Maggio 3, 2017

Education System Reform: voices from the resistance

Walking through downtown Tuxtla Gutierrez was not a nice task that summer of 2016. As it started raining, I hurried to find shelter under the next available roof. Aiming for the same dry spot there were Karla and Manuel, a couple in their mid-twenties. It was easy to see that they did not belong to what was going on there. We arrived simultaneously at the little corner shop, which became our shelter for the next ten minutes.

People are very friendly around here. It was not hard for me to strike up a conversation. I asked them what brings a young couple like them through this conflict zone. Karla began by making it clear that they were just friends and then, with enthusiasm, continued to explain what Manuel had recently posted on Facebook: Mexican teachers are “a bunch of lazy people, he had said, “they are to blamefor all the violence that is currently going on in southern Mexico. Karla said that she was especially worried about the last sentence of Manuel’s post: “Somebody should stop them.”

Tuxtla is the capital city of Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico, where 76 percent of its population is poor and one in three lives in extreme poverty. Moreover, Chiapas is best known as the state where in 1994 the “Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional” (EZLN), an indigenous organization leading by Subcomandante Marcos, rose up in arms against the government’s mistreatment of the native people.

Two decades after this historic insurrection, between May and September 2016, Mexican teachers from the National Coordinator for Education Workers (CNTE), an alternative union created by dissident teachers from the poorest states in Mexico, occupied downtown Tuxtla Gutierrez. They came from all over the state leaving their homes, families and classrooms, and made a huge encampment across the main square against the Education System Reform enacted by the Mexican government in 2013.

“Something utterly important must be happening” was the main hypothesis behind Karla’s argument in her attempts to explain the situation to Manuel. For that reason, she invited him to visit the teacher’s encampment. She wanted him to see that the movement was peaceful and respectful, powered by ordinary people: teachers, who were no longer able to stand by in silence.

The Education System Reform

The reform, the government argues, aims at overhauling public education. It also aims at guaranteeing that the educational system remains free and secular, while cultivating equal opportunities. In order to pursue the goals of the reform, the government amended the constitution, especially concerning the role of professors and activities within the schools, participation of parents in institutional decisions, full-time schools, and the use of technology in educational and administrative activities.

Furthermore, the Education System Reform endorses schools’ self-management. This opens public schools to receive and administrate donations from the private donors in order to enhance infrastructures and solve operational problems. Based on performance evaluation, the reform also creates the professional service for the magisterium, which defines a set of standardized rules on hiring, promoting and permanence process of professors and administrative employees of the Mexican education system. These two elements of the reform, in particular, have raised the major opposition among the magisterium. Fears center on the possibility of privatizing the public education through the school self-management. People also have concerns with the evaluation system, which may work as a punishment mechanism for dissident professors.

Nevertheless, the main critique to the Education System Reform argues that it does not target the sources of educational performance in the country: material conditions of schools. The reform addresses administrative and professional features of the educational system with the ambitions of reachin higher levels of equality and quality. Still, it does not comprise a plan of action that directly considers ameliorating the material conditions in which the poorest population in the country attends basic education.

Just to mention some data: in 2015, the Mexican government spent USD 3400 per student, which represents a third of the OECD average. This places the country below Brazil and Chile’s investment. Moreover, 54 percent of the schooling age population (those under 18 years-old) lives in poverty. In addition, 40 percent of educational institutions lacks basic sanitary conditions. For instance, this rate rises up to 80 percent,when we consider only indigenous schools. Finally, despite, in primary and secondary education, professors teach more hours per year than the average of OECD countries, their wage is below OECD average.

Manuel Gil Antón – a renowned academic from El Colegio de México – used an interesting analogy when offering his opinion about the Education System Reform. “Imagine,” he said, “a group of people in a rusty, old bus. The transmission is not working properly, they have a flat tire, the seats are all rotten and there are pieces of broken windows falling inside, as the bus tries to get to the top of a high mountain on a deteriorated dirt road full of holes and rock obstacles. Now, instead of fixing the bus, or the road, they insist on blaming the driver”.

Voices from the resistance

When it addresses the problems of the Education System Reform, the CNTE nationwide movement pursues three specific demands: the reform permanent suspension, the undertaking of a comprehensive educational model – aiming at the real sources of the poor educational performance in Mexico, and the compensation for the negative effects of the reform enactment.

However, as authorities and the CNTE failed to reach an agreement, the episodes of violence escalated. The situation touched its climax in June 2016. At least eight civilians were killed, while federal forces were trying to end a protest in the small city of Nochixtlán (Oaxaca). Later, authorities incarcerated two leaders of CNTE, when demonstrations intensified across the country and other sectors and social demands joined the movement.

At the height of the conflict, walking through downtown Tuxtla gave me a strange sensation.

I was there right after a violent encounter between teachers and federal forces, which wanted protesters to leave the area. Fire barricades were burning across the main streets. Heavy dose of tear gas were floating in the air. The sound of the helicopters, which flew so low, gave me the feeling of a war zone. “Is this what people experience in Middle Eastern conflict zones?” I wondered. “Is this ugliness what people feel when they walk through streets under gunfire?” “Should I just get used to it?” “How did we get this far?”

