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Mexico's answer to tight school budgets: teaching by TV

By Ken BensingerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 2004


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.

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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."

From rural to urban

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.

9th graders at 2nd-grade level