On the Failing Mexican Educational System

Mexico education

By Martina Guglielmone

The dysfunctionality of the Mexican educational system has been disproportionately widening the general wealth gap in the country, negatively impacting not only the lives of poorer individuals and families, but the progress of the country as a whole. Education is the fundamental base of any functional democratic society. There is overwhelming evidence proving that social conditions across the board are improved when the residents of any given community are better educated. For example, reports suggest that better education leads to higher voter turnout rates, lower levels of poverty and homelessness, and overall, higher standards of health and wellness due to a general awareness as well as access to well-rounded health care. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that with greater education, crime rates of all kinds are reduced, consequentially decreasing incarceration and marginalization rates.

Harvard University professor Ronald Ferguson, addressing the education gap, says that “we look at inequality in access to particular careers, inequality in income and wealth, inequality in the nature of political participation. All those things are mitigated by equalizing the skills that education produces. Not only the academic skills, but the dispositions, the frames of minds, the consciousness, the diligence, the sense of agency.” Simply put, the more educated a society is on average, the better it performs overall. Latin America, as the region with the highest levels of inequality in the world, is rapidly falling further behind other regions in education quality as well. More specifically, Mexico has the highest education inequality rate in the region, which as a consequence is producing broader inequality in wealth and presenting its leadership with a series of developmental obstacles of utmost complexity.

Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity and, more specifically, neoliberal globalization. The globalization of information has revolutionized the educational arena at an international scale, and even though it theoretically expands equality of opportunity, it has really only increased inequality because some individuals and communities are simply better equipped to exploit their opportunities for development and advancement – lamentably, one of these opportunities being formal education. Mexico’s government is constitutionally committed to providing free primary and secondary education to its citizens, but regrettably, basic education has become increasingly less of a publicly accessible service as the sector privatizes; primary and secondary education is now approached as a privilege instead of a right in Mexico, shifting its management and responsibility to the private sector, further contributing to the national inequality gap in the face of both income and education.

In Latin America, at least one in three households and two in five people live under their respective country’s poverty line, and about 12.4 percent of the region’s population live on less than USD $2 per day – over half of which are below 18 years of age. In Mexico, the main factor producing the overwhelming difference between the few privileged individuals and the rest of the nation is not just the quality of education itself, but rather, the national culture and attitudes surrounding  education. Because the Mexican government has allowed an “open market” dynamic in the national educational system, as said by the Council on Foreign Relations, “demands for improved education have fallen into a void. (…) Economic philosophy based on supply and demand does not recognize non-consumer (i.e. non-marketable) demands.” Therefore, the responsibility of educating the Mexican youth has shifted to private entities – letting them almost completely and independently decide the methods and material of instruction, and thus altering the national standard.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) conducted a report in 2001 analyzing the private/public education system in Latin America and its impact on society in the large scale. The report indicates that in countries where private education overwhelmingly replaces public education–along with public values in general–the proportion of the national budget devoted to public school decreases, further depressing quality, as private schools “skim” the best students as well as the best teachers, leaving the public system to serve the poor and underprivileged. Considering whether students in Latin America are able to access the same opportunities regardless of their socioeconomic background, the majority of children are not receiving high-quality and relevant education and, as a result, “too many Latin American youth entering the labor force lack the skills necessary to find dignified work and participate in an increasingly, competitive, information-rich globalized economy.”

The fact that Latin America’s educational system produces a system of broad social stagnation is evident, and it ultimately makes the system play against itself, as it complicates–and in some cases, impedes–social mobility. When students of low-resource communities come to realize the many obstacles they will inevitably face as they climb the social ladder based on their original socioeconomic status, and that the system itself will, in many cases, prevent them from achieving their professional and personal goals, they become greatly discouraged and have a harder time finding motivation to complete their basic education, which is why “poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students [are] five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students.” In impoverished southern states of Mexico, like Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Quintana Roo, 17 to 22 year-olds average a mere 5.5 to 6.5 years of schooling (even though, in theory, education is compulsory during ages 6 to 14 throughout the country).

The divide in quality of education manifests in a variety of areas. In Mexico, as well as the rest of the region, those children fortunate enough to be born into economically advantaged families have more access to not only higher quality standards in basic subjects, such as Spanish language, science, and mathematics, but are also often given the privilege of learning foreign languages, participating in global international initiatives such as the International Baccalaureate program, and receiving cultural education, like practical music or art history. Those children belonging to the lower classes, on the other hand, often depend on their country’s public system. Not only do lower class students tend to receive a poorer education quality with little resultant professional opportunity, but they also tend to face more obstacles in order to access that education, such as very limited means to acquire school supplies or transportation to actually get to school –not to mention the lack of support for physically and mentally challenged students.

