Mexico’s Education Breakthrough

On consecutive days late last month, the Mexican education system was jolted by a pair of watershed events. On February 25, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law the country’s most significant education reform in modern history, which had the support of Mexico’s three biggest political parties. On February 26, Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the most powerful Mexican teachers’ union and a dominant, iconic figure in Mexican politics for almost a quarter century, was arrested on charges of massive embezzlement.

The two events could prove a turning point in Mexico’s long struggle to introduce greater accountability for its teachers, improve the quality of its schools, and raise the achievement levels of its students.

Gordillo’s union — the National Union of Education Workers, or SNTE (its Spanish acronym) — is the largest in Latin America, and its stranglehold over the Mexican education system made serious accountability reforms virtually impossible for many, many years. Few politicians dared challenge Gordillo, even though the SNTE has long been notorious for bribery, patronage, and corruption. In 2009, the pro-reform NGO Mexicanos Primero estimated that Mexican teachers’ unions had around 22,000 members who did not teach but were nevertheless paid a combined total of $130 million in government salaries every year. It has been reported that 90 percent of all Mexican education spending goes toward teacher salaries.

Given how long the SNTE and other unions blocked major education reforms, it is not surprising that Mexican students lag far behind their peers in other OECD nations. On the reading portion of the OECD’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, Mexico placed 48th out of 65 countries and school systems. Meanwhile, it ranked 50th in science and tied for 50th in mathematics. On reading, Mexican students scored 5 percent lower than Chilean students, 13 percent lower than Italian students, 15 percent lower than American students, and 19 percent lower than Canadian students. On science, Canadian pupils scored 21 percent higher than their Mexican counterparts.

The 2009 PISA rankings were not all bad news for Mexico: The country placed above Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Panama, and Peru. “By Latin American standards,” says the Economist, “Mexico’s schools are rather good.” Yet by OECD standards, Mexico’s schools are terrible. And while Mexican students scored higher than Brazilians in all three PISA subject areas, Gabriel Sánchez Zinny of Blue Star Strategies notes that Brazil has a much higher school-enrollment rate among those aged 15 to 19. (The rate is 75 percent in Brazil and 52 percent in Mexico.) For that matter, in Mexico, “only 51 percent of students who begin school make it past the elementary level,” and “seven of ten adolescents can’t read or multiply.”

Such grim realities were highlighted by a 2012 Mexican documentary called De Panzazo (“Barely Passing”), which contained an abundance of unflattering details about the Mexican education system. For example: The average Mexican goes to school for only 8.6 years, while the average Chilean goes for 10.6 years, the average American goes for 13.3 years, and the average Norwegian goes for 13.9 years. Also: The average Mexican student spends just 4.5 hours per day in school, while the average French student attends for 7 hours, the average Korean student attends for 8 hours, and the average Finnish student attends for 9 hours.

De Panzazo was a huge box-office hit, and it helped galvanize the cause of Mexican school reform. Indeed, the film played no small part in encouraging Peña Nieto (who took office on December 1) to make education his first big legislative priority. The reform law he signed on February 25 promises to raise teaching standards and link teacher promotions with classroom performance. If implemented aggressively, it could transform Mexican education — and thus the Mexican economy. After all, low levels of student achievement have prevented Mexico and other Latin American countries from developing a more skilled workforce. In fact, a recent study by economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann concluded that educational achievement is “the crucial component” that explains why Latin America has experienced weaker growth than Asia since 1960.

Peña Nieto’s education reform will complement an existing cash-transfer program that has been reducing poverty and boosting school attendance since the late 1990s. Originally named Progresa and now called Oportunidades, the program incentivizes poor parents to keep their children enrolled. It has inspired the Bolsa Família initiative in Brazil, as well as similar initiatives in countries such as Chile, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, and even the United States. As of last year, Oportunidades covered about 5.8 million families, and it has been tremendously successful at keeping Mexican youngsters in school and helping their families rise out of poverty. According to the OECD, “Graduation rates at the upper secondary level increased by 14 percentage points between 2000 and 2010.” Meanwhile, the proportion of Mexican four year olds receiving some type of formal education increased from 70 percent in 2005 to 99 percent in 2010, placing Mexico in the top tier of OECD countries.

After what happened last month, Mexico has a unique opportunity to build on the success of Oportunidades. By signing a landmark reform measure and arresting a corrupt union boss who had previously seemed above the law, the Peña Nieto administration has sent two very powerful signals about its commitment to overhauling the Mexican education system and battling Mexico’s culture of impunity. Now government officials must ensure that the reform actually serves its purpose.