Educating Mexico

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 20, 2002 20 min read
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Mexico's president campaigned on a pledge to provide greater access to schools, but the obstacles ahead are monumental.

Carolina Hernández Cruz has so far resisted joining the wave of youths emigrating from her Indian village of San Miguel Mixtepec to the United States.

The 16-year-old is one of only four teenagers in her village attending school beyond the 9th grade. She makes an hourlong trip by public bus each day over an unpaved road to the city of Zimatlán to attend high school because San Miguel Mixtepec doesn’t have one. Her village is located in a mountainous region of the state of Oaxaca, about 40 miles south of the state’s largest city, which is also called Oaxaca.

Nearly half the 40 students in her village with whom Hernández began the secundaria level—the equivalent of the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in the U.S. school system—dropped out. Six teenagers who finished 9th grade with her have already emigrated illegally to the United States to work.


Mexican Immigrants to the
U.S., Ages 5-18, by State
Of Origin, Since the Mid-1990s
Average Education Level
Attained, by State

“My friends have invited me to go to the United States,” she says. Hernández, who is of Zapotec Indian heritage but speaks Spanish without a Zapotec accent, amiably shares facts about her life during her commute, as the bus lurches back and forth and a malfunctioning light flashes on and off inside the vehicle. “Perhaps one day I will—but to study, not to work.”

Education officials here in Mexico have set a goal, under the leadership of President Vicente Fox Quesada, to encourage more teenagers to make the same choice as Hernández and extend their schooling well beyond the 9th grade.

They’ve also set a goal, in a 269-page blueprint for improvement that Fox announced last fall, of overcoming the Mexican education system’s vast disparities in access and quality.

In fact, Fox has named education as his top priority for developing Mexico, a country in which 27 percent of the people live in extreme poverty.

To many Mexicans, such goals are a really big deal, as 80 percent of the funding for education comes from the federal government.

To American educators, those ambitions may also prove significant because the United States receives thousands of children each year from its southern neighbor. Many of them are coming from Mexico’s poor southern states, such as Guerrero and Oaxaca, where students are generally even less prepared academically than elsewhere in the country. So a child living in Oaxaca today could be going to school in San Diego next month or next year. For U.S. educators, that means meeting the new arrivals’ most basic academic needs, as well as helping bridge the cultural differences facing them.

In Mexico, 80 percent of the funding for education comes from the federal government.

More than 1 million school-age children in the United States were born in Mexico. They account for 36 percent of all school-age immigrants to the United States, according to a 2001 analysis by the Washington-based Urban Institute. That’s up from about 15 percent in 1970.

The assumption of the presidency in December 2000 by Fox, a member of the Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN (the National Action Party), ended 71 years of uninterrupted control of the country by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party).

Many Mexicans characterize PRI as corrupt, a political force inclined toward giving education short shrift. So when Fox promised to improve education and greatly increase funding for it in his campaign, they stockpiled hopes for change.

Now, Mexicans say, the country desperately needs him to deliver on his promises.

The new Mexican plan for education—the Programa Nacional de Educación 2001-2006—emphasizes increased access to schooling at the level of media superior, or 10th through 12th grades.

“The development of the media superior education system hasn’t been given enough importance in Mexico,” says José Fraustro Siller, the undersecretary of planning and coordination for Mexico’s Ministry of Education, called the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Spanish. “It’s urgent that we provide this level with the same support and infrastructure that we have basic education.”

But the Fox administration’s plan also recognizes that the country hasn’t yet provided adequate schooling to all children at its compulsory levels, elementary and junior high school.

Mexico extended compulsory education through 9th grade in 1992, three years beyond what it was previously, but it’s rare that local authorities enforce the policy.

The Fox program also stresses the need to reverse the huge inequities in basic schooling. The level of quality depends largely on geography and on ethnicity and race: Children who live in rural areas, and specific states, and those who are of Indian origin tend to fare worse.

The average level of schooling for people 15 or older here in Oaxaca, for example, is just short of 6th grade, two grades lower than Mexico’s average. The Mexican jurisdiction with the highest level of schooling is Distrito Federal, where Mexico City is located. Its population achieves nearly a 10th grade education, on average.

‘In Mexico, it is still common that the one who yells louder gets more money. What we want to do is change that.’

Fox’s program spells out dozens of “lines of action” for improving education for Mexico’s most vulnerable youngsters. Among them are to identify better the children who are not receiving an education, from preschool through 9th grade; ensure that the schools indigenous children attend have adequate facilities and dependable teachers; make evaluation an integral part of the education system; and channel more money to disadvantaged populations.

“In the past, education money was used for a political agenda,” says Lorenzo Gómez-Morin Fuentes, the undersecretary for basic education and teacher education for the Ministry of Education. “It’s nice to cut a ribbon in a nice school in an urban district where you have constituents, rather than three hours from the city in a rural school where you have 15 children.