A series of constitutional reforms passed in early 2013 known as the Pacto Por Mexico enabled school administrators to replace highly qualified and experienced teachers with less experienced ones who are willing to settle for lower salaries. Moreover, some of these clauses also permitted the shifting of tasks like providing meals, school maintenance and improvements, transportation and school supplies to the private sector. The plan centralized control of teacher salaries, placements, firings and promotions, and opened the way for hiring non-trained teachers from the private sector to replace unionized teachers. Under these new definitions, teachers are no longer considered “professionals” but become just another class of salaried federal employees. President Peña Nieto’s constitutional reforms on education downgraded educators to temporary employment strictly controlled by the federal government and private investors “who have little or no interest in universal coverage or academic excellence.” Moreover, they redefined public educators’ role and importance within Mexican society.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) “average annual expenditure per student from primary through tertiary education [in Mexico] is 19% of per capita GDP – the second lowest percentage among OECD and partner countries, just above Turkey (18% of per capita GDP), and well below the OECD average of 27% of per capita GDP.”As of 2016, the base salary for teachers in Mexico’s public educational system was approximately $8,000 pesos (or USD $600) a month. According to the website International Living, one needs approximately USD $2,175 every month to live decently in any given Mexican city. Of course, like in most other countries, the cost of living is significantly lower in rural areas, but the starting salary for public educators in Mexico is undoubtedly not enough to meet these costs, so teachers are often left  needing a second job or relying mostly on their partner’s salary to make it to the end of the month.

The question of whether any given government should completely privatize or nationalize the educational system in Latin America is not valid anymore, as we have learned throughout time that both are necessary to meet different individuals and families’ needs –particularly when it comes to the most unequal region in the world. The questions in place, though, ought to be, firstly, whether all children are being presented with the opportunity and resources to attend and finish primary and secondary education regardless of their socioeconomic background. Moreover, it is crucial to consider whether the appropriate government officials are ensuring that the quality of the education offered in both private and public institutions meets both national and international standards, and whether students are being presented with the same professional opportunities after graduating from a public institution as those graduating from private institutions.

Lamentably, the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results showed that Latin American students have a lower performance and much higher inequality level than those of countries in other regions. The study indicated that almost half of the students in the region have difficulty performing rudimentary reading tasks and do not have the essential skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society, and that “this percentage is even more pronounced for low-income students in the region, where 62 percent do not demonstrate these essential skills.” The Mexican Secretary of Public Education reported in 2014 that an average of around 5,000 students were dropping out every day –totaling over a million by the end of the year. “What difference does it make?” asked Jorge de Jesus, a student in Mexico City, in an interview for an article released by New Politics. “We wind up on the streets anyway.” Despite having what he described as “some –a majority- of very dedicated teachers,” his education proved meaningless. If one can’t use education to get a job and earn a living, it becomes worthless.

The fact that the Mexican educational system produces a structure of broad social stagnation is evident, and it ultimately makes the system counterproductive, as it impedes social mobility. When students of low-resource communities come to realize the many obstacles they will inevitably face as they climb the social ladder, and that the system itself will, in many cases, prevent them from achieving their professional and personal goals, they become greatly discouraged and have a harder time finding motivation to conclude their basic education.

The long-term negative effect the system itself has on individuals, in addition to being unsettling when considering the ethical implications, widens the already vast wealth gap between those at the top and those at the bottom, and throws the national economic dynamic into unbalance as the demand for high-skilled workers is disproportionately increasing compared to low-skilled workers across the globe. Employers in Latin America cannot find enough qualified people to fill open positions. “This profound human resource mismatch is suppressing economic growth and perpetuating a system of haves and have-nots. Unequal societies are less efficient at converting growth into poverty reduction. In Latin America, the education gap mirrors the income gap between rich and poor.”

The World Fund estimates that 45 percent of jobs in Latin America will require a college degree or equivalent by 2018. As of 2014, about 24 percent of Mexicans between ages 25 and 34 held a tertiary-education degree. Of all students enrolled in tertiary education programs today, 70 percent are enrolled in public universities, which are either completely free or charge very low tuition rates. However, private sector enrollments have been increasing exponentially, and “quality in the private higher education sector is radically uneven, with a handful of ‘Ivy League’ type schools obtaining prestige and respect, and a substantial cohort of newer upstart schools seeking to absorb demand without much regard for either academic standards or student outcomes.”

The idea that the system allows for equal opportunity and progress is invalid, simply because not everyone starts off with the same resources and, more importantly, culture of education. Class mobility is a reality for the middle and upper classes, but the lower we look into the hierarchy of the Mexican society, the more obstacles there are for people to face and overcome if they intend to prosper –or live relatively comfortably. Individuals belonging to the Mexican poor and low-working classes have nearly no political influence, have considerably less access to information, are victims of the environmental damage of industrialization (often having no choice but to live in highly polluted areas), and do not have much access to resources to deal with the legal system, among numerous other harmful conditions. It is fair to say that, generally, the lower ranks of society are mere victims of the political and economic interests of those at the top in both governmental and private sectors. These unfortunate and unfair conditions are all consequences of an unequal and counterproductive national educational system. Extreme poverty can and should be dealt with by implementing reforms in the public education system.

Mexican authorities, and particularly Peña Nieto’s administration, need to overcome their neoliberal interests and prioritize their poor majority, who they are failing tremendously. This phenomenon does not only affect underprivileged communities; it threatens the interests of the country as a whole.

Image from Flickr