Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What's up with pubic education here?

Before moving to Mexico, my initial intention was to find a teaching position within the public or private school setting. It was something of an internal comparative research project to find out why Mexican schools sit at the bottom of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) list. In tested areas of reading, mathematics, and science, Mexican students routinely score at level 1 proficiencies, which indicates they only possess knowledge level skills and lack critical thinking abilities. Could schools here be that bad? (Yes, and click here to read more about the recent 2006 PISA results) There are other countries who share similar economic straits as Mexico but don't fare as poorly, so if it's not tied to socioeconomics then it must be something inherently wrong with the system.

First thing I discovered about public school here is that all teachers HAVE to belong to the teacher's union. Talk about putting a choke hold on the system and letting it suffocate. I have seen good things come from teacher unions in the states, such as pay raises and a collective voice, but, for me, teacher unions ultimately give rise to complacent teachers. And it's teachers who make the difference in the success of a student--not money, not class size, and not access to technology or materials. Teacher unions in the US differ in their strength and authority over the system, but teacher unions here in Mexico seem to have a complete grasp over how the system is run. Every time you hear about teachers in Mexico, it's because they're protesting. Not just 3 days but for 3 weeks. And all across the country from Oaxaca to Morelos to Baja California to Mexico City. They might be fighting for worthy causes of better pay and quality of education, but the system isn't going to improve without better teachers. To me, the heart of the matter goes back to quality of teachers. It's a problem in the US, but it's a bigger problem here. 

A few stories from Fall 2008:

Because of my foreign status, I couldn't work in a public school, but I did find something more adventurous and as close to public school kids as I could get. I work for an NGO, but SEP-governed, school here in Mexico City, which takes kids from one of the poorest delegations and provides them with educational, health, and community opportunities. As part of their vision to help these kids break the cycle of poverty, they are taught English in the primary grades, much like their private school counterparts. That's where I serve, and it's where I've had my firsthand public school-like experiences. 

While it's not the case in every classroom, I have noticed a general lack of classroom discipline and rigor on the part of the classroom teacher. I see one too many teachers "planning" their lessons on the fly, checking their cellphones for text messages, executing their lessons without real authority or passion for what they're teaching, and a lack of interest in whether the students learn or not. I thought the US system of No Child Left Behind was broken, but I see now that over-accountability is better than none. Under NCLB, I was nervous if my students didn't meet academic standards. My job and my school were held over an intense microscopic lens that put us all in fear. It's not a good system, by any means, but students were learning more than before NCLB. 

There are some good things to be said about where I work. One of the differences at my school is that students go to school from 7-4 instead of the regular public school hours of 8-1. It's a much longer school day for everyone, but in a country that has lots of catching up to do, it's an example I think public schools should follow. Also, the teachers at my school are not unionized, and because it's an NGO, directors have the right to fire sub-par teachers. Being able to fire ineffective teachers, like in other workplace settings, is a right and a power that should be held by administrators, not by unions. 

Teaching requires a highly styled and skilled type of individual who is able to charm students into the wide world of learning  and one who can also organize and manage groups of 30+. It's a struggle all teachers face, and it's one that I'm not sure should ever be overcome. I still have lots of thoughts on this mini-research project of mine and plan to ask some local teachers about their thoughts on unions, the state of education here, quality of teachers, etc.. in the meantime, would love to start some conversation on this with fellow foreigners.

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