Literacy Instruction in Mexico
reviewed by Rodolfo Rincones - 2004
These are transitional times for the Mexican society. Mexicans had very high expectations after the electoral victory of Vicente Fox in 2001, the first candidate from an opposing political party to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to become president in nearly 80 years. Fox’s victory, in part, arose from a society that had become disenchanted and unhappy with the old regime. His victory was also related to his electoral promises. However, three years into his presidency, political analysts speak of ungovernableness. The relations between the legislative and executive branches are marked by constant tension and conflicts. The most important reforms proposed by Fox’s government have died in Congress.
In terms of education, the current government’s policy is embodied in the Compromiso Social por la Calidad de la Educación (Social Compromise for the Quality of Education) signed by the government, the national teachers’ union, university presidents, business leaders and social organizations. In reality, this agreement basically continues with the principles of the educational reform started during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1992. This reform brought to the forefront of Mexican education the neoliberal ideas marked by commitment to efficiency, market, privatization, and choice. The touted positive results that the neoliberal reforms were to bring to the Mexican educational system have yet to be seen. Of course, to change the Mexican educational system, which has been plagued with problems and contradictions since its creation in 1921, will require more than an alliance among the different political forces. Since 1992, three identifiable national projects have been competing with each other to take control of the Mexican education system: The neoliberal, the populist or corporatist, and the social liberal (Ornelas, 1997, p. 54). As the educational system transitions into the new century, the struggles continue with each project trying to become hegemonic.
Due to its complexity and convoluted historical past, Mexican educational system may not be easy to understand. Robert Miller’s monograph Literacy Instruction in Mexico is an attempt to do that. His book documents the progress of México’s basic educational system from the 1970s to the 1990s. Miller writes in a descriptive tone and combines basic historical information with official data to offer a glimpse of one of the most complex educational systems in North America. The book is the product of 20 years of research conducted by the author. Information was obtained through numerous visits to urban and rural schools, interviews with government officials, school principals and teachers, administration of teacher questionnaires, and review of official documents. The information is organized in seven chapters and ends with a bibliography. After the introductory notes, the author offers an overview of the Mexican school system, a brief historical account of basic literacy in Mexico, a description of the literacy efforts in rural and bilingual schools, the development of special education, teacher training, and information on the literacy projects for Mexican nationals in the United States. The last chapter includes the author’s perspectives for development of the Mexican educational system.
Mexico’s dilemma has been how to deal with conflicts created between traditional and modernizing efforts. Education has not been exempted from these conflicts. The Mexican educational system is rooted in historical and ideological battles and power struggles. Many of the problems being faced currently are historical. Miller rightfully places these problems in an historical context as he traces the origins of the educational system back to the late XIX century, during the Reform Movement, and the enactment of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 to the creation of the Secretaria de Educación Publica (SEP) in 1921. Miller also documents the influence of John Dewey on Mexican educators who were forging the Mexican educational system at the beginning of the last century. Since its official establishment in 1921, the SEP has dealt with conflicting functions. It has been charged with providing literacy and a strong nationalist education to homogenize the Mexican population with profound ethnic and socioeconomic differences.
Writing about Mexican education, one is always taking the risk of not dealing with the topics that would offer a balanced view of an educational system. And, in the case of México, there is a plethora of ideological and political issues. Although Miller’s book deals with the issues superficially, the monograph offers a balanced view and presents an account of some of the current and most controversial issues in the Mexican education system such as the challenge of providing and enhancing educational services for students attending schools in marginal urban and rural areas and improving the infrastructure and conditions of schools, teaching conditions, and teacher salaries. Another issue touched on tangentially but equally important, is the conflicting situations associated with the approval of the 1992 Acuerdo Nacional para la Modernización de la Educación Básica. The enactment of this major piece of legislation was intended to make the educational system more flexible, improve quality, and decentralize decision making to the states. This last issue is perhaps the most controversial of all. It has generated what some analysts have referred to as the “politics of ambivalence.” On one side, the Mexican government decentralizes education to the states but keeps control of the curriculum and remains in control of capturing and distributing funding for education. On the other side, the Mexican state intends to bring efficiency to the educational system and at the same time generate and increase legitimacy. More than a decade later, decentralization of the Mexican educational system is still a challenge.
Miller concentrates his study on primary or basic education. Basic education in México includes six years of elementary education and 3 years of secondary education (middle school). Elementary education has been a priority for the Mexican government, since it serves approximately 80% of the total student population and employs 68% of the teachers. Therefore, it is at this level where most of the reform efforts have been directed throughout the years, becoming one of the main battlegrounds in Mexican education. Every aspect of basic education has been touched by reforms and every aspect of these reforms has been contested and resisted, which has generated several unresolved conflicts.
Despite the daunting challenges faced by the Mexican educational system, it has also had several achievements worth noting. The illiteracy rate for the population ten years of age and older decreased from almost 78% in 1990 to 10.6% in 1995. For individuals 15 years or older, the literacy rate is less than 10%, while the average number of years in school for this population group increased to 7.7 in the 1990’s from 2.6 in the 1960’s (Programa Nacional de Educación 2001-2006, p. 59). The expansion of educational services and enrollment also grew considerably. One out of twelve Mexicans attended school in the 1930s while one out of five did in the 1970s (Prawda & Flores, 2001, p. 90). The number of children between the ages of six and 14 not attending school decreased from 2.8 million in 1990 to approximately 1.2 million in 1995 (Prawda & Flores, 2001, p. 94). Undoubtedly, several generations of Mexicans have benefited from the growth of the Mexican educational system, either in terms or personal development or social mobility.
Prospective readers should be warned, however, about some minor issues in this monograph. Besides concentrating most of his attention on literacy efforts in elementary schools, the author makes generalizations throughout the text that are not substantiated with empirical data, or are stated without proper context. His sources of information appear to be mainly from official sources and authors from the United States who have studied different aspects of the Mexican educational system. Prospective readers wanting a more in-depth analysis of Mexican education should consult Mexican authors such as Carlos Ornelas, Gilberto Guevara Nievla, Pablo Latapí, Sylvia Schmelkes, Juan Prawda, and Carlos Muñoz Izquierdo. In addition, the text has a large number of incorrectly translated and misspelled words; this eventually makes the reading distracting. Despite the minor limitations mentioned above, it is encouraging to see that books dealing with international studies in education, and in this particular case a book dealing with education in México, are being published in the United States.
Miller’s monograph offers a glimpse to those interested in the Mexican educational system. It provides an overview of reform efforts, the challenges of modernization, and it examines how the Mexican educational system fits into society as a whole. His book provides an opportunity to dispel perceptions about US and México relations and reveals Mexico’s attempts at improving its educational system. When some Mexicans perceive that the United States treats Mexico as a “backyard” (Alfredo Aguilar Zinzer, former Mexican UN Ambassador), books like Miller’s can contribute greatly to improving our understanding about our neighbors.
Ornelas. C. (1995). El sistema educativo mexicano: La transición de fin de siglo. México, DF: CIDE.
Prawda, J. & Flores, G. (2001). México educativo revisitado: Reflexiones al comienzo de un nuevo siglo. México, DF: Océano.
Secretaria de Educación Pública (n.d.). Plan
Nacional de Educación 2001-2006. México, DF: SEP.
Retrieved August 2003, from http://www.sep.gob.mx/wb2/sep/sep