Eduardo Andere is an independent researcher and writer, who lives in Mexico but is currently a visiting scholar at New York University. I contacted him and asked him to shed light on what is happening in Mexico, where several protesting teachers have been killed by police. As you will see below, it is complicated.
Eduardo Andere writes:
We should be talking about teaching and learning, school improvement, teacher’s training and professionalization; instead, we are talking about street demonstrations and deaths in Oaxaca.
Nothing justifies the death of people in confrontations over politics and policies. And when teachers, schools and education policies are involved, the feeling of bitterness and frustration is even worse. Mexico has again gained international attention because of a tragic clash between demonstrators and the police last Sunday in Oaxaca. In order to understand what it is going on I have to talk a little bit about education in Mexico.
Different from the U.S. and other large countries, education in Mexico is very centralized in almost all matters. The federal government is empowered by the National Constitution (Articles 3 and 73, mainly) to implement national education, evaluation and education civic service laws. At the national government cabinet level there is an Education Department we call Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) that is in charge of almost all important education matters including the government-labor relations with teachers, the national curriculum, textbooks, and teacher training and professionalization.
SEP is the employer of most teachers in Mexico. The labor relationship between the government and teachers is handled by a duopoly: SEP and the National Union of Workers of Education or Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE). By historical reasons, Unions in Mexico were co-opted by non-democratic governments to advance their political interests. In the past, non-democratic national legislatures, always under the simulation of democracy, passed laws to protect the union leaders and their unions. Many of those legal shields or protections are still in force. Overtime, some union leaders became very powerful and allegedly very corrupt, sometimes as powerful of more powerful that cabinet ministers. However, this powerful leaders were “institutionalized” by the system and played by the rules of the game in a dance of political favors between high political figures such as governors and even presidents of Mexico. This has been the case of the leaders of the large unions such as the teachers union, the oil-related workers’ union and electricity-related workers’ union. Perhaps the most powerful of all of them, the leader of the SNTE, was some times dubbed as the “Mexican vice-president”.
The SNTE is formed by many sections or secciones and some of those secciones have opposed to the national union leadership. The most powerful opposition force is called the CNTE, Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Coordination of Workers of Education). The CNTE (o La Coordinadora) isn’t empowered by the law to handle labor negotiations with the employer, i.e., SEP, because the legal right to enter into contractual negotiations with the government is, by law, only granted to SNTE. This has made the CNTE a more vociferous and combatant labor organization. On the other hand, the SNTE has very seldom taken their quarrels to the streets, they threaten, but they have always managed to settle whatever the issue with the government.
By sheer numbers Mexico’s education system is immense, in some areas even larger than the U.S. The total number of students in Mexico from pre-school to university is 36.4 million (total population in Mexico is 121 million), educated by 2 million teachers in almost 262 thousand schools (of which 7,211 are universities and colleges). It means that SEP is in charge, directly, of more that 254 thousand schools from pre-K to 12, and is the employer of around 1.2 million teachers. The system is extremely large for a centralized authority.
The source of the conflict. Right after President Peña took office on December 1st, 2012, he sent to Congress a proposal to amend the National Constitution to set off an education reform. The national congress and the majority of the state legislatures hastily approved the amendment. In tandem, the then leader of SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo, was incarcerated and at the time of this writing (June 23, 2016) is still in jail. The Education Amendment triggered new laws, provisions and policies that were approved and enacted in 2013. The package has been dubbed since then “The Education Reform” or “La Reforma Educative.”
At the heart of the Education Reform was the intention to disentangle old and opaque—sometimes very opaque—ways to hire and promote teachers. For decades teachers were hired and promoted with written and unwritten arrangements between the SNTE and the federal and local governments. It was part of the political reciprocal favors leaders in government (many of them politicians) and SNTE granted each other, for their own sake. Over the years, teachers learned and earned the right to sell or inherit their own “plazas” (teaching tenures.) This became almost a culture. There were some efforts, but limited to some states only, to change this “opaque” system for a new open and merit-based system. It was “ok” since many people benefited from it. Teachers were only accountable to leaders, SNTE and governmental (political-driven). One of the intentions of the Education Reform was to change that.
However, the Education Reform tried to change a long-standing wrong but “culturally” accepted employment system by a new, more transparent but totally different system based primarily on standardized tests. The only way teachers and other educators could be hired, promoted or even keep their jobs, was through a system of rigorous standardized tests. This new teacher evaluation policy tops a decade-long effort to assess students, teachers and schools, based on universal and standardized tests. As of 2002 Mexico subscribed to the international frantic wave of testing and assessment that gave rise to changes in policies in many countries, such as the U.S. (No Child Left Behind), the U.K., Australia and Japan, for instance. Mexico entered, swiftly and harshly, into the era of education assessment.
Most of the teachers in Mexico have accepted, in part or in general, the new system of assessment, but some states where CNTE has a stronghold have bitterly opposed. By the way, these states happen to be the poorest in Mexico and in many instances with the lowest education performance in the national (ENLACE and PLANEA) and international (PISA) tests, but also in matriculation rates and real or authentic opportunities to learn. One of the main arguments from teachers who oppose the Education Reform is based on conditions of extreme poverty and therefore context. They say they were never listened, so they took their quarrels to the streets, blocking highways or leaving schools, therefore, closing schools for days, weeks or months. Governments, national and local, have replied with a mixture of measures: sometimes tolerance, sometimes propaganda, and sometimes police force to open highways or incarcerating aggressive demonstrators or leaders.
The two sides seem to be struck by a stalemate: the national government, SEP, says that the Education Reform is not negotiable at all, and the opposing teachers who do not want to be evaluated by the new system of assessment, want the system to change for them. Sometimes it seems pride, but at the heart of the issue, it is high politics (paraphrasing Kissinger): a sheer change in the allocation of decision-making power.
As it is written, it seems that the issue is very simple: Negotiate. But the national government has been adamant, and so are the CNTE leaders who ironically but politically gained steam by the tragic event last Sunday in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, where eight people died and many other were wounded as the result of a violent clash between demonstrators and the police force.
As of yesterday, June 22nd, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Secretaría de Gobernación) has set up a table for negotiations with CNTE. On the other hand, SEP has insisted that the Education Reform is not for negotiation. The leaders of the business community and the owners of some newspapers and TV networks support the Education Reform; some op-ed columnists have also backed the change in the rules of the game. The CNTE is backed by teachers mainly from the poorest states, some academics and intellectuals, and left-driven political parties and extremist groups. Negotiation and more demonstrations are taking place in tandem. The coin is in the air, but at least there is a table where they are voicing their views. In the meantime, precious time is lost to enter into authentic teaching and learning policies and practices in schools. Once again, all is politics. Pedagogy follows politics.