México’s education system was thrust back into the national spotlight in recent months after tensions between the teacher’s union and the Mexican government led to violent clashes in Oaxaca state. The CNTE (National Coordination of Education Workers), México’s dissident faction of the larger National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), was protesting what the government had claimed were progressive education reforms.
The CNTE protesting for better working conditions is not anything new. For decades now the union has gone on annual strikes to demand better wages. More recently, the union has organized themselves against education reforms that have been passed by President Enrique Peña Nieto. In an attempt to stabilize México’s failing education system, the reforms have implemented a teacher evaluation and performance review system, among other things.
While some believe the new reforms are tackling the root of the issue in holding teacher’s accountable for the quality of education being provided, others point to systemic issues as the main source of México’s crippling education system.
Graciela Cortés Camarillo has worked in México’s education system for nearly 40 years in a variety of capacities ranging from teaching and research, to administrative work. Now as a graduate professor at Mérida’s Universidad Marista, Cortés Camarillo has witnessed both sides of the education system as a student who obtained her Ph.D in Education and now as an educator. While she believes that México’s education system has made some great strides over the years in some areas, others have seen little improvement.
Before addressing the quality of the education, Cortés Camarillo stressed the importance of ensuring all children have access to education. To her, there’s no reason why any child in México should be unable to attend school. Despite the fact that schooling is compulsory under Mexican law until the 12th grade, many children in poor and indigenous communities find themselves out of school for various reasons.
“In our country around 10 percent of the population speaks an indigenous language and has the right to receive an education in that language,” Cortés Camarillo said. “In some states like Oaxaca, Michoacán, Chiapas, Guerrero and here in the Yucatán, that rate is much higher. To attend to these populations with educational needs, we need changes in the education system as a whole.”
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, México’s 16,933,283 indigenous people make up just over 15 percent of the nation’s population. Additionally, some 68 different languages and 364 different dialects are spoken among these indigenous groups. México’s southwest, predominantly indigenous region has been at the forefront of leading the opposition against the education reforms. Section 22 of the CNTE in Oaxaca state has historically been the most outspoken group, in addition to sections of local unions in Michoacán, Guerrero and Chiapas.
Reactions to the ways in which the CNTE has organized in an effort to introduce new education reforms to improve México’s education system have been varied. As an educator, Cortés Camarillo doesn’t agree with the way the CNTE has organized due to the fact that it kept students out of school. However she acknowledges the fact that the union felt it was the only way the government would listen to their demands.
But she doesn’t like the reforms either.
“My opinion is that the 2013 education reforms were not progressive,” Cortés Camarillo said. “The point is that evaluations are necessary but they aren’t sufficient. It was an insufficient initiative that fell short.”
“Teacher evaluations have to be done in a way that insures their validity, reliability and fairness. It’s naive to think that teacher evaluations alone are going to lead to a better education system.”
Mérida’s Heberto Laguna also feels that the problem has much more to do with the education system as a whole, rather than just the teachers themselves. He too has a Ph.D in Education with 35 years of teaching experience at the primary level and another 24 years in higher education at normal schools. Currently, Laguna is an elementary school principal and teacher at a normal elementary school in the Yucatán’s Secretary of Education.
“Any reform seeks continuous improvement,” Laguna said. “What was wrong with the 2013 reforms is that they primarily focused on teacher evaluations, consequently resulting in the widespread rejection of the teaching profession (the mobilization of the CNTE), leaving aside what should be first: the improvement of infrastructure and connectivity in all schools in the country.”
Laguna offers an interesting perspective as he himself was a normalista at a normal school in Chiapas from 1977—81. After his studies, Laguna then started his work as a normal school teacher at a primary normal school on the border of Chiapas and Guatemala. He saw first hand what rural teaching conditions were like in México’s southwest.
“It’s inhumane to evaluate teachers in these conditions,” Laguna said. “However on the other hand, I reject the strategy of the CNTE to leave their classrooms and condemn their students for having poor levels of comprehension because their schools have been abandoned by their teachers.”
Laguna recalls when the CNTE was formed in 1979 and the talks of democracy and a better education system for the nation’s children that ensued. Now, nearly 37 years later, he wonders if those dreams that were spoken of have been achieved.
“Even in the states that make up the majority of the CNTE, not much has been democratized,” he said. “The level of learning for many generations has been terribly affected over the last 37 years.”
México’s dissident teacher’s union isn’t the only organization working to expose the shortcomings of México’s education system. Mexicanos Primeros is a nonprofit that routinely exposes the faults of the current education system and have rallied around the thought that “only a quality education can change México.”
One of their most recent efforts centers around the idea of “la escuela que queremos,” the school that we want. In this model, México’s schools act as a multi-faceted place for learning that’s inclusive and nurturing. With this model, México’s classrooms are a community of practice where everyone is welcome and provided with a nurturing learning environment with proper materials, enough space and adequate infrastructure to facilitate development. As opposed to focusing in on one aspect of schooling like the teachers, Mexicanos Primeros is committed to changing the tools that these teachers have to work with.
The future of México’s education system is uncertain, but it relies heavily on one thing: inclusion. Comprehensive education reform cannot work if it continues to separate the country’s poor from the rich, teachers from their students, and indigenous communities from their fellow compatriots. From Mérida down to Oaxaca and up to Monterrey, inclusive education reform is essential to ensuring that México’s youth have a fair shot at thriving in this everchanging world.
By Parker Asmann for TYT
Parker Asmann is a Chicago based journalist and a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American & Latino Studies. He is currently an Editorial Board Member for a bilingual Chicago based publication, El BeiSMan, where he focuses on issues of social justice and human rights. Parker has lived and studied in Mérida, Yucatán.
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