US-Style School Reform Goes South

US-Style School Reform Goes South

Reformers are targeting Mexican teachers, wielding tests as a weapon. Sound familiar?


Members of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) raise their fists during a protest march to commemorate National Teachers Day in Mexico City May 15, 2012. Thousands of teachers from the state of Oaxaca and Mexico City took part to protest against the mandatory evaluation tests for teachers and to demand the removal of their union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, according to local media. Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Just weeks after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered the arrest of the country’s most powerful union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. The move garnered international headlines and was widely cast as a sign that the government was serious about cracking down on corruption. But virtually no one in Mexico believes that was the real reason for her arrest.

The timing alone suggests a different interpretation. Gordillo, president of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), was charged with embezzlement and removed from office in late February—shortly after the Mexican Congress gave its final approval to an education reform program that is despised by most of the country’s teachers.

Gordillo was a longtime ally of the famously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party not only of Peña Nieto but of the disgraced former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who imposed her as the union’s president in 1989, after forcing her predecessor to resign. Although Gordillo was forced out of the party several years ago in a power struggle, she remained one of the most powerful politicians in Mexico.

An anti-democratic union leader, Gordillo may well prove to be guilty of the charges leveled against her. But what placed her in the cross-hairs of Mexico’s corporate elite was more likely her inability to keep teachers under control as the country moves forward with its latest neoliberal reform—this time of its schools. 

One leader of the progressive opposition within the SNTE, Juan Ortega Madrigal, warned that Peña Nieto “is totally wrong if he believes that he can silence the voices of 500,000 teachers by decree,” adding that they would not “abandon the defense of public education.” The teachers backed up that sentiment with a two-day national strike. Rubén Núñez Ginez, the head of Oaxaca’s teachers union, said they would not permit a law to take effect that attacks public education and the rights of teachers.

Since the fall, teachers have been demonstrating and striking against the PRI’s proposal, which would tie their jobs to standardized tests and remove the voice of the union in hiring. But the corporate offensive to gain control of the country’s schools was launched long before Peña Nieto took office.

Just months after Waiting for Superman hit US movie screens in 2010, ¡De Panzazo! premiered in Mexico City. Both are movies produced by neoliberal education reformers who hold teachers and unions responsible for a failed education system. And their near-simultaneous release and ideological resemblance was no coincidence: in Mexico City, ¡De Panzazo! was screened not in a movie theater, but in the twenty-fourth-floor offices of the World Bank. “One can see similarities to the U.S. documentary, Waiting for Superman,” an article on the bank’s website noted, especially “in its suggestion that teachers’ unions bear a significant responsibility [for the failings of public schools.]”

Luis Hernández Navarro, opinion editor of the Mexico City daily La Jornada, saw the similarities too. “Both have two central elements in common,” he wrote. “They criticize public education in their countries, and they’re financed and backed by important people in the business world.”

A network of large corporations and banks extends throughout Latin America, financed and guided in part from the United States, pushing the same formula: standardized tests, linking teachers’ jobs and pay to test results, and bending the curriculum to employers’ needs while eliminating social criticism. The medicine doesn’t go down easily, however. In both countries, grassroots opposition—from parents and teachers—has been rising. In Seattle, teachers at Garfield High have refused to give the tests. In Michoacan, in central Mexico, sixteen teachers went to jail because they also refused.

* * *

Today, the most powerful organized resistance comes from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Here, teachers have proposed education reform that gives more voice to teachers, students and parents, allows them to work creatively together, and enhances critical thinking. Because of political changes in Oaxaca, they have the power not just to propose ideas like these but also to implement them.

Explains Oaxacan teacher Pedro Javier Torres, “We have enough schools, although not all completely adequate. The problem is the quality of the education—the same problem as in the United States. How do we offer a student a quality school? What kind of teacher do we want, and who will determine this?”

Teachers have an answer to this question, but so does Mexico’s corporate elite. “In Search of Business Sustainability,” a report by the Intelligence Unit of the British magazine The Economist, documents growing corporate involvement in Mexican education. Coca-Cola and Ford have built model schools. The Televisa Foundation organizes seminars for teachers and administrators. Industrialists for Basic Education (which includes the food giant Bimbo) pushes changes in curriculum and teaching standards. 

By far the most influential corporate education reform lobby is Mexicanos Primero, supported by the country’s wealthiest corporations and individuals, like Carlos Hank and Carlos Slim. Hernández Navarro calls it “a shadowy organization that promotes the interests of the corporate right wing in education.” 

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.”

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. 

* * *

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.”

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.”

The Oaxacan teachers have battled successive state administrations for years. In 2006, a Sección 22 strike became a virtual insurrection, and the national government sent in heavily armed police to suppress the rebellion. In its wake, the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party and the right-wing National Action Party organized an unwieldy coalition and defeated the PRI in the 2010 state election for the first time. Heavily supported by Sección 22, former Oaxaca City Mayor Gabino Cué became governor, opening the door for the PTEO.

In 2012, however, the PRI regained the national presidency. In Mexico, the federal government controls education policy and funding. “The PTEO has to be evaluated by the federal government,” says Rendon. “A great deal of our resources comes from them, so if we don’t agree with their policy, it gets very complicated. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find points in common.”

“It is a very viable proposal,” he adds. “We still have to work on it, but it’s a dynamic process. We’re asking teachers to develop their abilities to form collectives and help them actually change the school. All that takes training. And any change in the system requires money.”

When Cué came into office, he signed an initial agreement with Sección 22 to begin implementing the PTEO, which began in 280 schools last May and June. Each had to set up a collective, analyze the needs of students and the community, and come up with an education plan.

In February, however, just before Gordillo’s arrest, Claudio González went to Oaxaca and warned Governor Cué that he had to “break the hijacking of education by Sección 22”; he also called the teachers “tyrants.” That was too much even for the state’s school director, Manuel Iturribarría Bolaños, who accused González of having come to the state to provoke a fight.  Teachers picketed the Mexicanos Primero press conference, and González fled back to Mexico City.

Meanwhile, teachers deal with day-to-day problems. “I teach biology at the Escuela Secondaria General José María Bradomín, in a poor community at the edge of the city,” Torres explains. “To convince students to take an interest, I use music and computers. We leave the classroom and look at leaves on the trees. People who teach in a traditional way ask what I think I’m doing. They want a very ordered room with everyone in their assigned seat. I want my students to learn to work together.”

Migration from Oaxaca to the United States has risen sharply in the last twenty-five years. While the reform debate goes on, Oaxacan students still leave school every year and head north. Rendon coordinates programs to track them as they migrate with their parents in search of work. One sends Oaxacan teachers to the United States to help those students. Another brings California and Oregon teachers to Oaxaca, to better understand the culture of these migrant children.

That’s a more complicated picture than the one presented by ¡De Panzazo! and Mexicanos Primero, promoted by USAID and the OECD. “Today our challenges are very difficult, because we’re living in a globalized world,” Torres concludes. “We can’t be separate from it. We can’t just tell a student, ‘You succeeded because you went to school.’ The child must be prepared for life. The challenge for me is to give students in school the tools they can use to resolve their life problems once they leave it.”

In September of last year, The Nation, in the print magazine and on the website, presented two contrasting views of the Chicago teachers’ strike by Melissa Harris-Perry and Matthew Cunningham-Cook.

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