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Mexico's new president moves to improve corrupt school system

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MEXICO CITY -- A new constitutional reform aims to hone in on the quality of teaching, to the applause of the business leaders.

MEXICO CITY -– Few businesses would think to hire an employee who protested any effort to evaluate his work. Still fewer would survive if they failed to meet basic metrics of success in their field.

Yet in education –- in Mexico, at least –- such things have not only been tolerated, they have come to define the system. A majority of teachers here win their positions not on the basis of education or merit but through favors, by purchasing or even inheriting the position, called a plaza. A muscular teachers' union has helped lock in the system of corruption.

That was until last month, when a constitutional reform guaranteeing the quality of education took effect. The reform provides for a merit-based system of hiring and promoting teachers, as well as for periodic evaluations of their work –- key demands made for years by business leaders and civil organizations.

"I work with teachers, and every day I realize the level of inefficiency," said Guadalupe Quintanilla Calderon, director of a Mexico City branch of the National Pedagogic University, which offers continuing education and masters programs for instructors. "Teachers don't even understand the material they're teaching. This is the magnitude of the problem."

The country's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, had made big promises of reform to the business community –- including education, energy and telecommunications –- and the education reform is being seen as a first success. It essentially wrests control from the union and returns it to the federal government. The day after the reform took effect, the government arrested the union's powerful boss, "president for life" Elba Esther Gordillo, on embezzlement charges.

Juan Pablo Castanon, president of the business association Coparmex, underscored industry's interest in reform, telling local press that even a modest improvement in Mexico's performance in the international student exam known as PISA could lead to a significant bump in gross domestic product over 20 years.

Changes at the ground level could take decades. Secondary legislation is needed to make the reform functional, while transforming the way Mexico teaches children could take time.

A popular 2012 documentary criticizing the state of the nation's education system was called De Panzazo, or "Barely Passing." But in many respects Mexican schools are simply failing.

Mexican students spend about half the total hours in school that Korean students do. That lack of study time shows up in math, reading and other skills. Fewer than 1 percent of Mexican students tested "advanced" in an international math exam (compared with more than 10 percent of students in the U.S. and 25 percent in Korea); Mexico ranked near the bottom of an Unesco assessment of reading habits a few years ago.

"Several international assessments, like the PISA test, show that the level of learning in basic education in Mexico is lower than in many other countries, certainly not enough to make the Mexican economy competitive in the 21st century," Reyes Tamez Guerra, former Mexican secretary of education, said in a recent bulletin of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The Mexican system favors memorization over comprehension and critical thinking.

"We have an obsolete education system, still based on teaching students to memorize and not on teaching them to discover and develop their abilities," Coparmex said in a statement.

However, Mexico has achieved nearly universal enrollment in primary and early secondary education. Improving the education system could provide greater opportunities for the roughly half of Mexicans that are poor –- if the labor market, still largely focused on low-wage, low-skill work, also improves.

In Mexico, people with higher education face higher levels of unemployment than those who study less.

"The labor market remains very stagnant," said Felipe Hevia, who teaches at the CIESAS-Golfo research center in Veracruz state. "Today education doesn't seem to be the social motor it was in the 20th century. The reform aims to change that."

Photo: Flickr/Ismael Villafranco

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure