MEXICO CITY — As one of the cultural leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Jose Vasconcelos fiercely promoted education in Mexico as a key to the progress of the state. During his heavy involvement in the writing of the Constitution of 1917, he managed to reinstate the Ministry of Education. As a result, the government promised all citizens free and easy access to education.
Nearly 100 years later, education in Mexico now struggles under the weight of suspected corruption, uncommitted teachers and lack of resources. While still free, public schools lack results. Only about 0.7 percent of Mexican students pass the advanced math level in the OECD’s International Student Assessment exam. In contrast, 10 percent of students from the United States reach that level.
Scarcity of appropriate learning spaces certainly contributes to this glaring problem. Many students do not have classrooms and are forced to meet outdoors, while some schools have no access to clean water. These problems are only exacerbated in poor, rural areas.
In 2013, the Mexican government shipped 26 million textbooks dotted with hundreds of mistakes. While some of these errors amounted to simple typos or grammatical slips, others were as serious as listing incorrect locations for important historical sites.
The most concerning issue for education in Mexico is the shrinking number of dependable teachers. Out of all the teachers on the payrolls, 13 percent never show up to work. Over 60 percent of schools report that many teachers are habitually absent, leaving children without any form of instruction.
These “phantom teachers” contribute to an exceedingly high dropout rate. Most Mexican citizens exit school after seventh grade. Alternatively, most United States citizens finish with at least a high school education.
When asked about the source of these issues in the public education system, most politicians and administrators point to the looming teachers union, SNTE. Leaders within the union claim ultimate authority in teacher selection and discipline. Loopholes in the law allow teachers to sell their jobs when they retire. Teachers could even to pass their jobs down to their children. As a result, many teachers are entirely unqualified. Some sources claim that since SNTE distributes jobs to the highest bidders, they are reluctant to fire any teachers.
Early on in his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto enacted a series of education reforms with the goal of clearing out absentee and ineffective teachers with evaluative tests. In retaliation, unionized teachers initiated a strike, leaving over one million children without instructors. The government ultimately redacted the reforms.
Unfortunately, most families have no alternatives to the troubled public school system. Private schools are especially costly for the rural poor and do not produce any better test scores than those from public schools.
In the days before the Constitution of 1917, Mexican schools were in shambles. A twenty percent literacy rate and an extreme shortage of capable teachers left the Mexican youth without education during the revolution. Only the rich could afford education, either from private institutions or abroad. The government and the upper class had all but forgotten the rural poor.
After three years of extensive government intervention headed by Jose Vasconcelos, the public education system was reconstructed and functional. Education in Mexico, especially schooling in rural areas, became a special focus of the state. This period became known as a cultural revolution throughout Mexico and produced many of Mexico’s well known achievements.
Vasconcelos and the support he once earned from the Mexican government give a message of hope. Although the schools are doing poorly now, this is not to say that the future is hopeless. With ample support from state officials and a few visionary thinkers, children across Mexico can receive the instruction they deserve.
– Emiliano Perez