Mexican Education Reform from Below

September 16, 2013


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.”

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I appreciate that you've highlighted the deep social and regional differences that have been ignored by the media during this conflict, but what you've presented shows the CNTE as a victim, and ignores that their actions and methods of protests do not neccessarily represent the interests of poor professors that you talk about in the article. I agree that the political management of authorities in this conflict is way below desirable, but this is not a fight between "authoritarian government" and "social fighters", the organizatios behind and the dubious financing of this protest are no less dark that what they criticize. 

Ana, I don't know if you're aware of what's really going on in the indigenous communities and with the professors that are trying to teach there, or aware of what the CNTE is really fighting for.  It seems you're not when you talk about the "organizations behind and the dubious financing"  of the protests. What organizations are you referring to? And have you gone to the place where the teachers are? (Zócalo/Monumento a la Revolución) Have you tried to speak with them about their protest? Have you seen the condition of the places where they're trying to pass these nights? I don't think so, because if you had you will immediately know that they can't be financed by anyone. They are people that work and have their own money to buy a plastic and a blanket to cover from the rain.

Emma I have been there....I have been talking to the Teachers and I have seen the places that they are occupying affecting thousands of hard working small entrepreneurs and affecting the population of Mexico City....some of them have no clue of what they are there for exactly

Wow, how one sided can you be? As Ana states, you are trying to make the CNTE as the victim. The same CNTE that was led by Ester Gordillo, one of the most corrupt characters in Mexican politics and that is saying a lot. Luckily she has been arrested and is going to hopefully rot in jail for the corruption this reform is trying to halt. Interestingly you did not mention how the majority of the teachers in Mexico (I am Mexican and currently live in the state of Jalisco) do not earn or even go to a job interview for their teachers postion. Their position as teacher is handed down by family members. Yes, you have to only have finished high school and you can teach any field your relative hands to you. I personally know of someone who did not speak English, but his mother inherited her teachers position to him when she retired and he now teaches an English class in secondary school (jr high). That is what this reform is trying to stop, no more hand me downs to unqualified relatives. There are also, literallyl thousands of phantom teachers getting a paycheck every month, because the CNTE does not keep track of teachers, schools, teachers attendance, nothing. Here, teachers in public schools are abstent from schools many, many days because they cannot be fired. They don't show up because they don't want to or are too busy striking. The CNTE is more worried about losing their political power than they are of education our children. Don't be fooled. And just a side note, under the CNTE a high ranking drug dealer from the state of Michoacan who had been a teacher prior to his involvement in drug trafficking had be receiving a paycheck for ten years, even though the CNTE knew he was a drug trafficer and he hadn't been teaching. Once Gordillo was arrested, they cancelled his paycheck. THIS is why the internet is so great, you  no longer have to rely on just one side of the story. 

Thank you for providing your insightful comments. I agree with thejm. I have just spent several weeks studying the reform plan for a speech I am going to give. What you say about the CNTE is true, and it isn´t even the unión that represents most of the teachers. The SNTE is that unión.

Why is it that public school teachers who can afford it, send their own children to private schools?

I do have some serious concerns about the governments ability to carry out the reform. The Minsterio de Educacion neither has the eperience nor the impartiality to carry out the reform. I worry that government officials will simply start to sell the credentials that are necessary to become a teacher under the new laws.

Clearly there is a lot of work to be done.

Just a note, Elba Esther was the leader of the SNTE, not the CNTE.

I really appreciate this note. Here in Mecico we feel without voice in this gubernamental imposition. Every ones of "REFORMAS" are hit us. There are not benefits to people.

This article is very one sided. I agree that a major problem with the proposed reform is that the Ministry of Education of the Government, filled with bureaucrats with little technical expertise, is going to be carrying out the evaluation of the teachers. And I can understand the anger of teachers that the government is now requiring them to pass a test to keep their jobs. In 2008, 70% of the graduates of Mexican teaching schools failed a test used internationally to establish the competency of teahers. Many of the existing teachers are very poorly qualified and will have trouble passing any kind of competency test. The government ought to provide them the type of training that would allow them to pass the tests and keep their jobs.

But when the teachers quoted say that the reform is an attack on workers rights you need to know what rights teahers have in Mexico , courtesy of the unions. In Mexico, a teacher can purchase his-or her job or inherit it from a parent, without regard to his or her educational background. In Mexico, a teacher can miss class whenever he or she wishes without providing justification. And in Mexico, it is almost impossible to fire a teacher for poor performance or bad behavior. If a teacher really does something bad, he or she is simply transferred to another school. In Mexico when you become a teacher you have a life time job.

The writer of the article ought to talk to the Mexican parents who send their children to public schools, many of which are little more than day care centers. I know a Preschool teacher who is very concerned about the evaluation requirement. I find it interesting, that she sends her own children to private schools.

I am also concerned that while the Mexican government devotes an ample portion of its budget to edcuation -- 5 percent -- more than the percent of the budget in Canada and Australia and just below the United States -- that a lot of the money does not reach the schools or the teachers. The union employs thousands of ¨Maestros Comisionados" who are teachers in name but work for the union outside of the schools. In a recent article in a Veracruz newspaper, it listed the salaries of some of the 600 of these teachers. Many of them received monthly salaries of $5,000 or more, while an average Mexican classroom teacher makes $1400 a month. And the leader of the Teachers Union, spent several million dollars over the last few years at the Neiman Marcus department store in San Diego, where she owns a mansion. She claims to have inherited her money from her Grandfather. That unión leader is currently in jail, accused of having stolen $200 million from Union accounts.

By the way, CNTE, is not the national teachers unión that represents most of the teachers. It is a radical unión group that acts independenltly of the national unión (the SNTE)

So while the author of this article has tremendous sympathy for the teachers of Mexico, I have tremendous sympathy for the Mexican parents, whose children receive a substandard education that deprives them of the future that they deserve.

Una protesta laboral ha perdido su escencia y se ha transformado en "La Madre de Todas las Protestas". Los maestros han dejado de serlo para convertirse en revolucionarios. Los habitantes de la ciudad de México cada vez son mas víctimas. Los padres de los alumnos han tenido que transformarse en maestros transitorios y/o cooperantes que contratan maestros provisionales. Y los alumnos... los alumnos siguen de vacaciones.

I can't believe no-one has cenmemtod yet on this great piece of work. I too am a mom who is struggling to find my place in the education system to support my kids and their teachers. I often worry that my involvement is seen as telling them what to do or sticking my nose in . Reality is that I see that they too want things to change but sometimes need support, expertise, advocacy and cheerleading to make it happen. This project you have shared really encapsulates what I would like to say to them so that they learn not to fear parent involvement. That we simply want to be part of finding solutions for our SHARED interest. We are all after the same thing, we just need to drop the roles and work as a team.

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