April 9, 2013
Mexico's constitution is long -- 136 articles -- and goes into great detail. Article 1 states who and what are subject to the authority and protection of the constitution, shows respect for human rights and international treaties, and prohibits slavery. Article 2 recognizes the indivisible nature of the nation, its multiethnic nature, the rights of indigenous peoples' social, economic, political and cultural organization. Right on the heels comes Article 3, which states that the government will provide free and obligatory education that instills national and patriotic pride, democratic ideals, without association with any religion.
Being included in the nation's constitution makes education a federal government responsibility. This is very different from the U.S. where the constitution does not even mention education. The original 1917 version of Mexico's constitution made education free and obligatory through sixth grade. In the 1990's that was extended to ninth grade. In the early 2000's a tenth grade was added at the beginning of a child's educational program -- preschool.
2013 brings its own constitutional change in education. President Peña Nieto sent the Constitutional amendment to congress in December 2012. Known as the Educational Reform, the bill was approved by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Since it involved changes in Article 3 of the Constitution it was then sent to the state chambers of deputies for the required approval by two thirds of the state legislatures. It was ratified as a constitutional amendment that went into effect on February 25, within the first hundred days of the new administration!
The rules that will be used to implement the new law have yet to be written. Although the basic structure of the educational system will remain the same, the new guidelines require that public school teachers pass an evaluation by an autonomous institution that will be set up for that purpose. Will those that do not pass be laid off? Or will they be retrained? That is yet to be determined.
The Educational Reform requires that a census of teachers employed by the federal government be carried out. There are over a million teachers affiliated to the teacher's union -- the largest labor union in Latin America. However, there is no accurate count of the teachers employed by the federal government nor is there a census of public schools or a rating of the quality of the buildings, supplies, and installations. It will no longer be the teachers' union that will evaluate the competence of public school teachers. Under the new rules principals are expected to have discretionary control over spending taking into account each school's needs.
As with any change, the Educational Reform has generated discontent in sections of the teacher's union (SNTE), especially in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca where teachers have been blocking traffic on major highways as a way of demonstrating opposition to the changes.
Although children's test scores do not compare well with their peers in other countries, the textbooks used in Mexican schools do receive kudos. All schools, be they public or private, are required to use the federally issued Libro de Texto Gratuito (Free Textbook) series in grades 1 through 6. The whole country is moving through the textbook series at the same pace. The exceptions would be classes in bilingual classrooms for Indigenous children. Lesson plans, tests, and examinations are all included in the free textbook series. Teachers using the series are much like technicians following pre-designed instructions.
In grades 7 through 9 -- known as first, second, and third years of "secundaria" --schools have some leeway in choosing their textbooks, however they must be chosen from among those approved by the Secretariat of Public Education.
In grades 10 through 12 -- first, second, and third years of "preparatoria" -- Mexican students start specializing. They may choose a professional track leading to college or attend technical, vocational, nursing, or normal schools. In English, the term "normal school" isn't used much any more, but in Mexico it is the designated term for teachers training schools. Until the 1990's graduates of normal schools with a twelfth grade education entered the labor market with a teachers' certificate for grades 1 through 6. Now they are required to also complete a three-year licenciatura (bachelor's degree) program concurrently with their first years of teaching.
Normal schools are scattered throughout the country. Many are boarding schools located in rural areas where they constitute the only institution of higher learning for miles around. Although they offer students full scholarships including room and board on campus they are on extremely restricted budgets. Heartwarming stories emerge from them about students taking turns preparing meals for their classmates, stretching the food budget, dealing with bureaucratic and teachers' union red tape.
The relative ease with which a teachers' certificate can be obtained, coupled with job security offered by Mexican labor law, the perks associate with federal government employment, and a teachers' union that has played a strong role in making placement assignments leads to an understandably strong opposition to Educational Reform among public school teachers.
It is going to be interesting to follow the Educational Reform. It will be a major factor in determining Mexico's future.