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Here’s why teachers in Mexico are slinging rocks through government windows

May 1, 2013
May 1, 2013

Mexico appears to be erupting over president Enrique Peña Nieto’s sweeping education reforms.

In many regions, the dissent has turned violent as teachers and students take to the streets. In the Mexican state of Guerrero, masked mobs slinging rocks and wielding iron rods attacked the Supreme Court and various headquarters of political parties. Elsewhere, government buildings were vandalized, traffic on major highways halted, and protesters converged on several shopping malls. The unrest has gone on for over 60 days, disrupting schools and schedules.

Educators in Mexico are clearly livid. But what exactly are they so angry about?

Long dissatisfied over pay (they make a meager $650 a month on average), Mexican educators this time are targeting a very specific kink in reforms: Teachers must prove not only their worth, but also their commitment.

Testing, testing: 1, 2, 3

The central component of Nieto’s new legislation requires teachers to take periodic tests, which will in turn be used to help advise on hirings, firings and pay promotions. While it’s not the first time educators in Mexico have had to undergo testing—since the 1990s, teachers have been subject to examination as part of an incentive program—unlike existing programs, it promises to not only assess teacher performance, but also use its findings to make job placement decisions.

If Nieto’s legislation passes, new teachers will be forced to prove themselves over the course of a rigorous three-year period in which they will be tested—over and over. Currently, teachers undergo a brief and test-free six-month period before they are granted lifelong tenure.

The proposed reform’s effect on existing teachers is a bit less clear. Nieto said that he wants all teachers, including current ones, to undergo testing, but he hasn’t explained what that would mean for those who have already been granted tenure. They have in effect been told that their job security may soon be stripped, but have heard little to nothing about exactly how and when these firing decisions would be made.

In fact, the National Examination Institute (INE), the body in charge of designing the exams, has yet to disclose details about exactly what the tests will gauge, which isn’t helping curb the growing sense of anxiety among educators.

The teachers breaking windows are also most likely to get axed

It’s no coincidence that most of the violent protests are in the worst school districts, according to Sergio Cárdenas, an expert on education at CIDE, a Mexico City research institute. He told Quartz:

The protests are happening in Mexico’s poorest performing regions. …They are mobilizing to make sure they don’t get fired since they’re the first ones who will be looked at.

Blaming Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán for their low academic performances is hard—they are among the poorest states in the country—but understanding why the three regions have provided the setting for Mexico’s most violent protests is easy. Teachers in struggling schools will be the first ones fired under the new reform.

Especially if they’re missing class, too.

Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán are among a handful of impoverished districts also reputed for having particularly poor teacher attendance. In De Panzano, a documentary released last year about Mexico’s public education system, 67% of principals said teachers are late or absent every day. Nieto’s reform stipulates that teachers can be fired if absent for as few as three consecutive days, which sets a perfectly reasonable standard—that teachers actually teach—but also one that bodes poorly for teachers in struggling districts whose performance and attendance will be highly scrutinized.

Loud voice, little support

Nieto’s dissenters are getting all the attention, but an overwhelming majority of Mexicans anxious for education reform seems to have been lost.

They know better than anyone that Mexico is in dire need of holistic education reform. Mexico’s government spends a greater portion of its budget on education than any member of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, aside from New Zealand. Yet less than half of its children graduate from the Mexican equivalent of high school. The reality is that had Nieto not moved to draft an education bill as swiftly as he did, many more people would gone to the streets to protest.

Dissenting teachers don’t deny the need for reforms, but they tend to pin shortcomings on problems unrelated to teacher qualifications: classroom sizes, limited resources and broken curricula. They’re coming up with alternatives that preserve job security.

In Guerrero, for example, dissenting unionists want to form an autonomous body to evaluate its teachers, without tests but preserving tenure. In other words, they’re willing to assess performance—without consequence.

In a recent Quartz piece, economist Manuel Hinds astutely links Mexico’s incarcerated former teacher union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez when he said:

The region is not underdeveloped because it has this kind of leadership. It has this kind of leadership because it is underdeveloped.

Indeed, Mexico’s teachers are not entirely at fault. They are deeply rooted in a broken system that doesn’t hold its educators accountable for even the most blatant forms of negligence, like chronic ineffectiveness in the classroom. On the other hand, the teachers have a right to be angry; many of them may lose their jobs. But change is not only necessary, it is inevitable.

Their protests have come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of students, some of whom have been out of class for nearly two months. But after decades of tardiness and absenteeism, Mexicans must reason that such inconveniences are—in the bigger picture—a small price to pay on the bumpy, necessary road to effective reform.

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