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The state of Mexico’s public education system and student performance is dismal by any measure, having been co-opted for decades by two of the most corrupt and destructive teachers’ unions in the hemisphere. (Photo: Mexico Education Ministry)
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mexico Education Reform: Serious Setback

President Peña Nieto’s education reforms failing amidst union opposition.

Inter-American Dialogue

Upon taking office in 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced an ambitious education reform which Congress approved as part of a multi-party agreement. The cornerstone of the reform, policies to improve the performance of teachers, has met with contention, however. Just weeks before mid-term elections on June 7, the government announced an indefinite suspension of teacher performance evaluations, a measure widely viewed as an effort to calm the fierce opposition by teacher unions, before reversing course and reinstating them after the election. What is the state of education reform in Mexico today? Have political realities eroded expectations for what the reforms can accomplish this presidential term? What should be prioritized in order to improve the quality and performance of Mexico’s schools?

Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, president of 
While the Mexican government and the teachers’ unions keep fighting over proposed education reforms, students’ ability to find a good job and develop a competitive skillset to prosper in their careers is being irrevocably damaged. Students from Oaxaca, where some of the main union resistance is located, and other states, will finish only 80 days of classes, compared with more than the 180 days in other countries. In an increasingly automated, on-demand sharing economy, the competition for talent in the 21st century is global, and Mexican youth will be at a clear disadvantage with respect to the their peers in other countries. Teachers’ unions and political leaders should care. As Martin Ford states in his recent book, ‘The Rise of the Robots,’ ‘as more and more routine white-collar jobs fall to automation in countries throughout the world, it seems inevitable that competition will intensify to land one of the dwindling number of positions that remain beyond the reach of the machines.’ Today, more than 70 percent of jobs require some use of technology, the contract between employer and employee is broken, and learning to adapt and change is a critical skill for moving up in an increasingly mobile labor force. In this context, Mexico, where less than 15 percent of young people graduate from university, more than 50 percent drop out of high school, and the quality of education is low, the debate between the teachers unions’ and political leaders over halting education reform sounds flawed and outdated.

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior policy advisor at Chatham House: 
Mexico’s education ‘reform’ has been the Achilles heel of the package of major structural changes that President Peña Nieto proposed at the outset of his term and that were later passed by Congress. The state of Mexico’s public education system and student performance is dismal by any measure, having been co-opted for decades by two of the most corrupt and destructive teachers’ unions in the hemisphere. Peña Nieto thought that putting the leader of one of those unions, the SNTE, in jail would allow him to undertake a much-needed reform of the system, including how Mexican teachers are hired, evaluated and promoted, but this has been a total failure. While the SNTE is now a more docile institution, corrupt practices haven’t ended, and a rival union, the CNTE—created by the government years ago to weaken the monopoly of the then leader of the SNTE—has now become the reform’s main enemy. The CNTE’s practices of closing schools, demonstrating in the streets and causing major disruptions have stymied a government that seems unable or unwilling to effectively deal with the situation. The temporary suspension of teachers’ evaluations, from just before to just after the mid-term elections, was a blatant political maneuver designed to allow voters to cast their ballots in parts of the country where the teachers threatened to disrupt the election. Until and unless the government enforces the provisions of the reform and punishes dissidents who break the law, this part of Peña Nieto’s structural changes will remain a failure.

Marco A Fernández, professor in the School of Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey, researcher at Mexico Evalua and scholar in the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center: 
Education reform is making progress in Mexico, but the slow pace at which it is moving forward mirrors the political, technical and economic challenges that it entails. Politically, the reform is facing active opposition by the dissident teachers’ movement (CNTE), which has carried out multiple protests in order to derail this reform. It is also facing a less visible but not less significant resistance from the institutional section of the teachers’ union (SNTE), which continues to control key positions in the state education ministries. This institutional capture has, for example, allowed teacher absenteeism. The law establishes that any teacher who does not attend class for three or more days without justification should be dismissed. However, nobody has been fired despite continuous absentees. We are also facing the challenge of implementing fair and useful instruments for evaluating teachers. These evaluations are key in order to select better teachers and to identify skills that need to be strengthened in order to generate better results in the classroom. These efforts are costly, but the country needs to understand that this is the best investment we could make. There are multiple institutional challenges, such as an incomplete decentralization of educational services, which is undermining an adequate implementation of the reform. But above all, in order to achieve the goal of improving the quality of education, it is essential to curb corruption in the education system. The open contest for teachers’ posts is a step in the right direction, but we are far from having achieved the end of the corrupt practices that have dominated the Mexican education system for decades. We still have people being paid as teachers, despite their status as commissioned workers for the union and despite the new law forbidding this practice. It will take years to effectively fight corruption and to improve the quality of education—both public and private—but Mexico can no longer delay implementing the policies to solve this situation. The cost has been too high for its citizens’ welfare and for the possibility of improving the country’s socioeconomic results.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor