El Fomentador

Alive and well in Mexico…

Secretary of Education, Teachers Union and Normalistas Leave Students Out of the Equation

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The ongoing battle between the Mexican Secretary of Public Education, the national teachers union and the Normal School teachers is nothing new. The built-in deficits in the public education system have been evident for generations. The new initiative “Alliance for Quality in Education” is just the latest in a line of half-hearted, politically-motivated reform proposals to come down the pike.

Of course the idea of “reform” usually rings hollow when it is tossed around by politicos anywhere in the world. Protectors of the status quo aren’t interested in change that threatens to rock the boat. (For an example, just compare John McCains campaign speeches with his voting record for the last thirty years).

As I have said before, I like teachers. They are good people usually working under poor conditions. Those working in the worst conditions, rural districts and poor, urban neighborhoods, are often the first to be forgotten by petty bureaucrats.

There are three main players in this mess. (There is a fourth element–students. They, unfortunately, have been completely forgotten in much the same way as the failure of the “No Child Left Behind” program in the U.S. is leaving children behind every day). Who’s to blame? This sounds familiar: an elitist, corrupt and indifferent political class; rigid, inefficient, self-serving administrators; and over-worked, under-appreciated, burned-out teachers laboring under the mis-guidance of their own professional unions.

I’m sure I’m paraphrasing someone much more clever than I when I say: “Seldom have so many been so wrong about so much”.

SEP

Let’s look first at the Secretary of Public Education (SEP). I’ve been to a number of SEP offices around the country and I can say that they look very much like school district offices everywhere, simply a bee-hive of cubicles where everyone spends the day shuffling papers to give the impression that they are busy. If you are lucky enough to be some kind of “sub-director-of-something-or-other” you may have a private office where no one can tell if you aren’t doing anything.

In my opinion, SEP was designed from the beginning to make certain that the education of the masses does not succeed. The bureaucracy has done a good job of, essentially, abandoning the teacher-training schools to politically appointed minions trying to hang on to their administrative posts long enough to retire. It’s ironic that all of these people are both the product and the victims of the rotten system that they wind-up perpetuating.

SNTE

The teachers union, under an iron-fisted and corrupt leadership, has consistently worked against its own membership in exchange for political favors. For example, the unions national president recently proposed that some 500 normal schools be closed or turned into technical schools. They’re bluffing. It’s nothing but a stupid power-play, a desperate attempt to frighten dissident teachers into submission. One problem with the idea, for example, is there are not enough qualified teachers now-where will new teachers come from if they close the schools that train them? In addition, Mexico already has a bloated system of technical schools that are failing miserably. My city has three “technical” schools. They range from one with a sparkingly new campus, (designed, by the way, in the style of all Mexican school buildings, cheap, ugly and poorly constructed, and they have already started to fall apart) to one with a junky looking campus surrounding dilapidated buildings filled with broken, cast-off furniture. The one thing they have in common–they are all run by a bunch of uninspired, worn-out political hacks that hate what they do and are only there because they can’t get real jobs.

Alliance for Quality Education

SEP and the teachers union “leadership” have worked together on the “Alliance for Quality Education” which they claim is a plan to improve public education by making teacher testing and evaluation tougher. Um, they give a national exam for people that want to work as teachers. This year two-thirds of the those that took the test failed. If they make it any tougher there won’t be any teachers left in Mexico. I’m sorry, but that idea is just asinine, and a glaring example of what is wrong with the system.

If you really want quality education for all, it begins with professional quality training for teachers. And that takes resources and a serious commitment from the government. (Remember, this is a system that was designed to guarantee it would fail). To establish long-term accountability and improved performance you start by giving people up-to-date skills, setting serious, definable goals and expectations, providing them with the tools they need to succeed in their jobs and showing them, by example, how to behave in a professional manner. In other words you have to train future teachers the skills of their profession as well as teaching them how to be  professionals.

That is the same for any job or course of study. And, to be honest, none of that is occurring at the Normal schools now.

Normalistas

Finally we come to the teachers and the student teachers. i can understand their frustration. They are desperately trying to hold on to jobs that they know they were not adequately prepared for. And they know, if they are honest with themselves, that they are not able to perform up to expected standards within a system that just doesn’t work.

So what’s the response of protesting teachers? They say the test results are not accurate, that large numbers of the test-takers are not Normalistas which tends to lower the scores (which may be true, but the numbers should be easy enough to shake out). Teachers have even gone so far as suggesting that they shouldn’t have to take an exam–that simply graduating from a teacher-training program proves that they are qualified. Nice try. The truth is that, within the system, pretty much everyone always passes. It amounts to grade-inflation that makes George Bushs’ college transcripts seem almost believable. Just as not everyone is cut out to be President–not everyone can be a teacher. Believe it or not there are teachers insisting on keeping a practice that allows retiring teachers to pass on their positions to their relatives. It is like something out of the middle ages! (And we’ve seen how badly it works when applied to the Presidency!).

Pensions

One last issue–retirement pensions. Like governments and private companies everywhere, the system decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. One change would allow younger employees to establish private savings accounts instead of using the pension system. maybe they can invest it in the stock market–that’s always safe, right?!?

State pension accounts are always under-funded. In my city, a few years ago, a public college celebrated it’s 30th anniversary. In Mexico most public employees can retire at age 55 or after 30 years of service (although that is changing too). The college had over 300 employees retiring in the same year and “suddenly discovered” they didn’t have enough money in the pension fund. Something like that should not come as a surprise. Was it simply poor planning and administration? Were actuaries counting on enough workers dying before they could collect benefits? Or was it, as many locals believe, because much of the money was skimmed off and stolen over the years?

What to do?

My suggestions? I have only three.

1. Start by clearing out the dead-wood in the SEP. The administration of education is top-heavy everywhere but in Mexico it is out of control. If necessary, get some of those unproductive desk-jockeys out into classrooms or out the door. Start funneling money into teaching resources instead of into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats and, often, redundant support staff.

2. Restore open, honest leadership to the teachers union. Show members examples of professional behavior instead of political favoritism and personal skull-duggery. Build a union that will represent teachers in a respectful, supportive, yet realistic way. That means better training, better pay, and better, more stringent, but consistent, evaluations, honest communication and a serious focus on student success.

3. Teachers need to evaluate their own commitment to their profession. Are they continuing to make a positive contribution to the education of their students everyday or are they just coasting and simply “playing” school? Of course teachers have the right, the responsibility, really, to advocate for a better system for themselves, their students, their communities and the nation–but they also have the responsibility of being in the classroom teaching. Again, they need to set an example of professional behavior for their students and within their communities.

Conclusion

I’m no longer idealistic enough to believe that anything el Fomentador has to say will make a difference in Mexico. To be truthful most of what I’ve said can be applied to the educational system in the U.S. too. And I am no more hopeful for change there. But I still believe in the power and the promise of education. And I have seen the results of not producing educated citizens–again, I have to use the example of George Bush being elected to the Presidency, not just once, but twice! And in my opinion, that should be enough to propel anyone into some kind of action. Adios amigos.

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