Health & Education

On Hold

Education Reform

Over the last two years, Mexico's efforts to reform its educational system have struggled to proceed in the face of strong union opposition. However, the country lags far behind OECD standards, and a large majority of Mexicans support the president's efforts to overhaul the system.

The highly visible protests of Mexican teachers have drawn international attention to the bumpy implementation of the country’s education reforms. This legal framework has been the most controversial of all the reforms that the Pact for Mexico brought to the table, and has triggered demonstrations in the capital since 2013, as well as social unrest in the southwestern states.

The education reforms were passed in late 2012, just days after Enrique Peña Nieto won the elections, and were constitutionally approved in 2013. The new law was agreed on by the major political parties, overwhelmingly approved in the Senate, and had the support of the majority of the legislatures in Mexico’s states.
The main goal of the reform is simply to improve the quality of basic education in Mexico compared to the results of international assessment programs, such as the PISA study carried out by the OECD, in which Mexico participates and has performed poorly over the last years. According to the PISA assessment, only about half of the students in Mexico complete their secondary education, additionally the country’s schools have higher relative costs and worse results than any other nation in the OECD.

To begin with, the new law required the government to carry out a nationwide census to calculate the exact number of schools, teachers, and students in the country. The census took place in 2014 and it found over 39,000 “phantom” teachers on the payroll. This lead to the layoff of teachers around the country, which incurred opposition from the powerful teacher’s union as soon as it was enacted.

The second and the most controversial pillar of the reform was a new system for testing teachers. The reasoning behind this was to guarantee that these public servants meet certain quality standards. Access to teaching jobs has been controlled by the teacher’s union, an organization that is accused of selling positions, and permitting jobs to be passed from parents to their children. The union, known by the Spanish acronym CNTE, is blamed for much of the poor performance of Mexican schools.

The new law stated that all previous appointments of teachers that failed to conform to the new standards would be null. From the very beginning, teachers refused to be tested or even graded on their performance and went out to protest against that initiative. Teachers blocked the capital’s main streets for several days, effectively preventing mobility in Mexico City.

Eventually, the pressure paid off. In June 2015, the Education Ministry announced plans to suspend teacher evaluations indefinitely. This has left Peña Nieto in an uncomfortable position, as a large majority of Mexicans support the reforms, and this decision is seen as a concession to the CNTE.

The CNTE, for their part, celebrated the victory and plan to continue with their disturbances until their demands are met. These demands entail a complete tabling of the education reforms, as well as the return of the 43 teachers and students who disappeared in late 2014 in the Iguala mass kidnapping. The government claims that they are dead, murdered by the police.

Education reforms were the first, and so far most problematic, of a series of crucial reforms implemented by the Nieto administration. The suspension on the teacher evaluations, represents a step backwards, but many expect that the tests will eventually take place, as reform is inevitable and better teaching standards are the first step.