Mexico allocates 6.2% of its GDP to education, close to the average 6.3% of the nearly 30 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Yet Mexico falls to last place in the Pisa report on education. 93% percent of the money destined to public education covers salaries and the country does not know exactly how many teachers it has. Only half of the students who begin primary education finish and 7 out 10 teens do not understand what they read or know how to multiply. The public education system remains one of the most arduous challenges that Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, faces.
"We have an educational system that has given unions the power over the incomes, tenures, promotions, incentives and evaluations for teachers," explained Alberto Serdán over the telephone. Serdán is the coordinator for the citizen action group Mexicanos Primero or Mexicans First.
Although there is no updated official registry, the Education Secretariat estimates that there are at least 1.4 million teachers in the public system. The workers are divided up between the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE or National Education Workers Union) and its dissenting off-shoot, Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (Coordinating Committee of Education Workers) founded in 1979. Until February, SNTE, which counts on the membership of at least one million teachers, was led by Elba Esther Gordillo, a woman who is now behind bars.
Since August 18 members of CNTE have organized demonstrations in the capital, disrupting the life of the already chaotic city. The organizations say at least 100,000 people have participated in the protests. Children in the southeast of the country where the CNTE is strongest - Guerrero, Oaxaca y Michoacan - have not been able to attend class.
A Mexican teacher works, on average, 800 hours a year for 42 weeks hitting above the OECD average - 762 hours in 38 weeks. Of them 60.5% have earned a university degree and 23.3% come from training schools (teachers' colleges). The level of specialization, however, is low: only 8.9% hold a post-graduate degree.
Although 51 percent of teachers are women, only 34.7% of them hold managerial positions. More than half of them, 52.6%, have been teaching for at least 15 years. Though Mexico ranks 13th in spending on education among the 34 countries reviewed in the Pisa report, it falls to last place in investment per student and ranks 5th on the list of lowest paid teachers.
According to Serdán the unions have had control of 50% of appointments since the 1990s. They also decide promotions and tenures based on a system of points in which union functions are worth more than academic activities. "The unions do as they please with appointments and salaries because of the the political power they hold based on the points system, Serdán said. "This is the way it has been and the way it is now in many states in Mexico." He maintained that the education reforms Enrique Peña Nieto proposed and that Congress approved and ratified this week were a "structural" step forward that had not been taken for many decades.
A Mexican teacher, especially from one of the poorer states, not only faces overcrowded classrooms and low wages (up to 3000 pesos per month or 224 dollars in some states). His work has to stand up to union requirements. "They can lose any promotion possibility if they do something the union leaders see as "against the workers' movement," Serdán said. Such as? "Refuse to go to a demonstration in Mexico City, for example. And in a country like ours, with such high level of poverty, if the only income a person has comes from teaching, he can't but obey."
On average the starting salary for a teacher in Mexico falls around 14,302 dollars a year, half the average for OECD members (28.523 dollars). Incomes vary depending on the state and the union to which one belongs. In Oaxaca, for example, a teacher may receive pay for 478 days a year between salary, Christmas bonus, vacation and holiday bonuses - more than twice the amount for the 200-day school year.
The ironclad control unions hold over appointments has led to posts beings passed down to family members without the professional calling. "The teacher's salary is seen as a sure thing," Serdán said. There are people who receive teaching wages without ever stepping foot inside a classroom to teach. "There are union leaders, representatives senators and even governors." The situation is such that last year it was revealed that one of the leaders of the Michoacan drug cartel, Los Caballeros Templarios or Knights Templar received teacher's pay from the federal government. In the first trimester of 2010 he took in 51.000 pesos (3800 dollars).
Serdán said that certain so-called "pregnant schools" have been discovered in the poorest states, like three provinces where most CNTE members work. These establishments employ more teachers than those who actually work. The instructors who do show up meet with an unfriendly situation. The school day is short. In some cases it only last four and half hours. Many have to work double shifts. They do not get paid time to correct paper, prepare classes or meet with parents.
According to Serdán the reforms the Senate ratified this Tuesday affect two statutes that threaten the interests of union leaders: The law for the National Institute for Educational Evaluation and a measure prohibiting paid teachers from taking another post.
The new legislation will evaluate instructors every four years. They may repeat the process if they fail. If a teacher has just taken on a new post and fails the evaluation three times he will be removed. If he had held the post for a long time he will still keep his salary and benefits but he won't be allowed to teach. "This process can last up to 7 years," Serdán said. All vacant posts and newly created positions will require entry exams, he added. Up until now the unions controlled the process.
These reforms are part of an ambitious program that President Enrique Peña Nieto set out for himself at the beginning of his term. The changes in law are significant, Serdán said, but the most important thing, as with other legislation in Mexico, is implementation.
Given the colossal size of the educational system in Mexico (one of the biggest in Latin America) and despite the corruption of union leaders, low wages, overcrowded classrooms, lack of incentives and training, it's easy to find testimonials about thousands of teachers who meet with their students every day. Their efforts leave a profound impression.
Yesterday CNTE's actions left 2 million kids without schools but another 28 million still showed up.
Translation: Dyane Jean François