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US-Style School Reform Goes South


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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.]”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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. 

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>“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.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.