A poster by the National Education Workers Coordinator (CNTE) on the trunk of a van led me to reflect on the discussion (because nothing akin to a debate is happening here) that characterizes the educative issue at present in the country. “Everything starts with 1s self. Rebel!!!” (sic). Beyond the demonstrations, the educative reform and the political dispute surrounding the legislative process of the moment, the debate on the quality of education and its transcendence vis-à-vis the lives of those being educated is universal; few countries are spared. On reviewing the literature on the issue, I found interesting things, some fascinating.
In 1962, Richard Hofstadter, in a book entitled Anti-intellectualism in American Life, affirmed that “A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference”; among these, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else: …de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of intellectually gifted children”. What most impressed me about the Hofstadter book when I read it for the first time some twenty years ago is that nothing that he affirmed in it had, nor has, changed much. The debate in the U.S. on the matter has evolved into the issues that now appear in the Mexican fore, such as teacher evaluation, but results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test -administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and that permits the comparison of some twenty nations- shows that Mexican children are, much like the Americans, considerably behind some other countries that do some things particularly well. We’ve seen the same situation for years and the only thing that’s evident is that the political conflict heats up but the results are progressively worse.
The take-off point in Paul Tough’s book Why Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is that everyone supposes that success in life depends on things advancing in childhood that are associated with intelligence: better grades, success in standardized tests and constancy in traditional evaluations. However, says Tough, what really makes a difference, the qualities that effectively lead to success in life are skills such as: perseverance, curiosity, optimism and self-control. That is, the author goes on, the difference lies in the person’s character and that is the key to the educative process, at home as well as at school, to construct a productive and successful life in the adults of the future.
Amanda Ripley takes a different perspective in The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way. In her view, the whole approach taken in the US towards education, which has fostered the growth of an enormous industry devoted to confronting the educative challenge, is wrong. Monumental budgets are spent on new programs, projects and mechanisms of evaluation and, notwithstanding this, the results not only don’t improve but become worse. She exemplifies with Poland: despite its being a country with a relatively poor population, its educative indices tend to rise. Instead of engaging in polemics about details that tend to stifle debates on international standardized testing (whether the sample is well done, whether it over-represents a certain type of student, whether the teachers union attempts to skew the results, i.e., the sources of universal wrangling on this issue), Ripley applies herself to investigating what differentiates some educative systems from others. She follows three American foreign-exchange students who end up in Finland, Korea or Poland, respectively.
The three American students set out from similar educative circumstances and found themselves in nations that achieve the best PISA test results. The first observation of the students was about how hard their local peers work and how seriously they take their studies. They particularly note how sophisticated the teaching is and the ways in which (apparently) independent programs (like trigonometry, geometry and calculus) interact in real life, acquiring a meaning they had not understood before. What most impressed them was that the teachers were authorities in their field and were treated with the respect due to an exceptional professional.
Two of Ripley’s conclusions seemed particularly relevant with respect to Mexico’s current reality. The first is that teachers in those countries confront ultracompetitive processes for admittance into the teaching profession. In Finland all teachers must have a Master degree, must have written a thesis that was the product of research and, in addition to passing extremely rigorous examinations, must spend a year as teaching assistants of a veteran professor to observe, learn and be evaluated while practicing.
In one passage of her book, Ripley relates an interview with a Finnish professor that evidences an extraordinary clarity of purpose: students are expected to succeed and there are no special concessions. “I don´t want to think about their backgrounds; it’s your brain that counts…I don’t want to have too much empathy for them because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘oh you poor kid, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.” Devotion to merit is overarching (and extreme, says Ripley, in Korea).
The second conclusion is that the need for technology in the classroom is oversold. Ripley states that what truly matters is the quality of the pedagogical process because that’s what forms the character of the students. Successful educative programs are those that have a common backbone but that leave the management of the process in the hands of the educator because it is the contact between teacher and pupil that contributes to character formation. It is not calculators or computers that triumph but the focus on academics and student-teacher interaction.
With his accustomed clairvoyance, Eduardo Andere summed up his diagnosis of Mexico’s educative problem in a recent Reforma op-ed. I compile three key points: first, the Mexican government does not understand the rationale, or the political logic, behind the two teachers’ unions that constitute the key counterparts in this process: the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) or the CNTE. Second, starting with the 1992 reforms, the educational system was not well decentralized but now the government is attempting to centralize it. The proper strategy would be to carry out a thorough, and well thought out, decentralization. Third, and most importantly, no educational reform can be conceived without the teachers, which is the reason that the emphasis should be placed on the resolution of the ongoing political conflict so that everyone gets down to work on what’s really key.
The country appears to be on the brink of revolution because of an ill-conceived political process of reform. This will persist as long as the key actors remain adamant in their stance. Only the government can break this perverse dynamic.