Later that day, protesters organize a spontaneous rally via Facebook. Thousands of ordinary people and members of civil society organizations walked together to the site. They showed solidarity and support to the teachers. They brought back a peculiar joy – an unexpected constant in the encampment. Probably, the strange feeling of contentment is one of the things that caught my attention the most. People seemed to be always joyful, ready to laugh – even before a violent confrontation.

Around the camp, there was also a great deal of political discussion going on in what seemed to be perfectly organized groups of twenty or thirty teachers around. I cannot forget when I approached three or four of them trying to have a conversation. Some of them did not like the idea that much. Norma did.

Norma was a 27-years-old teacher. In a soft and paused voice, she excused herself saying that Spanish was her second language after Tzotzil, an ethnic dialect from the center and northern region of Chiapas. She told me that she came from an indigenous community up in the mountainous region of the state, where she has been teaching in a bilingual school.

When I asked her the reason why she was there, she quickly replied with a joke, “I don’t think that you have time to listen to all my thousand reasons”. Suddenly, her tone became very serious. She told me that she was utterly upset with the political scenario. For her, the government has been representing the interests of the wealthiest, not those of the majority.

She seemed to have very clear the idea that resistance was only a small part of a much bigger problem. She said that she felt the obligation to raise her voice now, once the problem began affecting her very personal interests. Norma sustained that the Education System Reform is highly unfair. For her, it does not address the right issues. She seemed to think that the whole move was an institutional effort to gain full control of the teachers, who, in Mexico, are an important political force.

Before the constitutional amendments, the process of hiring and firing teachers mainly rested on the union’s internal deliberation: there was nothing like an institutional mechanism to select candidates and fill the vacancies. The education reform introduced a standardized mechanism for recruiting and a standardized system of assessment. stick-and-carrot approach. As Norma mentioned, the reform developed as a power dispute between the National Union for Education Workers, one of the biggest unions in Latin America, the CNTE and the State, taking the educational system as a battle zone.

Norma also explained that she was born and raised in a very poor family. Her parents, who never went to school, did all what they could to put her in the position to study and become a teacher. Her story is an exceptional event in Mexico, a country with a low social mobility. “Teaching is my passion, and it has always been my dream to be a teacher. God knows how hard I have worked for it. I am not against being evaluated, but if I fail, I want to be trained, not fired”. Norma was referring to the fact that, under the new legislation, professors must submit regular evaluations in order to remain in their posts. If they fail in three subsequent assessments or refuse to be evaluated, they are dismissed, according to the terms specified in the Law for the professional teacher service.

Norma also argued that the personal interests of this government to privatize the education system is the real intention behind the conflict. “You may not like the people who are pointing that out, and the way they are saying it, but our recent history tells us that it is definitely a real possibility. We have seen the same model with our banking system, our communication sector, our energy and mining industry… and the list continues. The same group of corrupt politicians has done it again and again. They make us think that the sector is in bankruptcy, and then they sell it cheap to themselves. Either they are incapable of managing our wealth, or they are perverse.”

Norma did not know yet that the Mexican government was about to announce a reduction of USD 350000 to the educational budget, the second cut to this sector in 2016. The 2017 federal budget established an overall reduction of 15 percent on the budget assigned to the Ministry of Public Education. The reduction of public spending obstructs the consolidation of the education system. It also puts at great risk its future development.

“How long are you planning to stay here?” I asked, “As long as it takes,” she, very committed, answered me.


After four years, the social conflict in Mexico driven by the implementation of the Education System Reform is escalating parallel to the economic, human rights and political crisis of the Mexican society.

The professors’ movement strengthened resistance. However, the Mexican education system continues to deliver poor results. For instance, the OECD 2015 Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) found that Mexican students performed below the OECD average in all the evaluated areas: science, reading and mathematics.

Long-lasting low economic growth also impoverishes the Mexican population. For the Mexican National Council for the Evaluation of Social Policy, one in two Mexicans lives in poverty, and one in ten remains in extreme poverty (lacking means for acquiring a basic food basket, basic social rights as education, housing, public health or social security).

Moreover, the latest Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on human rights in Mexico indicated that the country is experiencing a deep crisis of violence and human rights violations. It began ten years ago with the implementation of the military strategy to fight drug traffic in Mexico. This strategy resulted in more than one hundred thousand casualties and 27 thousand of missing people – including the infamous 43 college students’ disappearance from a rural school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014.

Finally, both economic and human right crises, combined with the inefficacy to answer popular demands, put the government under severe pressure: the president’s approval rate has dropped at 12 percent, the lowest support for a Mexican president in recent history.

Today, the damage goes beyond repair for the Mexican society. The violent confrontation between the public force and teachers has driven major economic losses among the most vulnerable states of southern Mexico. Unfortunately, the government and the CNTE have not reached an agreement and there is not a clear path towards the resolution in the horizon. Under this scenario, social organizations, teachers and students are likely to occupy the streets and reject the imposition of the Education System Reform.

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About Silvia Elena Meza

Silvia Elena Meza

Silvia Elena Meza is former Director of Evaluation and Monitoring at the Mexican Ministry of Social Development. She holds a Master’s degree in Economics from El Colegio de Mexico and is a specialist in Social Policy design. She has extensive experience in evaluation of social policies related to poverty, women, vulnerable groups and NGOs.

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About Jorge Taddei

Jorge Taddei

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