“In Mexico,” he continues, “it is still common that the one who yells louder gets more money. What we want to do is change that. It will take time and effort.”

Doing so will also be politically dangerous, says Sylvia Schmelkes, an education researcher who now heads a new office in the ministry that promotes intercultural and bilingual schools.

“It means giving so much more money to rural and indigenous populations that the urban population is going to suffer,” she says. “You’re going to have to take resources from the urban middle class, and they’re the ones who protest the most.”

Oaxaca is 300 miles south of Mexico City, but it seems even further removed from the colonial-style Ministry of Education, which is adorned with murals by Diego Rivera. Oaxaca state education leaders and teachers, who operate schools in some of the most rustic parts of Mexico, say they have seen no tangible effects of President Fox’s interest in education during his first year in office.

“There aren’t results,” asserts Rolando García Estrada, the director of a venture that takes schooling to rural areas through television broadcasts for the state education office in Oaxaca. “We haven’t seen any improvements in a year of government. Things may be different in the following five years.”

“Mr. Fox promised many things in his campaign, but he didn’t visualize the size of the problems of the country,” observes Gilberto Ramírez Melgar, the general coordinator of basic and teacher education for Oaxaca and a member of PRI, the party that still dominates politics here.

A recession in Mexico, which followed the economic slide in the United States, has contributed to Fox’s inability so far to meet his campaign promises on education, Ramírez adds.

Largely rural, the state of Oaxaca (pronounced “wah- HAH-kah”) illustrates the challenge for Mexico in aiming to raise the level of schooling for everyone.

A mountainous terrain, along with great diversity among indigenous groups and extreme poverty make Oaxaca one of the toughest Mexican states in which to provide schooling.

Twenty-five percent of the state’s schools were built without roads leading up to them, according to an estimate by a state education official. Teachers assigned to those schools arrive on foot and sometimes must carry in their own food. The state has 16 ethnic groups that speak, among them, at least 50 languages or dialects.

But it’s not as if nothing has been done so far to bring schooling to Oaxaca.

‘Mr. Fox promised many things in his campaign, but he didn't visualize the size of the problems of the country.’

Nationwide, the average level of schooling for Mexicans age 15 or older has climbed from nearly three years in 1960 to almost eight years in 2001. In Oaxaca, it’s risen from a 1st grade level to nearly a 6th grade level over the same period, thanks to strategies for reaching poor rural children.

In the 1990s, for example, Mexico created junior high schools in many communities by expanding its decades-old telesecundaria program, which broadcasts courses from Mexico City to rural students via television.

The Mexican government has also begun to try to take into account the needs of the nation’s indigenous students by providing the option of bilingual schools on a large scale.

And the government continues to expand a program of informal schools in rural communities of 500 or fewer people. Through the program, youths with at least a 9th grade education are recruited to teach for one or two years in exchange for scholarship money they later use to continue their own schooling.

Yet it seems that the federal government has its work cut out for it in reversing inequities in schooling in a state such as Oaxaca.

The differences in resources between schools are striking.

In a class of their own are Oaxaca’s private schools. Unlike in many Latin American countries, they receive no money from the government. Many are run by Roman Catholic religious orders and are attended primarily by middle- and upper- class children.

If a student from one of those schools would immigrate to the United States, it would likely be to learn English, says the Rev. José Sala Arno, a priest and the director of a junior high for the private Instituto Carlos Gracida.

Carlos Gracida is located on a sprawling campus at the southern edge of the city of Oaxaca. The school, which serves K-9 students, has three soccer fields, two basketball fields, a baseball field, and two kickball fields.

The school provides the same kinds of resources for academics that it does for sports. For example, the 370-student junior high has a computer center and has hired an American-born English-speaker—a former math teacher from Detroit—to teach the advanced English classes.

“It’s one of the best schools in Oaxaca,” says Alba Espinoza Franco, the mother of a Carlos Gracida 7th grader. “It’s demanding.”

In some classes, teachers encourage the kind of hands-on learning and student presentations that might be found in a well-to- do suburban school in the United States.

For a 9th grade physics class, for example, students bring in objects from home to illustrate the properties of gases, liquids, and solids. One project that draws particular praise from the teacher involves a little metal boat with a small tank of water that a boy has constructed. As the boy demonstrates, when he places a flame under the mini- tank of water inside the boat and then puts the boat in a basin of water, the water in the tank is converted to steam and propels the boat around the basin.

But most Mexicans don’t have the pesos needed to send their children to private schools. So families compete with each other, courting school directors and teachers, sometimes even bribing them, to enroll their children in the best of the public schools.

Families compete with each other, courting school directors and teachers, sometimes even bribing them, to enroll their children in the best of the public schools.

