US-Style School Reform Goes South | The Nation


US-Style School Reform Goes South

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The president of Mexicanos Primero, Claudio González Guajardo, is the co-founder of the Televisa Foundation. Televisa, one of Mexico’s two television networks, was key to electing its last three presidents. In August, newly elected President Peña Nieto appointed González to head his transition team on education. At a dinner a month later, González told him that “Mexicans elected you, not the [teachers] union,” and urged him to “end the power of the union over hiring, promotion, pay and benefits for teachers.”

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Founded in 2005, Mexicanos Primero advocates standardized tests and merit pay for teachers based on test results. These principles were incorporated into the Alliance for Quality Education (ACE), negotiated in 2008 between the union’s Gordillo and then-President Felipe Calderón. In 2009, the government began administering a national standardized test for students, called ENLACE. Advocates of the corporate education reform agenda point to the poor results by Mexican students on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an association of wealthy developed nations. In 2009, 50 percent of 15-year-olds scored a level 2 or below (on a scale of 0 to 5) in math or science.

According to many teachers, however, PISA and ENLACE don’t take context into account. Hernández Navarro says these tests imitate those mandated by No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law mandating standardized testing in the United States. “But schools by themselves can’t overcome the divides of socioeconomic inequality,” he says. The reports by Mexicanos Primero “invent a crisis in order to make up myths about educational disaster and present Mexican teachers as privileged and irresponsible.” Likewise, a study by Susana López Guerra of the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional in Querétaro and Marcelo Flores Chávez of the Colegio de Bachilleres of Querétaro argues that PISA evaluates “socioeconomic condition, rather than actual intelligence, the difference in reading and writing abilities, or some other knowledge.” The “assumption,” López says, “is that social classes do not exist, nor is there socioeconomic and cultural inequality between developed and developing countries.”

“In Mexico, there is a great difference between communities,” Torres says. “Some schools function very well because they have resources and the attention of the families. Others don’t. That doesn’t justify bad conditions, but to think that the only ones responsible are the teachers is just not true.” Eduardo Bravo Esqueda, formerly of the National Institute for the Physical Infrastructure of Schools, notes that “students study for six hours a day…where the temperature rises to 104 in the summer or where they freeze in the winter.” According to Hernández Navarro, over 26,000 of the 223,144 basic education schools have no water, and many have no functional bathrooms or lighting. Nevertheless, Mexico’s testing system has begun to tie teachers’ jobs to the test results. “If they don’t achieve the educational goals, that’s when the firings begin,” Torres says.

In “Advances in the Reform of Basic Education in Mexico,” the OECD called for putting teacher-training schools (called “normal schools”) on probation pending necessary reforms while opening the door to private ones. It also urged incoming President Peña Nieto to fire teachers whose students perform poorly on standardized tests and exclude them from teaching. Similar measures are also advocated by a Washington think tank, the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas, a project of the Inter-American Dialogue.

PREAL’s Alexandra Solano justified the testing regime by arguing that “even small percentages of ineffective teachers can impact the economic chances of students and nations.” She cited a controversial study by the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek, which asserts that a bad teacher will cost a US student $400,000 in lifetime earnings. Hanushek, Solano claimed, “found that replacing the least effective 5-7% of teachers with average teachers in the U.S. could increase its annual growth rate by 1% of the GDP [about $150 billion].” New York University’s Diane Ravitch, however, has cast doubt on Hanushek’s findings: “There’s a difference between trying to show that teachers differ in their abilities and saying that firing people based on a criterion that nobody supports will produce huge results in the real world.”

PREAL, “the strongest private voice on education in Latin America,” supports the goals of Mexicanos Primero. Its director, Jeff Puryear, a former Ford Foundation officer, spoke at the ¡De Panzazo! screening. In addition to funding from the World Bank, PREAL received grants from the US Agency for International Development of more than $6 million from 2001 to 2006, and nearly $12 million from 2007 to 2012.

Puryear says that “PREAL has done very little in Mexico,” citing a conference and a few studies. According to USAID staffer Raphael Cook, PREAL has provided funds to local partner organizations in other countries in the region, including Businessmen for Education in Colombia, the Business Foundation for Educational Development in El Salvador and the Private Sector Council for Education Assistance in Panama.

The Inter-American Development Bank helped create a similar group, the Latin American Network of Civil Society Organizations for Education, which includes Mexicanos Primero in Mexico. The  work of these groups is premised on the notion that there is a crisis in education, “shifting attention from the origin of economic and sociocultural problems to the school environment,” Susana López argues. Education, she adds, “is transformed from a human right into a commodity.”

Mexican teachers resist this idea and demonstrated for months when the ACE was introduced in 2008. This February, thousands of teachers filled Mexico City’s streets, protesting Peña Nieto’s education program. They were organized by the rank-and-file caucus, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), which for decades has battled the leaders of Mexico’s teachers union—including Gordillo.

The CNTE took aim at the alliance between the government, the national leadership of their union and corporate education reformers. While still president of the SNTE, Gordillo and Mexicanos Primero’s González shared a platform at a 2011 conference called “Competitiveness and Education.” There, González called CNTE strikes in Michoacan and Oaxaca “a crime against youth.” He called the normal schools “a swarm of politics and shouting” and demanded that the government replace them with private institutions. That fall, police killed three students from the Ayotzinga Normal School in Guerrero after the students there blocked a highway. 

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