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.”