American perspective. There are many wonderful teachers in Mexico working under difficult circumstances but the teachers union is a giant political machine with its own political party and a massive patronage system of political workers who are paid as teachers and do not teach. While we have hyper-accountability in an often misguided form in the U.S. they have had none in many circumstances. The former union president, a huge figure in Mexican politics for years, lived in the San Diego area, had her own private plane, charged more than a million dollars to Nieman-Marcus and misused huge sums taken from teachers dues. The teachers in Oaxaca have been incredibly disruptive and sometimes violent in a very poor state with desperate educational needs. They believed they had the right to take over the greatest public square in the capital and live there indefinitely, disrupting life and business as much as possible. Whatever one thinks about the specifics of the accountability, a major reform of this system was absolutely necessary. Mexico is extremely generous in allowing protest marches of all sorts which happen constantly. These teachers went far further than would be allowed in the U.S.

  • texasaggie

    On the one hand Mexico complains about US influence and with the other hand, they invite more in. How stupid can you be to copy a total failure? But we’re talking about EPN here, not the sharpest cheese on the cracker.

    Ser guapo no te quita lo pendejo, leer si (Being handsome doesn’t make you less of an asshole. Reading does.)

    An advertising slogan for a book store after EPN failed to think of any books that he’d ever read that had an influence on him.