A much-sought-after public school in the city of Oaxaca is Niños Héroes de Chapultepec. The 480-student elementary school seems to be on the high end of receiving resources from the Mexican government.

For instance, the school obtained federal money through the state office of education to build a library and computer center. Besides regular classroom teachers, it has instructors for physical education, computers, and music.

By contrast, the 116-student Ignacio M. Altamirano primary school in the rural village of San Pedro Coatlán, near the southern city of Miahuatlán, does without extra services like a computer center and a library, even though it draws money from the same government source as Niños Héroes. It has no specialized teachers either; classroom teachers are charged with teaching physical education, for instance.

Most of the support for the rural school comes from the 1,500 residents of San Pedro Coatlán, says Omar Gómez Martínez, a 3rd grade teacher. The community paid for and built rooms to house teachers. A committee of men recently was renovating a 1st grade classroom, working for free this winter.

“We get very little support from the government,” says Gómez. City schools get more, he says, because their directors live close to the offices of government officials and have more opportunity to ask for money.

Not only does Niños Héroes have more resources than a school that might be considered its rural counterpart, but it also has more than another public school that operates right in the very same building.

When the school day ends for the students of Niños Héroes, it begins for another group of children. These other children use the same building but have a different director and set of teachers and call their school Rufino Tamayo in honor of a Oaxaca-born artist. Public primary schools in the cities of Mexico typically have such setups.

Gabriela Pérez Ramírez, an education professor at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, a university for in-service teachers in Oaxaca, explains that in Oaxaca, the morning schools usually serve middle- class students and tend to provide a better-quality education than the afternoon schools do. The second-shift schools typically serve poorer children and often provide a weaker education.

“The children in the afternoon have to work in the morning, and they arrive at school very tired,” Pérez says. “It’s the same with the teachers. They work in the morning at other schools, and they are tired. The teachers arrive tired, and they don’t want to work. They use easy exercises. They don’t give explanations.”

Oaxaca education officials deny that any pattern of social segregation or difference in quality exists between the city’s morning and afternoon schools.

But Adán Agreda Guerrero, the director of Niños Héroes, acknowledges that his school generally admits middle- class children, usually accepting poor youngsters only when they have particularly good grades. He says the admissions criteria favor families who live close to the school, have a child already in the school, and send their children to kindergarten.

‘We get very little support from the government.’

The Niños Héroes school requires each child to own three uniforms, and a parents’ committee establishes extra fees that families are expected to pay to subsidize computers for the computer center and the like.

“It isn’t pleasant to say so, but this is a school for people of economic means,” says Agreda. “Usually, the children here are children of doctors and other professionals.” Many state education officials send their children to Niños Héroes as well, he says.

In the opinion of Orbina Villarreal Mejia, the director of Rufino Tamayo, the two schools that share the same building are socially segregated. “Here we have a situation of discrimination,” she charges.

The 140 pupils who attend Rufino Tamayo are from the clase baja, the lower class, and routinely change schools, according to Villarreal. The school accepts anyone.

Some of the students left their parents behind in rural areas and work for middle-class patrons in the city in exchange for room and board and any costs associated with going to school, Villarreal notes.

Like other Mexican schools that serve children from a low socioeconomic level, Rufino Tamayo has some children who have repeated grades. A 13-year-old girl, for example, attends 2nd grade.

Besides their differing enrollment criteria, Niños Héroes and Rufino Tamayo also receive dissimilar resources.

The morning shift has access to the computer center and library; the afternoon shift does not.

Villarreal says it’s her understanding that Rufino Tamayo students are barred from the center because the parents of Niños Héroes students paid for the computers and books within the computer center and library. But, she adds, the Rufino Tamayo students aren’t permitted to use the library space even with books from their own school.

She keeps the library books for Rufino Tamayo in her office.

But it’s not inequality that parents or residents of Oaxaca tend to cite as the biggest obstacle to improving education in their state. They name corruption at all levels of the system and too much power in the hands of the national teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, as hindrances to a high-quality education for all children.But it’s not inequality that parents or residents of Oaxaca tend to cite as the biggest obstacle to improving education in their state. They name corruption at all levels of the system and too much power in the hands of the national teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, as hindrances to a high-quality education for all children.

“Anyone with means has abandoned the public school system in Latin American countries, because the system is very deficient,” contends Father Sala, the Carlos Gracida director. “There are few government resources and a great deal of corruption,” he says. “The corruption extends to all places. It begins with the [office of] president and spreads like an oil spill in the sea.”

Among ordinary people, it’s widely believed that state and national education officials pocket some of the money that’s intended for the classroom, a claim those officials deny.

All the federal money channeled through the state office of education in Oaxaca goes to the classroom, says Eduardo Escarraga Valle, the coordinator of education planning for Oaxaca. “People don’t understand that I have to pay for [the schools’] lights, rent, and water,” he says.

When García, the head of telesecundaria schools for the state, is asked about corruption, he draws attention to a sign he has posted for his employees that forbids them to accept bribes and encourages them to report anyone who does. The sign hangs above a small throng of people hovering outside his office, seeking telesecundaria teaching positions.

Education officials on both the state and federal levels blame the national teachers’ union for many of the country’s education problems. They and parents complain that the union cancels school frequently for meetings and stages a national strike annually that often lasts for 20 days of the 200-day school year.

Alejandro Leal Díaz, the head of the 65,000-member Oaxaca chapter of the teachers’ union, says that his organization has sensed the public sentiment against it and has responded of late by not calling full-scale strikes, asking instead that schools send only representatives to demonstrations.

The young man, who smiles frequently and seems relaxed even while defending the union against criticism, makes it clear by referring to passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 that he pays attention to education news in the United States and possible influences on Mexican education policy by organizations such as the World Bank. Leal shrugs off the idea that canceling school for union meetings may cause problems. Teachers, he says, have become more efficient in their teaching and thus can take time away from school to participate in union activities.

But the great political strength of the union does cause problems, many people contend. Teachers say it’s impossible to get a teaching job in a public school without being a member, and nearly impossible for a teacher to improve his or her position without being active in the union.

It's not inequality that parents or residents of Oaxaca tend to cite as the biggest obstacle to improving education in their state: it's corruption.

Leal confirms that is the case in Oaxaca. “It would be hard for teachers to transfer to a new school if they weren’t active in the union,” he says. “The other teachers would reject them.”

Teachers say that union officials go so far as to take attendance at demonstrations.

“The people who scream the most, fight with the police, and paint the walls are the ones who get the better teaching positions,” says Eduardo López López, a 32-year-old teacher who works for private schools. “I can’t stand it. That’s why I’m not part of the public school system. You can have all the credentials to be the administrator of a school [region], but if someone in the union doesn’t like you, you don’t have a chance.”

Estela Pimentel Camacho, a veteran teacher at Niños Héroes who is a union member and supportive of its activities, counters that the union has forced the Mexican government to make some changes that have benefited children. For example, it recently persuaded the Ministry of Education to provide textbooks to 7th, 8th, and 9th graders free of charge. Previously, the government had provided free textbooks only to elementary students.

President Fox’s appointees in the Ministry of Education believe they have made some concrete improvements in the education system within a year.

They created the Escuelas de Calidad (Schools of Quality) program, for example, notes Fraustro, the undersecretary of planning and coordination for the ministry. The program gives competitive grants for improvement to urban schools with low-income populations, and encourages local decisionmaking in the process.

The government promoted the program through television spots this winter. So far the program has benefited 2,300 schools. In addition, the ministry has greatly expanded scholarships available for poor students to attend high school and college, Fraustro says. That program touches many rural students in states such as Oaxaca.

At the same time, acknowledges Fraustro, “the education system cannot be changed in one year substantially. It takes several years to show results.”

Mexicans should expect to see additional tangible changes through the implementation of the new national plan, which is just getting under way, he says. Federal officials met with state education officials this winter to figure out how to accomplish the 205 goals of the Ministry of Education’s plan, which covers preschool through higher education.

“We’ve made progress,” Fraustro says. “We have a specific plan with specific goals as to where to go.”

‘The people who scream the most, fight with the police, and paint the walls are the ones who get the better teaching positions.’

Eduardo Vélez Bustillo, the leader of the World Bank’s human-development sector for several Latin American countries, including Mexico, says the new national program doesn’t differ much from those that have been produced by previous administrations. He says it does, however, stand out in one respect: The plan emphasizes the evaluation of education results and making those evaluations public.

“It’s part of the new administration to be more transparent,” he says from his high-rise corner office that overlooks Mexico City. “This administration wants to put everything on the table.”

Coming in Next
Week’s Issue

Schools in Hillsboro, Ore., reach out to students and their families who have emigrated from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Language Note: All government education officials and researchers were interviewed for this and the accompanying articles either in English or through an interpreter. Parents, teachers (with the exceptions of Eduardo López López and Gabriela Pérez Ramírez, who speak English), and students were interviewed in Spanish.

Carlos Muñoz Izquierdo, an economist at the Universidad Iberoamerica in Mexico City and a veteran education researcher, says the success of the new education program—which he believes is well-designed—will depend on how well the Fox administration can overcome such difficult political hurdles to carrying it out as standing up to the teachers’ union. Muñoz is optimistic about the administration’s plans to establish a national institute for educational assessment.

“If this institute does what it intends to do, it will help to improve the quality of education,” he says. “It will permit quality control for the system. It will show the points that need to be reinforced.”

Such “isolated decisions” of the Fox administration have caused Muñoz to hold some hope for change.

Still, he adds: “The system is difficult to move.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Educating Mexico


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