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Published in Print: March 20, 2002, as The Mexican Connection

The Mexican Connection

Television is the primary way that 7th, 8th, and 9th graders in remote regions of Mexico receive instruction.

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Television is the primary way that 7th, 8th, and 9th graders in remote regions of Mexico receive instruction.

The TV sets aren't working in the telesecundaria school here in this rural village in the state of Oaxaca. Some workmen are making repairs in the village, shutting off the electricity, though after a couple of hours, they will turn it on again.

The telesecundaria school is designed to provide a substantial amount of instruction via television, but the five teachers and director of this school don't seem to be frustrated about the blank screens. They proceed with lessons.

After all, just because this escuela telesecundaria has a satellite dish atop its roof and classes are centered around television programming, the culture is still that of a regular school: Children come here to learn.

To get to school, 110 students climb part way up a mountainside each morning. On their way, they pass burros and chickens and small mud-brick houses where the smell of corn tortillas toasting over open fires escapes outdoors. At school, they line up in their neatly pressed white shirts and gray slacks or skirts under a piercing sun for morning assemblies, including the weekly salute to the Mexican flag.

They expect to have class with or without the tele part of telesecundaria.

Teachers are accustomed to working without their primary tool, Catalina Hernández Velasco, the school secretary, explains, because during the rainy season, the electricity lines are often down for weeks at a time. Now, it's the dry season.

The equipment is malfunctioning in more than 20 percent of the state's 1,200 telesecundaria schools, says Rolando García Estrada, the head of such schools for the state. "We don't have money to repair or replace it," García says.

Telesecundaria is the means by which more than a third of 7th through 9th graders in Oaxaca receive their education.

Under the telesecundaria model, pioneered some 30 years ago in this country, students watch a 15-minute program broadcast by satellite from Mexico City for each of their subjects each day and follow up with 30 minutes of related exercises or discussions with their teacher.


Before the electricity is cut off on this particular morning, 31 students attending class in a small wooden building with a dirt floor watch a TV program about how to identify key ideas in reading.

The program includes a dialogue between two youths who appear to be speaking within an urban setting. They move among carefully painted walls and well-made furniture. No signs of the kind of mud-brick walls and simple wooden furniture that exist in rural Mexico are in sight.

After the students watch the program, the teacher reviews with them the steps for finding main ideas, and the students write them down. Each then turns to his or her individual textbook to practice the steps with a written exercise.

Spanish is the official language for class instruction, but when students talk among themselves while completing the exercise, they chat in the singsong tones of their native language: Chinantec.

The biggest challenges in directing the telesecundaria school here, says one teacher, is enforcing promptness and preventing students from dropping out.

Teachers at this school refer more to the disadvantages than advantages of the telesecundaria model.

Most telesecundaria teachers have university degrees, but are less likely than teachers in regular secondary schools in Mexico to have undergone preparation in how to teach. And unlike practices in other kinds of Mexican secondary schools, where each subject is taught by a different teacher, in telesecundaria schools, one teacher instructs students in all the subjects for a single grade—from English to physics to mathematics.

Georgina Virgen Alcalá, who teaches an 8th grade class here, says the school would be better if students had teachers who specialized in the subjects they taught.

Another teacher says the television programs seem to be designed more for urban students than the sons and daughters of coffee farmers who live in this village. Because Chinantec is the first language of her students, Virgen adds, they don't always understand some of the terminology in the television broadcasts, which are all in Spanish.

Carlos Pérez Santiago, who is both the director and a full-time teacher at the school, says that the telesecundaria program is restrictive because teachers are bound to the broadcast schedule and are allotted only 30 minutes between each television course for class activities. "The time schedule is very strict," he says. "It doesn't permit us to encourage much reflection by the students. We're watching the clock to see when the next program will come on." The biggest challenges in directing the telesecundaria school here, he says, is enforcing promptness and preventing students from dropping out.

Attendance is boosted by a federal government program in which poor families receive money for food and health services as long as they send their children to school.

But it's customary for many of the teenagers in the telesecundaria school to leave school and work in Mexico City either for short or long stints. Many are employed as waiters or household maids; some sew pants in factories. Even when students do attend school consistently, they often work hard before and after classes. They help their families grow and harvest coffee, corn, or beans, or they care for younger siblings and for animals.

This telesecundaria school is considered an undesirable post by teachers because they arrive each Sunday evening after traveling five hours over a rough, curvy road from the small city of Cuicatlán. The bus usually lacks seats for everyone during the nausea- inducing trip. One recent Sunday evening, a teacher who was noticeably pregnant stood in the aisle for a good part of the journey, and a couple of other passengers rode on the roof of the bus. Some teachers commute from the city of Oaxaca, which means traveling three hours on one bus before boarding another bound for San Pedro Sochiapam.

"The new teachers are assigned here," says Hernández, the school secretary, who is married to the school director and commutes weekly with him and their very active 4-year-old son from Oaxaca. "You have to suffer before going somewhere else."

In the village, teachers live more simply during the week than they do in their city dwellings on the weekends. They sleep on wooden beds without mattresses and use an outdoor latrine. They have no televisions or telephones.

The director and teachers of the telesecundaria school here cancel class on Fridays so they can catch a bus out of the village at 7 a.m., the only time a bus leaves the village each day.


Telesecundaria schools have sprung up like mushrooms since 1992, when the Mexican legislature decided to extend compulsory schooling from the 6th through the 9th grade, says Sylvia Schmelkes, an education researcher who now heads an office in the federal Ministry of Education that promotes intercultural and bilingual schools. She says the telesecundaria model was a quick way to extend school access to rural areas.

"You have many one- room telesecundaria schools with one teacher for all grades, with the students listening to all the transmissions," she says. "It really is substandard."

Rural indigenous communities almost always have the telesecundaria model rather than a regular secondary school or technical secondary school. Most of those villages don't have large enough student populations to support the large cast of teachers needed to open a regular or technical school, Schmelkes says. At the same time, Mexico has some examples of telesecundaria schools that have worked well in indigenous communities, Schmelkes says.

Mexico's telesecundaria program is now being duplicated in other parts of Latin America, including Guatemala and El Salvador.

The telesecundaria program is a cheap way to provide schooling that should not be viewed as a long-term solution, observes Carlos Muñoz Izquierdo, an economist at the private Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. He has conducted research on Mexico's education system for 37 years and has often drawn attention to inequities in the system.

"These schools are located in the most impoverished regions of the country," Muñoz says, clearly frustrated. "It's a mistake to put a second-class school in a second-class community. You should put the best schools in the poorest communities."

When asked if a telesecundaria school is better than none at all, he hesitates, then replies, "Perhaps."

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 21, Issue 27, Pages 29,31

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