Mexican Education Reform from Below
Over the past month tens of thousands of Mexican teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets to protest the federal government’s plans for education reform. The vast majority are members of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Eduación (CNTE), a national teacher’s union. Many are women, and most are from states like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Veracruz, which have high levels of poverty, a large indigenous population, and a long history of civil disobedience. It is not uncommon for these teachers to earn $600 (8,000 pesos) a month or less.
President Peña Nieto first announced his top-down technocratic education reform proposal on December 10, 2012 as part of his reform-filled “Pact for Mexico,” and in February 2013 the Federal Legislature declared the reform constitutional. Yet, just over two weeks ago, the Legislature hastily passed a series of secondary laws, known the Ley del Servicio Profesional Docente (LSPD), which Peña Nieto signed into law. Similar to the initial education reform proposal, this measure—which clearly threatens teachers’ labor rights—was implemented based on the president’s argument that it would “improve the quality of education.”
The central aim of the controversial LSPD is to force teachers, principals, counselors, and staff to submit to mandatory assessments designed by the National Institute for Educational Evaluation (INEE). Teachers will have up to three opportunities to pass the evaluations during a period of two years. If they don’t, they will lose their jobs or be reassigned to an administrative position. The law is designed to curtail teachers’ labor rights and the power of their unions rather than improve an education system that has suffered for decades at the hands of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who have shown little to no concern about the actual quality of education.
The CNTE’s teachers oppose education reform, but not for the reasons reported by much of the mainstream national and international media. Contrary to reports, the teachers do not oppose evaluations. In fact, they agree that periodic evaluations should be done, but believe education experts should develop and administer them instead of government officials or business groups. Moreover, according to the CNTE, education reform should take into account “the diverse needs of children and youth from dozens of distinct cultures, from the countryside and from the city, from the north and from the center and from the south of the country, from the Yucatán to Baja California.” In a policy statement titled “Towards The Education We Mexicans Need,” sent to the Ministry of the Interior on May 2, 2013, the CNTE shared its vision for Mexican education reform, including an alternative method of teacher evaluation:
We propose a different form of evaluation, from the bottom up. A horizontal evaluation that originates from the schools and communities, developed as a dialogic exercise in each area, region, and state. An assessment that, while describing the problems, analyzes the factors that cause them as well as potential remedies, and documents the successful experiences of teachers and schools in improving education. From these evaluation processes that engage students, teachers, schools, communities and authorities to define and offer solutions to local and regional problems, it is possible to build national and educational policies from below with broad support. . . It is essential, however, that these evaluation processes are supported with expert advice and descriptive and diagnostic studies that allow educational problems to be viewed and analyzed from other perspectives, thus further strengthening ways to improve them.
The federal government’s education reform did not take these points into consideration. Teachers’ input was ignored or not sought out at all. In doing so, the government exhibited a lack of respect for educators and the traditions, needs, and input of local communities. That is why tens of thousands of Mexican teachers took to the streets, shouting slogans against the top-down education reform and in support of their labor rights.
Although the government has excluded the CNTE and ignored their education reform proposals, the massive mobilization of teachers illustrates their demand to be heard, and desire to participate in education reform—which, of course, will affect them more than anyone else.
Teachers have occupied central plazas throughout the country, blocked off the Mexico City airport and other important thoroughfares, and forced President Enrique Peña Nieto to change the date and place of his first State of the Union address. Their actions and the resultant traffic congestion have led to frustration and anger for some. Yet, as one writer noted, “traffic problems caused by the CNTE’s protests are, sincerely, the least of this country’s problems and injustices.” Nonetheless, the government and much of the mainstream media, including the Televisa-TV Azteca duopoly, have blamed teachers and criminalized their protest. According to recent polls, the majority of Mexicans have turned against them.
But the teachers are not the problem, and the government’s proposed education reform will neither improve education nor resolve the more serious problems facing Mexico today, which include income inequality, discrepancies in educational access and resources, lack of infrastructure, poverty, and underdevelopment. Using the teachers as scapegoats is the government’s way of shirking its responsibility to address these problems. Instead of blaming teachers the federal government should solicit and heed their input, be mindful of local and regional contexts when formulating any education reform, and accept responsibility in reducing economic inequality and bettering material conditions.
“The PRI government has wrongly called this education reform. But it is not education reform. It is a labor reform. Why? Because it goes after our rights as workers,” Alfonso Arellano, a teacher from Oaxaca, told independent journalist Andalusia Knoll. “Educational reform would be structural and related to the curriculum, and would be directly related to the students. This wrongly called educational reform is changing the constitutional articles and putting into risk all of the labor rights that historically the CNTE has gained with 30 years of struggle.”
Ofelia Imelda Rivera Cortes, a teacher from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, told Knoll, “There are many communities where there is no electricity. Teachers have to walk one or two days just to arrive at the community. . . They want to send Enciclomedia (a digital learning program) to a community where there is no electricity. How will that work? The government’s proposals are very illogical.”
Photograph: Adam Goodman
(the sign on the right reads, "I am dangerous, I teach")
Over the past few weeks the CNTE has continued to seek a dialogue with government officials in the hopes of revising the education reform legislation and its secondary laws. But Peña Nieto and other lawmakers have not been interested in talking. On September 11th a police blockade on el Paseo de la Reforma, a main avenue in Mexico City, turned into a violent confrontation in which police gassed marching teachers.
Then, Friday morning, in advance of Sunday’s “El Grito” (Mexico’s independence day celebration which traditionally takes place in the central plaza), more than three thousand riot gear-clad federal police equipped with helmets, large plastic shields, and batons descended upon the Zócalo and forcibly removed the teachers. Bulldozers destroyed the teachers’ encampments as police helicopters circled overhead. Police shot tear gas and turned water cannons on protestors, some of whom had rocks and sticks. A small number of protestors—it is unclear whether they were teachers, self-described anarchists, or others—threw Molotov cocktails. Reports indicated that the police detained around 34 people, and 40 people and an additional 15 police officers suffered injuries.
After being evicted from the Zócalo, the teachers relocated to the Monument of the Revolution. On Sunday they organized a “megamarch” that culminated in an alternative “Grito of Independence in rebellion, and in rejection of the authoritarian PRI government.” The CNTE also announced plans to retake the Zócalo this Wednesday, September 18th, and called for a general strike on the 19th and 20th.
Although the outcome of their struggle is still unclear, many see the teachers’ call for continued resistance as an encouraging sign. “The hope today in Mexico is not in Peña Nieto or in his new Pact for Mexico,” said John Ackerman, professor of law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Rather, for Ackerman and many others, the country’s hope lies “in the new social movements of teachers, students, women, of peasants, who are proposing new ways to think about the Mexican state in a more participative, democratic fashion.”