Mexico’s Education Breakthrough

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.