ATLIHUETZIA, MEXICO — It's Monday, a school morning, and 14-year-old Manuel Damian is glued to the television. He's not playing hooky and he isn't feeling ill. In fact, the ninth-grader is sitting quietly in class, his blue school sweater buttoned up against the chilly mountain air.
Damian is one of 41 adolescents in this town in tiny Tlaxcala state - and nearly 1.3 million in Mexico - whose teacher is a black plastic box with a picture tube, power cord, and remote control. These students are getting their junior-high education through a nationwide satellite TV network in special schools called "telesecondaries," which offer 15-minute prerecorded lessons on six subjects each day, followed by half-hour reviews in workbooks led by in-class assistants.
But this is no experiment. Today, fully 1 in 5 Mexicans in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade attends TV junior high. In fact, it could very well be the future of midlevel public education in Mexico - and in many parts of the world, including parts of the US. Thanks to their extremely low costs, coupled with tight school budgets and soaring student populations, Mexico's telesecondaries have become a model for providing education to all students, even as questions about their effectiveness persist.
"In a perfect world, real teachers for every subject would be better," whispers Damian, watching a segment about pre-Columbian art for his Mexican history class. "But I really like TV, and here, TV is school."
Telesecondaries aren't new - Mexico launched the program in 1968 as a way to deliver secondary education to hard-to-reach rural areas. But they are undergoing a major growth spurt. From the 1995-96 academic year to today, the number of telesecondary students shot up 83 percent, to roughly 1.27 million, while growth in the country's other midlevel schools - standard and vocational junior highs - has been around 15 percent. And with most population growth now in urban and semiurban areas, the bulk of these supposedly rural schools are now being built in and around Mexico's largest cities. In some areas, telesecondaries, designed not to surpass 120 students, are now pushing 1,000.
Mexico's public-education secretary recently began a year-long review of the schools aimed at lowering costs, after which it plans a ramp-up, handing over an increasing share of the nation's young minds to the TV teachers.
"The most efficient way to provide education is by creating telesecondaries," says Juan Carlos Garcia Nuñez, who heads the system at the Education Secretary. Each year, he says, Mexico spends on average 14,000 pesos ($1,250) per vocational student and 12,000 pesos ($1,000) per regular student, compared with barely 6,000 pesos ($525) per telesecondary student. Telesecondaries require only one teacher per grade, rather than dozens, and are housed in bare-bones cinderblock structures without expensive laboratories, gymnasiums, and auditoriums.
Indeed, Mexico is so pleased with the system that it's been pushing it abroad, convincing every Central American country except Belize to test the schools. At last count, roughly 50,000 students in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua were learning from videotape copies of Mexico's telesecondary curriculum.
Others are excited about the schools as well. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have given countries loans for telesecondary teacher training, and in the past two years, educators from Bolivia, China, Japan, and even Oregon have visited Mexico to study the program for use back home, praising the system's adaptability and costs.
But not everyone is convinced that these schools are the best idea. "The results of standardized tests consistently show that telesecondary students are learning little and that very few are reaching high levels of academic achievement," Mexican secondary education scholar Annette Santos del Real writes in a recent study.
Her research has shown that while telesecondaries have succeeded in offering some form of schooling in rural Mexican communities where no other secondary schools exist, they uniformly fall short of traditional alternatives.
In 2003, nearly 40 percent of telesecondary graduates failed national achievement tests, compared with about a quarter in the other two systems, and many rural 9th-grade telesecondary students scored the same on reading tests as 2nd graders in urban areas. "The decision to push for their expansion has much more to do with efficiency than with questions of equality or effectiveness," Santos del Real says.
The teaching assistants, or docents, who increasingly have degrees in telesecondary education (now offered at three different Mexican universities), have little, if any, expertise in mandatory subjects like physics, geometry, and English - indeed, many don't even speak the language.
Moreover, a new study by the education secretary reveals that the telesecondaries suffer a deficit of 5,400 teachers and a quarter-million textbooks, while 12 percent of all classrooms lack blackboards and two-thirds don't have proper drainage. Most incredibly, the study revealed that 5,180 classrooms don't have functional televisions and 740 schools don't even have satellite dishes to receive the nationwide signal, forcing tens of thousands to study without the TV programs at the heart of the institution.
"Under any form of evaluation, telesecondaries come in last," says Garcia Nuñez, director of the department in charge of overseeing telesecondaries. "It's difficult. But at least we know the challenges we face."
Despite the problems, surprisingly few complaints can be heard from students. Seventh-grader Miriam Muñoz is in her first year at the telesecondary in Tepetomatitlan, a small town on outskirts of Tlaxcala, 65 miles east of Mexico City. After six years of regular elementary school, she says she couldn't be happier. "The TV gives you more information," she says, smiling. Her only complaint: "Sometimes my neck hurts from looking up at the screen all the time."
Teachers agree that students are happier in telesecondaries. "Nobody is forcing students to be here," says Ruben Lopez Garcia, a telesecondary docent who has taught in four such schools, including one with dirt floors that needed to be sprayed every morning to keep down the dust. "They just prefer this system."
Parents have embraced it, too. Olivia Tlaxcalteco, president of the parents committee at the telesecondary in Atlihuetzia, says she took her son out of a nearby vocational junior high due to overfilled classrooms, inattentive teachers, and discipline problems. At the vocational school, her son sat in classes with as many as 50 other students; at the telesecondary, he's one of 12. While parents acknowledge that their children may not be learning at the same level as students at traditional middle schools, they are satisfied because they say their children are happier in this environment.
But the key issue, says Ms. Tlaxcalteco, is money. Regular junior highs charge for books and have annual laboratory, shop, and field-trip fees. Telesecondaries have none of that. "Here, they give the books away for free," she says. "Telesecondaries just cost less."