U.S. and Mexican Educators Optimistic About Working To Solve Mutual Problems

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EL PASO, Tex.--Educators and education officials from the United States and Mexico expressed optimism after an unprecedented two-day conference last week that they can work cooperatively to solve mutual problems.

But educators from U.S. border states also worried that the federal government would not follow through by taking the lead in creating permanent structures for collaboration and by bringing resources to bear on the special problems of border schools.

The conference--held at the University of Texas at El Paso and the Autonomous University of Juarez, just across the border in Ciudad Juarez--was one result of more than a year of meetings between U.S. and Mexican education officials.

An agreement to pursue cooperative ventures in education was signed in March 1990, and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and his Mexican counterpart, Manuel Bartlett Diaz, last week signed another agreement extending the accord into 1993.

"It is in the national interest of the United States of America not only for our system to improve, but also for the educational system in Mexico to improve," Mr. Alexander said. "Our destinies are intertwined." The government officials made few concrete commitments, however.

"We have come to a lot of small agreements, individual agreements," Mr. Bartlett said. "It's an informal meeting, not a formal meeting that will be forgotten."

Follow-Up Urged

Educators from both countries said they hoped their governments would follow through on promises to establish a permanent bi-national commission on educational exchange.

"There were a lot of good ideas talked about," said Gerald Dadey, superintendent of the Calexico, Calif., public schools. "The question is whether we get some closure on it."

Meeting participants agreed that the issues discussed here will take on greater importance if the Bush Administration succeeds in negotiating a free-trade agreement with Mexico and persuading the Congress to approve it.

President Bush has advocated the tearing down of most North American trade barriers, creating a single economic community "from the Yukon to the Yucatan."

Educators argued that they would need assistance to cope with such a change. Hans Mark, chancellor of the University of Texas, suggested, for example, that the trade agreement include commitments of aid to border institutions.

And Jorge Bustamante, president of the College of the Northern Frontier in Mexico, suggested that the United States give financial help to Mexican schools, along the lines of the European Community fund established to improve scientific research.

"A strategy of leveling between the two nations will make us more competitive internationally," Mr. Bustamante said.

Betsy Brand, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said the U.S. government would provide some funds to improve adult-literacy programs in Mexico, prompting U.S. educators to demand help for their own schools.

"I wish they would be as generous with us," said Robert Zamora, superintendent of the La Joya (Tex.) Independent School District.

Free-Trade Impact Disputed

While some proponents of a free-trade agreement argue that it would decrease illegal immigration by improving economic prospects for Mexicans, superintendents of border districts predicted that an agreement would result in more, not fewer, Mexican students in their classrooms.

"Free trade implies not only economic agreements, but the freer movement of people," said Romeo Lopez, superintendent of the Rio Grande Independent School District in Rio Grande City, Tex. "The probability is they will move to the U.S."

Start Paz, superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, said economic improvement in Mexico would mean that more Mexicans could afford to rent apartments in El Paso in order to send their children to his schools.

He said his 65,000-student district now has at least 500 such students, and is considering a yearround schedule to cope with its growing enrollment.

Mr. Alexander said he was sympathetic to such arguments.

"I think it would be wise for the U.S. government to look carefully, with the assistance of local schools, to see if existing programs can help or if there are new programs we should institute, at least in the short run," he said.

"I would hope that in the long run there would be economic growth that would help the situation on both sides," Mr. Alexander said. 'But there will be dislocation in the short term, and I would be perfectly willing to explore ways we could help."

Cooperation Sought

No formal accords were released, but conference participants agreed that cooperative efforts are needed in several specific areas: . Recruitment and training of bilingual teachers.

Both nations are suffering shortages of such teachers, and educators urged the creation of more programs and scholarships to allow teachers to leave their native country for training.

They also said the two nations should establish compatible accreditation systems for teachers.

"We have trouble evaluating the credentials of teachers from Mexico," Mr. Dadey of the Calexico, Calif., schools said. "Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn't mean they can teach." . Strengthening bilingual education on both sides of the border.

U.S. educators said it was particularly valuable to learn what English instruction is available to Mexican students.

"It was very evident that the Mexicans realize that education needs to be taught in the lower grades, and that was encouraging," Mr. Lopez of the Rio Grande City, Tex., schools said. "We can do a lot more for these kids if they come to us with even a little bit of English."

Educators also said they were encouraged to hear U.S. officials speak of the value of bilingual education, noting that former Secretary William J. Bennett had called it a failure.

"I'm glad they've seen the reality and seen the need," Mr. Paz of the El Paso schools said. "Im optimistic that they are moving beyond that point." "Just the fact that they invited some of us to speak on the podium is an indication of that," he added. . Development of compatible curricula, particularly in mathematics and science.

Educators noted that economic cooperation will give each nation a stake in what is taught across the border, and magnify the existing need to ease the transfer of students between U.S. and Mexican schools.

"If sooner rather than later we are going to be spending more time with each other ... it's very important that we know what the standards in the U.S. and Mexico are," Mr. Alexander said. "They don't necessarily have to be the same, but we need to talk about that." . Improved methods for tracking migrant students and ensuring that they receive educational services. . Cooperation among research universities.

Further Steps Planned

While U.S. educators said they had hoped for a firmer commitment from their government to follow up the conference, they said they plan to take some steps on their own. Educators in California, for example, plan to meet again next month.

And educators said they understand that such initiatives may be more easily accomplished in the heavily centralized Mexican education system than in the United States, where education is locally controlled.

"There were times when the people from Mexico would say, "We'll mandate that,' and the people from the U.S. would say, "We'll make recommendations,'" Mr. Lopez remarked.

Vol. 11, Issue 07, Pages 18-19

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