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US-Style School Reform Goes South | The Nation

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US-Style School Reform Goes South

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Meanwhile, Oaxaca’s progressive teachers union, Sección 22, formulated its own vision: the Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca (PTEO). The plan covers conditions for students, evaluation, teacher training and salary questions, among other things. But its most important principle is diversity. Oaxaca’s indigenous population speaks sixteen different languages. “Education must be grounded in the context of each of our towns,” explains Tranquilino Lavariega Cruz, coordinator of the Center for the Study of Educational Development in Sección 22. A teacher “has to see the cultural richness in these communities, in the people who live there.” A standard third-grade lesson on maps, for instance, asks the student to calculate the distance from the drugstore to the hospital. “If you give this exercise to a child who doesn’t know what a hospital or drugstore is, it has no educational value,” he points out. “We’re not saying that all knowledge is contextual—a five is a five no matter where you live. Certain elements of the curriculum are universal, but others can have their own context.”

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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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Another principle is equality. “Schools in the heart of the city should be equal to those in marginalized communities,” Lavariega asserts. To achieve this, the PTEO process forms collectives, first among teachers and other school staff and then including parents, students and community leaders. “Communities should be able to generate their own educational process,” he explains. The school collective decides on an educational project, implements it and holds everyone accountable.

Collectivity and accountability work, the Oaxacan teachers believe, while standardized testing doesn’t. Oaxaca is the one state where such tests have not been given. Lavariega charges that in the testing regime, “the teacher gives items to the student, which the student gives back. The test checks it. They’re treating education like a product.” And stakes are high, as tests become “the reference point in a process that can lead to firing a teacher, or cause a school to lose its certification and be closed. Taking its place is a private institution.”

The PTEO proposes that teachers and students keep diaries and maintain portfolios of their work. “While we don’t totally discard conventional tests, we should also have interviews and surveys,” says Torres, who represents secondary school teachers in a union committee overseeing the PTEO. “Teachers and families should sit down together and analyze what they find in the diaries and portfolios. Teachers can ask each other, ‘How did you explain a certain idea? How well did it work?’”

Oaxacan teachers envision evaluating teachers through their interaction with each other and with parents. “A good teacher is aware of the variation in the ways that children learn,” says Javier Rendón, a coordinator with the Oaxaca State Institute for Public Education, which administers the state’s schools. “We have to give each child what he or she needs, and it’s not the same. The focus of evaluation should be getting information that helps us change and improve the quality of education. The problem with the standardized test is its focus on competition.”

The training system in the normal schools also needs to be changed, teachers believe. “The development of a critical capacity is the key element,” Lavariega says. “We want a training program that sees a teacher as a source of social change, someone who has roots in a community.”

In Mexico, rural teachers historically have been as much social activists as educators. Nevertheless, for many years teacher training was not professionalized. It was only in 1997 that normal schools began granting the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. “The professionalization of teachers really began then,” Torres says. “Now, it’s not enough just to graduate—you need a master’s degree, and courses to keep you up to date.”

In Oaxaca, a teacher who graduates from a normal school and passes a teaching exam is guaranteed a job—the only state where this promise still exists. However, critics claim that a teacher can pass on his or her job to a son or daughter. “We still have teachers who were trained in a very different world,” Torres explains. “These teachers, who are now retiring, say they should still have the right to give their job to their children. There aren’t a lot of jobs in Oaxaca, and this practice wouldn’t exist if there were greater job opportunities. But it has created many problems. Today, the majority of teachers are professionals, but sometimes a teacher may not be very well prepared or may not have been trained in a normal school.”

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