Education Reform in Mexico

by | Oct 24, 2001

Because the Secretariat of Public Education is, more than any other public building, an edifice of the people, the theme of its decoration could not be other than the life of this same people. So wrote Diego Rivera in a 1925 article about the murals lining the interior courtyards of the elegant old building. And so it is that Rivera’s murals depict miners, peasants, artisans, steelworkers, weavers, mothers, and others at their daily labors, as well as communities observing age-old rituals of life and death. Collectively, they speak to the future of the country’s common people and to the centrality of work and education to that future. In one panel, a teacher in a rural school sits on the ground, a book in her lap, while children and adults of all ages listen intently. In another, a teacher instructs a circle of children, as workers, peasants, engineers, and soldiers build a new industrial world.

Today, faith in the value of education remains strong in Mexico. In public opinion polls, education usually ranks among the top issues that concern Mexican parents most. Politicians, regardless of party, regularly promise that, if elected, they will give more attention to education (the issue was on the agenda of Vicente Fox as he campaigned for president). Moreover, 94 percent of Mexico’s primary school children are enrolled in public schools. As of yet, it appears that the middle classes have not voted with their feet by giving up on public education something that is happening in so many other countries in Latin America.

Why, then, as I was interviewing those who participated in the 1992 education reform, did I not hear about parents demanding that the system do a better job of educating their children? Why was there no mention of groups of citizens participating in the negotiations to decentralize the system? Why was there no national education commission leading a public discussion about the state of the country’s school system? Why, eight years after the reform, was there not more mention of communities putting pressure on state governors to improve the schools? Answers to these questions suggest that the legacies of a centralized and authoritarian system continue to limit the potential to improve the quality of one of the most important institutions in Mexico, its public schools.

The reform of 1992 decentralized basic education to Mexico’s states, introduced a new system for upgrading and rewarding the quality of teaching, and provided for an updated and relevant curriculum. Although efforts to decentralize the country’s education system date back to the late 1950s, earlier initiatives were defeated or stalled because of the opposition of the teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educaciôn (SNTE), the largest and probably most powerful union in all of Latin America. After an important change in the leadership of the union, however, the SNTE sat down with the president, officials of the Secretariat of Education, and the country’s governors to sign an agreement that allowed decentralization to proceed apace. In fact, almost all of the negotiations leading up to the agreement centered on getting the support of the union. Even the governors were minor actors in the accord, and a good number of them were not particularly pleased with such weighty new responsibilities.

In 1993, a law put the accord into effect, formally assigning administrative responsibilities for teachers and primary and normal schools to the states. While the reform initiative was notable for the absence of broad discussions, it formally recognized the importance of participation. Social participation councils were to be established at the school level along with new municipal councils to bring together parents, local officials, teachers, administrators, and representatives of business and religious organizations to discuss issues of importance to the local education system. In fact, however, these councils have never effectively involved parents and other citizens in the schools.

For most of those I interviewed recently, the absence of participation in discussions about public education was easy to explain it was due to historical and political legacies. Look, said one official, the school room is a closed space in the community. Ever since the Cristero War, the idea of opening the school to parents and communities meant opening them up to the church and conservative elements. Others mentioned the fear that the classroom could be taken over by the PRI and would become another point for the party to exercise control or that other parties would seek to make it a space for opposition to the PRI. Better, they argued, to keep the school as free of this as possible. Many people reminded me of how decades of authoritarianism had discouraged autonomous organization around themes of public interest. In education, the long-cemented corporatist relationship between the SNTE, the PRI, and the government meant little opportunity for broader participation in policy making.

At local levels, participation also faces significant impediments. The school councils, indicated one observer, never had a chance in the face of the union and the power of the school professionals. One official argued, Traditionally, teachers have been very jealous of their rights in the classroom. The constitution says the role of parents is to see that their children get to school that’s all! According to others, The teacher decides what happens in the classroom, and does not invite others to share in such decisions. If parents complain or put pressure on the school or the teacher, the teacher will retaliate against the child in the class. The parents know this and are very reluctant to speak out.

There is, of course, a long tradition of parental cooperation with local schools, a tradition that seems particularly strong in poor rural and indigenous areas of the country, in which parents are called upon to provide funds for maintenance, special programs, and special events. But, as one official noted, cooperation is very different from participation.

And, in fact, there may be little that parents can do locally to influence the performance of local schools. Although state governments currently administer basic and normal education and municipalities were recently given responsibility for the construction of schools, Mexico’s education system remains highly centralized. Curriculum is nationally determined; base salaries and benefits for teachers are determined nationally; most of the funding remains national; and the national government maintains its role in setting standards and criteria for educational achievement. The teachers look to national decision makers to tell them what to teach and how to teach it and they do not have much leeway for responding to parental demands, even if prepared to do so. Moreover, in a number of states, the SNTE has become a powerful force in determining many administrative issues.

In addition, the decentralization reform has been fraught with ambiguities. As one observer noted, If you go to the governor or the secretariat of education in the state and complain, they will say, No, no, we don’t have anything to do with that; you have to go to the federal government. If you go to the federal government to complain, they will say, No, no, that’s the responsibility of the state. Given the difficulty of assigning responsibilities, concerned citizens find it difficult to hold officials directly accountable for educational performance.

The designers of Mexico’s reform were adamant that the quality of education in the country would not improve until the system was decentralized and the hold of the union over education policy was weakened. Eight years after the law that sanctioned the agreement was approved, however, there is little evidence that the quality of education in the country has improved in general. According to one government official, The reform is an unfinished one. It is caught in a culture of centralization and the pacted hegemony of the SNTE. Another informant called the 1992 reform a great missed opportunity.

This is a bleak picture. Nevertheless, many of those concerned about education in Mexico believe that things are changing for the better, albeit slowly. The curriculum has been improved. Information, long monopolized by government, is becoming more available and should be a stimulus to greater public discussion of the challenges of improving the education system. The teachers union is gradually becoming more concerned about more professional aspects of teaching and some teachers are actively adopting new forms of pedagogy. Several governors, notably those from smaller and more developed states, such as Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, and Tabasco, have committed their administrations to improving public education. They have faced down the SNTE, provided more resources for education, and begun innovative new programs. And in some states, interesting new programs in civic education are being introduced with the hope that future generations will have a greater appreciation of the role of citizen participation in democratic government.

But more could be done to improve public education in Mexico. In pushing for better education, a counterweight is needed to the teachers union, which continues to be the most powerful determinant of education policy and its implementation. At the national level, public discussions are needed to heighten citizen concern for issues of quality and equity and the importance of education in a rapidly globalizing economy. Wider availability of information from the education secretariat, from independent national and local sources, and from comparative sources would be a welcome addition to more informed debate.

Also central to the future of education is the creation of more spaces in which parents and communities can become active in encouraging and monitoring what occurs in the classroom. In addition, attention needs to be focused on the next step in decentralization to the municipal or school district level. If public debate and further decentralization occur, presidents, governors, and mayors along with teachers and school supervisors may find increased incentives to provide Mexico’s children with the kind and quality of education they so clearly need and deserve.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Merilee Grindle, a member of the DRCLAS Executive Committee, is Edward S. Mason Professor of International Developmen at the Kennedy School of Government. Her most recent book, published last year, is Audacious Reforms: Institutional Invention and Democracy in Latin America. She is currently doing research on the politics of education reforms in Latin America.

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