We’re just 30 minutes outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, when the pavement ends. In the back of a pickup truck, we travel three hours down a series of dirt roads through bumpy but gorgeous mountainous terrain to the town of Santiago Huaxolotipac, home to fewer than 1,500 people. The surrounding mountains are dotted by crumbling homes without electricity or running water, without fortified roofs to protect them from rainstorms, which on occasion can lead to mudslides that literally rip homes from the ground.
But the 130 residents of this small, southern Mexican pueblo who attend literacy and adult education classes in the town’s plaza two or three times a week aren’t deterred by those conditions, or by the hour-and-a-half hike many of them take through difficult terrain to reach their classroom. These abuelitos, or grandparents, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, walk (or run) with rugged shoes down the surrounding hills to learn from four amazing young people who had the chance to receive the education they never had, and who have decided to give back. When some of their elderly students can’t make it down the mountain for class, the young teachers go up to make sure they don’t fall behind. It’s yeoman’s work, and it’s part of a Mexican tradition.
Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in all of Mexico, with the third-lowest literacy rate and one of the highest percentages of indigenous people of any state in the country. Those factors add to the enormous task for the Instituto Nacional de la Educacion de Adultos (National Institute of Adult Education), or INEA, and more specifically, for the state counterpart here in Oaxaca, known as the Instituto Estatal para la Educación de Adultos (State Institute for Adult Education), or IEEA. Many of the people working out of a four-story building in the Colonia Reforma neighborhood in Oaxaca city, dedicating their careers to this cause, are paid little. And their counterparts, providing the direct assistance and teaching to these adults, are paid even less.
Among 25- to 64-year-olds in Mexico, a staggering 63 percent have not completed secondary education. This problem demands reform to the education system that goes beyond new standards for teachers and more frequent evaluation to a heavy investment in expanded access to free public education for all ages. Amazingly, Mexico seems to be doing much more in the realm of adult education than for K-12. While Mexican schools are technically free and public, in reality 93 percent of Mexican families have had to pay supposedly voluntary cuotas, or school fees, that can often be prohibitive for poorer families. Many say the cuotas have gotten worse since President Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2013 education reforms, which included some vital changes to teacher licensure protocols toward a more merit-based approach.
But for adults throughout Mexico, more than 140,000 local learning circles brought to bear by INEA provide guided instruction in basic literacy, reading, math, Spanish language arts, and even targeted instruction in a dozen native languages for indigenous communities.
INEA was founded in 1981 to address the challenge of adult education, and the nationwide system it has put into place since then is breathtaking. From cities to small towns to the insides of prisons, INEA seeks to educate Mexico’s adults on only 1 percent of the national education budget. As of March, INEA had nearly 78,000 facilitators throughout the country working with circles of study, each circle averaging 10 learners. The state-funded INEA boasts some impressive results, especially considering it spends only an average of $750 a year per learner (and that’s a high estimate including all of the institute’s expenses). INEA lists its costs per learner on materials alone at just $198. Currently, over 1.5 million adults are enrolled nationwide, 63 percent of whom have reported occupational advancement thanks to their studies.
[A] <i>national</i> commitment to adult education could transform the American economy."
The Plazas Comunitarias, which serve as the venues for these adult education classes in Mexico, were established in 2001. In 2004, the United States and Mexico, by joint agreement, established roughly 400 such community centers, mainly in public libraries and community colleges, in the United States. Here in the United States, they serve a high-need Hispanic immigrant community, offering both adult education and English-as-a-second-language classes.
While this offers a big leg up for one population, it leaves a huge swath of our adults in need out of the picture. A patchwork of state-by-state programs does its best to serve this demographic, but a national commitment to adult education could transform the American economy.
The adult education system in the United States is in critical condition. With over 30 million adults lacking high school diplomas and more than 20 percent lacking basic literacy skills, we are failing to meet this critical need. In fact, our adult education system serves only 2 million adults a year—leaving tens of millions more without services and waiting on long lists to enter available programs. We spend an average of $10,000 a year per K-12 pupil, but only about $800 on each adult. Yet, we actually spend a larger percentage of our education budget on adults than Mexico does.
There is also a downside to the Mexican program, impressive as it is in reach: its dependence on armies of volunteers and low-paid workers who often work near full-time hours with no benefits. In the United States, however, we could build a mixed team of well-paid professionals and volunteer-educators to address this need. Adult learning centers in every community would provide a gratifying and empowering opportunity for successful young people with community-service hours to fulfill, to share their learning with less fortunate adult peers.
Education funding often gets short shrift partly because it’s hard for politicians to seethe political benefit of an investment that won’t show dividends in the workforce for years. But not so with adult education, where trained adults immediately enter or re-enter the workforce ready for more-challenging work. In his 2015 budget, California Gov. Jerry Brown made a massive investment in adult education that is sure to yield big results, an effort that should serve as a model for other states. Educating adults is proven to boost children’s academic success, improve health, make communities safer, and increase voting.
We talk a lot about a transitioning economy that is moving away from traditional manufacturing, and the resulting need for job training and retraining. However, too many adults who have lost the professions that sustained them for decades still feel left behind by political lip service that has yet to translate into a broad and effective commitment. While a few cities around the country, including Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, have started adult charter schools, as reported by education reporter Kavitha Cardoza, Washington is a “national leader” with more than 10 such schools in the city.
We need this kind of investment on a national scale. I believe the same spirit that drives elderly Mexican men and women to learn and progress against the odds exists for Americans all over the country who simply can’t access the education they deserve. It’s a political season, and if candidates running for president in 2016 (and for every other office) want to restore economic opportunity and truly leave no one behind, this issue is waiting for a champion.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as What Mexico Gets Right About Adult Education