Despite reforms, experts say Mexico’s education system is plagued by inequality

A class of 67 first and second graders smile for the camera in the indigenous town of Nichnamtic in Chiapas, Mexico. (Foundation Escalera/Flickr)

Education experts in Mexico met last week to discuss inequality, which they say will be the greatest challenge in reforming the country’s education system.

At a seminar at the College of Mexico last Thursday, the director of Mexico’s National Institute of Educational Evaluation, Sylvia Schmelkes, said that while Mexico has seen incredible growth in the national educational system, it has always overlooked the poorest areas and indigenous communities, Crónica reported.

“We have reached children in these areas with a backwards service,” Schmelkes said, “judging by the differences in infrastructure, resources, the training of educators outside of the daily operation of schools, and the support they receive from supervisors.”

Patricio Solís, coordinator of the seminar and research professor at the Center for Sociological Studies of the National Institute, said that the relationship between social inequality and education is a double-edged sword. He said education can be a vehicle for reducing inequality and increasing social mobility, Crónica reported, but that education can perpetuate social inequalities when certain socioeconomic, racial or ethnic groups lack equal access.

Solís also said that experts estimate that young adults in the highest income groups have seven times greater access to higher education compared to their low-income peers.

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Mexico scores dead last in education standards among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, yet spends more on education than any other member country. Solís and other experts say the country’s failing and outdated education system has perpetuated the high level of economic inequality in Mexico.

But the country will soon roll out a new education model that aims to scrap the current model – notorious for relying on rote memorization and complicated bureaucracy – in favor of higher-quality education where teachers are qualified and children “learn to learn” in different ways. Mexican Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño said one ambitious goal is to have all students speaking English and Spanish within two decades.

The reforms are based on more than 300,000 observations from teachers, parents and representatives of business and private citizens who provided input, reported Mexico News Daily.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who first introduced educational reforms in 2013, announced the new model in Mexico City earlier this month.

“As a country we have great educational challenges and obstacles, today we tell the world that we have decided to face them,” Peña Nieto said in a speech at the National Palace. “Not pursuing the educational transformation, knowing the problems that persist and the urgent need to solve them, would have been, thus, irresponsible, shameful and immoral.”

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The new model is expected to be implemented for the first time in the upcoming 2018-19 school year. But the reforms have faced stiff resistance from teachers unions that oppose newly required teacher evaluations. Several people were killed last summer when union protesters clashed with riot police in the southern state of Oaxaca, and the government has fired some 4,000 teachers who refused to participate in the testing.

Skeptics of the model have also pointed out that long-term plans are subject to drastic change when a new administration takes power, reported Washington Post. Leading the polls for the 2018 presidential election is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist politician who has been one of the most vocal supporters of the teachers protesting education reform.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com