This past week, I experienced the enthusiasm that many Mexicans have for reform in education when I spoke at the U.S. Mexico Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference. Reform is, of course, a subject of interest in Mexico in the area of energy as well but we have seen that education reform is much further along. Like the U.S., educational reform is essential for Mexico’s global competitiveness.
Both countries – the United States and Mexico – are challenged to compete globally and raise prosperity by the performance of their students when compared with other countries. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will report new PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores on December 3. The previous report placed both countries well below desirable levels. Mexico ranked 48th among the countries tested in reading; the U. S. ranked 17th. In math, Mexico ranked 50th, and the U.S. was little better at 31st.
These low ranks for both countries represent a strong indication of the need for more educational reform. For many of us, educational reform has been part of our lives for decades but we still struggle to get reform right. Reform is essential if good teachers are to have the opportunity to do what good teachers can do – change students, indeed transform students. We can only hope that the new PISA scores will show some improvement for both countries.
Right now, neither Mexico nor the U.S. is globally competitive when it comes to how our students perform in reading, math and science. Primary and secondary education in the U.S. and Mexico still looks very familiar after decades of attempts to reform it. Teachers’ unions are still strong; especially in Mexico and it has been the struggle with teachers’ unions that has caught the most attention of many people who have watched the recent education reforms take place in Mexico.
Many teachers have feared competition, and the Mexican teachers’ union has fought reform. Competition, of course, is becoming more widely available to U.S. students via online schools, home schools, and charter schools. It is still rare in Mexico, but competition is more typical of many other countries. In the Netherlands, three-quarters of Dutch students study in private schools. Japan and Korea have an even larger proportion of their students in privately managed schools.
The good news in Mexico is that reform is underway. New standardized tests will become available for selecting teachers and for evaluating their performance. A new, national reporting system has increased transparency; the information system is called ENLACE (La Evaluacion Nacional de Logro Academico en Centros Escolares). In June, the Mexican government reported that ENLACE data covered 95% of students and 90% of Mexican schools. Scores on national tests are essential for making reforms work, and scores have to be based on a national average and be used to determine if a student is doing poorly as an anomaly in a class or school – or if the entire class or school is doing poorly relative to national averages. Mexico can now do this.
It was very positive to witness the enthusiasm for education reform this past week. That enthusiasm seemed to be driven by an understanding that reforms have to enable teachers to be more effective. Despite the reported reaction by teachers’ unions to educational reform in Mexico, it is teachers who will make educational reform lead to improved student performance.