Mexico teacher protests: for many, anger boiled at being left out

After nearly two months of the most recent round of violent street protests, highway blockades, and school closures, members of a dissident teachers union and government officials sat down to talk future steps.

Nick Wagner/AP
Demonstrators belonging to a dissident teachers union march in Mexico City, Monday, July 11, 2016. The teachers union is striking against plans to overhaul the country's education system which include federally mandated teacher evaluations.

José Antonio Hurtado stands amid a protest camp that sprawls across a downtown square here. Taking shelter from the late-afternoon sun under the tent of his dissident teachers’ union, he lists off why Mexico’s 2013 landmark education reform has to go.

When the reform passed, it was lauded for its potential to improve Mexico’s competitiveness and boost its standing in the global economy. Through teacher evaluations, professional development, and more federal oversight over budgets, long-held practices of “ghost teachers” collecting salaries or handing teaching positions from one family member to the next were expected to disappear. While the national teacher’s union backs the reforms, dissident groups were skeptical – and outspoken – from the start.

Mr. Hurtado, a gym instructor who has taught in a school of 360 students in southern Zacapu, Michoacán for the past two decades, has many concerns. He says the reform was never about anything but finding a roundabout way to tackle labor reform and punish teachers.

“They can end our contract whenever they want with no reason,” Hurtado says. “This reform doesn’t benefit anyone, it has nothing to do with education.”

But then he homes in on a point that many in schools and dissident unions – largely in Mexico’s poorer southern states – share.

“They didn’t take into consideration the teachers. No one asked me what needs changing. And we’re the ones living these realities every day,” Hurtado says. 

After nearly two months of the most recent round of violent street protests, highway blockades, and school closures, members of the dissident National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) union and government officials sat down to talk future steps.

Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong previously said the government wouldn't meet with the dissidents until they ended their blockades, which have caused food shortages in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Reformers view the meetings as the government surrendering to an outspoken minority.

But the moves underscore the recognition of a key oversight in how the reform was rolled out, observers say: There wasn’t enough front-end engagement with the 1.3 million public school teachers and the parents of the more than 30 million students about what exactly the reform was designed to do and how it would affect them.

“Everything was very rushed,” says Emilio López, director of educational communities at Enseña por México, a nonprofit modeled after Teach for America that places teaching volunteers in public schools. “The evaluation process wasn’t discussed widely, there were some [hiccups] in the tests that were administered … and what the government missed was involving stakeholders on the ground.”

It’s led to widespread misinformation. At the protest camp in downtown Mexico City, tents cover the sidewalks and empty soda bottles hang from the maze of ropes criss-crossing the streets and holding up tarp shelters. Here, teachers from mostly southern states express their worries about what they’ve heard could happen to them and their students as a result of the reform. Rumors range from schools becoming privatized and requiring families to cover the entire cost of electricity and water in order to keep classroom doors open, to teachers being fired automatically if they fail any part of the national teacher evaluation.

Earlier this week, the government and the CNTE announced they would continue meeting, with the first of three follow-up “roundtables” taking place on Wednesday on the topic of politics. Future discussions on education and social issues will take place next week. The Secretariat of Education also announced this week it would discuss revising the teacher evaluations in coordination with the national teacher's union, including how the test is carried out and how results are published.

"These very large scale reforms need to be democratic," says Lucrecia Santibañez, an associate professor of education at Claremont Graduate University who is conducting a study on the professional development aspect of Mexico’s reform. "They need to incorporate various actors’ points of view. The success of the reform hinges on whether teachers in the classroom can change their behavior and change the way they are doing things for the better. If that doesn’t trickle down to that level, the reform will never work.”

Getting “teachers on board” is key.

'Start over from scratch?'

Mexico has long had one of the worst performing public education systems of the world’s largest economic powers, ranking dead last among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations in the most recent education study. Nearly 55 percent of its 15-year-olds lack basic math proficiency, according to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment test.

Health sciences teacher Maria Teresa Guarneros, sitting on a curb around the corner from a lively zumba class at the protest encampment, says she agrees there is a need for education reform. “No one can deny we could be doing better. But this reform isn’t getting us closer. We need to think of the students and their families and start over from scratch,” she says.

Ms. Santibañez says she wasn’t taken aback by resistance to the reform, but the intensity of the protests, which turned bloody last month in Oaxaca, has surprised her. “The reform was a huge triumph. Everyone was at the table who had to be: The main union and political parties, so it started out with a lot of promise.” But “the devil is in the details,” she says, noting that “It’s understandable that tweaks will have to be made” during implementation.

Santibañez compares Mexico’s situation to similar education reforms in Chile. There, it took about seven years of negotiations between teachers and the government to reach approval and implementation. “There was a very long process of negotiation … and some things [that each side felt strongly about] were left on the table and didn’t make it into the law.”

By engaging in talks with dissident teacher’s unions, Mexico seems to be acknowledging missed steps.

"It's a very important achievement in favor of our country," Mr. Osorio Chong said of the ongoing meetings with the dissident CNTE. "Through dialogue, we continue advancing to find solutions."

But if the discussion over reforms is opening up at this point, some argue, the conversation should include a broader array of voices.

The government can’t prioritize the voice of just one group, David Calderón, director of the education NGO Mexicanos Primero, which backs the reform, said on the daily news program Hoy Mismo this week. He supports officials engaging in talks and says there are points of the reform that could use improvement, but it's vital "that any discussion include not only the CNTE, the SNTE [main education union], but all of society.”

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