The average Mexican attends school for only eight and a half years. That’s the equivalent of dropping out in middle school—before reading Shakespeare (or Cervantes), learning trigonometry or writing a sophisticated research paper.
Mexico, the next-door neighbor of the richest society in the world, ranks dead last among the forty-one countries that participate in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment. About 40 percent of Mexican 15- to 19-year-olds are completely disconnected from civil society and the legitimate economy; they have dropped out of school and are unemployed.
I spent several days this week in Mexico City, on a trip for American journalists and policy professionals hosted by Grupo Salinas, the media, retail and banking conglomerate owned by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, one of Mexico’s powerful oligarchs. Like the United States, Mexico is preparing for a contentious presidential election next year, and our group had the opportunity to meet with and interview several of the leading candidates.
The mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Ebrard Casaubon, a presidential candidate for the PRD
Shockingly, only one—Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón, the pragmatic, progressive mayor of Mexico City—identified the scant schooling of the typical Mexican citizen as one of the nation’s foremost economic, social and cultural problems. The others, Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling center-right National Action Party, and Manlio Fabio Beltrones of the formerly authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), instead voiced an education reform agenda that seemed ripped from the pages of an American newspaper: Blame the teachers union.
Congresswoman, former education minister and PAN presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota
Vázquez Mota, a former education minister, claimed that when it comes to education, "the major challenge has to do with the union doing their job." Beltrones, the Senate leader and a second-tier PRI candidate, complained that the union "has its own agenda" when the agenda should be "a quality elementary education for everybody." (We did not meet the current presidential front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of PRI, nor the candidate of the traditional left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.)
I believe this type of thinking—lobbing rhetorical bombs at teachers unions while focusing solely on primary school education—is too modest for a nation as vibrant as Mexico, which enjoys tremendous geographic and cultural strengths, yet which faces stiff labor market competition from Asia, where countries like China and South Korea have prioritized educating their workforce.