Oaxacan teachers challenge the test

Recently an American Federation of Teachers resolution declared that U.S. public schools are held hostage to a “testing fixation rooted in the No Child Left Behind Act,” and condemned its “extreme misuse as a result of ideologically and politically driven education policy.” AFT President Randi Weingarten proposed instead “public education should be obsessed with high-quality teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing.” In Seattle teachers at Garfield High have refused to give them.

Many Mexican teachers would find these sentiments familiar. The testing regime in Mexico is as entrenched as it is in the United States, and its political use is very similar – undermining the rights of teachers, and attacking unions that oppose it. In Michoacán, in central Mexico, sixteen teachers went to jail because they also refused to administer standardized tests. But the teachers’ union in the southern state of Oaxaca, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), has not only refused to implement standardized tests – it has proposed its own reform of the education system, one designed by teachers themselves.


Program for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca (PTEO)

Tranquilino Lavarriega Cruz, coordinator of the union’s Center for the Study of Educational Development, has taught for 11 years in primary schools in poor communities. Today he works full time coordinating the Program for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca (PTEO). “The PTEO is a product of the vision of all the teachers in Oaxaca,” he explains. “It covers the infrastructure of schools, conditions of the students, evaluation, teachers’ training, and compensation. The program is more than a written document. It seeks to transform people’s lives.”

Nationalist governments after the Revolution of 1910-20 started Mexico’s public education system. Today children start preschool at three, and move to a six-year primary school at 6. At twelve, they start secondary school, which ends when they’re fifteen. These twelve years are mandatory. The Department of Public Education administers the national school system, while each state also has its own department. All Mexican teachers belong to the SNTE, the largest union in Latin America, and each state has its own section.

The national union’s leaders were loyal supporters of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for over 70 years, but teachers’ movements in many states fought to change what many viewed as a repressive bureaucracy. Today “this internal movement fights for the democratization of the union and for educational reform,” according to Manuel Perez Rocha, former president of the Autonomous University of Mexico City and one of the country’s most respected educators.

Over the last two decades, however, corporate influence has grown over Mexico’s educational system. “They started creating mechanisms for controlling the ideology of both teachers and students,” Lavarriega says, “trying to certify education in the same way they’d certify a product – to sell it.”


Parallels with the U.S.

Perez Rocha sees parallels with the U.S. “The Mexican right always copies the United State’s right,” he laughs. “The politics of merit pay and the correlation with standardized exam results is identical between the two countries. The right wants to convert education into a commodity and students into merchandise-‘Let’s fill their heads with information and put them to work.'” Nevertheless, he notes, there are important differences, because the national union in Mexico is an entrenched part of the power structure. 

In 2008 the recently removed leader of the teachers union, Esther Elba Gordillo Morales, signed an agreement with then Mexican President Felipe Calderon called the Alliance for Quality Education (ACE). Just weeks after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered her arrest on corruption charges, shortly after the Mexican Congress gave its final approval to an education reform program based on ACE that is hated by most of the country’s teachers. Gordillo may prove to be guilty of the embezzlement charges leveled against her. But what placed her in the cross hairs of Mexico’s corporate elite was more likely her inability to keep teachers under control as protests against testing and U.S.-style education reform spread across the country.


Union’s alternative reform plan

The ACE is based on a national standardized test for students called ENLACE. Pedro Javier Torres Hernandez, a biology teacher since 1989, has been working for twelve years on the union’s alternative reform plan, most recently on its proposal regarding evaluations. He criticizes the ACE and the ENLACE test because “they don’t take context into account. A school in the city isn’t the same as one in a remote community. Sixteen languages are spoken in Oaxaca, and in Mexico there are great differences between communities. Some schools function very well because they have resources while others don’t. That shouldn’t justify bad conditions, but to think that teachers are the only ones responsible is wrong.”

The impact of the testing regime on curriculum is similar to that in many U.S. schools. Humanities, art and philosophy have all but disappeared from the curriculum, Perez Rocha charges. History and literature are drastically reduced and placed in other programs.

“Under the ACE,” Torres says, “if students at a school don’t achieve good test results, the Secretary of Public Education declares their teachers incompetent, and they’re removed. They have to go to a private school and pay to take courses, and later take tests. If they don’t score well, they’re fired.” The ACE also incorporates a previous reward system, called Teaching Careers, where teachers accumulate points based on their own test results, and can qualify for salary increases. “However those who have been given awards are not necessarily the best teachers, and it divides teachers against each other,” he believes.

So teachers in Oaxaca refused to implement the ENLACE test. There is resistance in other states as well. Sixteen teachers were arrested in Michoacán for refusing. “But Oaxaca is the stone in the shoe,” Lavarriega says.

Section 22’s alternative to the ACE proposes programs for infrastructure, student needs and financial incentives, and systems for evaluating and training teachers. For Lavarriega, “Education must be diverse because Oaxaca is an extremely diverse state. Schools in the heart of the city should be equal to those in marginalized communities. Communities should be able to generate their own educational process, and teachers should be part of it.”

To critics who claim this sounds like deemphasizing education standards, he responds, “We’re not saying that all knowledge is contextual. A five is a five, no matter what part of the world you’re living in. There are universal elements of the curriculum that we shouldn’t modify. But many of us look at the textbook almost like God, not just in Oaxaca but everywhere in the world. We believe we can’t function without one. Isn’t reality around us also a great opportunity to develop content?” 

In indigenous communities Torres says “you hear parents saying they want more instruction in their own language, as well as better instruction in the sciences. What the PTEO tries to do is to harmonize things. The fundamental linchpin of this plan is forming groups or collectives. You could, for instance, set up a collective in a school, or one for an entire community in which there are various schools. These collectives bring together teachers, students, and their families, and they work on educational projects.”

The PTEO’s main difference with the ACE is its approach to evaluation. Instead of a standardized test, “evaluation should be a process,” Lavarriega asserts, “a means, not an end. ENLACE simply gives the test, and that’s it. Evaluation should be a process of dialogue, should be global and holistic, and should evaluate everything. It should be multidisciplinary, where teachers to work together to evaluate a student.”

In place of the test, the PTEO proposes that teachers and students keep diaries, and maintain portfolios of work. “While we don’t discard totally conventional tests, we should also have interviews and surveys,” Torres says. “Teachers and families should sit down together and analyze what they find in the diaries and portfolios. Teachers of biology, for instance, can ask each other, how did you explain a certain idea? How well did it work?”

Proponents of standardized exams allege that teachers and schools can’t be relied on to impartially evaluate themselves. “We don’t reject external evaluation,” Torres continues, “so that someone outside can understand what we’re doing. But we need to combine external and internal evaluations to make decisions and obtain information, not just to compare schools or students. What’s important isn’t just the achievement of the student but the process of learning.” 


Hotly debated question

One of the most hotly debated questions in Mexico involves how teachers themselves are trained, and in particular the role of the “normales”-the teacher training schools. These schools have been hotbeds of activism, where students have challenged the government and educational authorities. Just a year ago police killed three students from the Ayotzinga Normal School in Guerrero, after a student march left the campus and blocked a public highway. 

The normal schools have also been a way for the children of poor farming families to get better jobs as teachers. Under neoliberal economic reforms this role has eroded, however and Oaxaca is the only state left where students are still guaranteed jobs when they graduate. 

Leftwing politics and class demographics make them a target for conservative reformers. In June 2011 SNTE President Gordillo joined Claudio X. Gonzalez, a wealthy rightwing businessman who heads Mexicanos Primero, the country’s corporate education reform lobby, to condemn them. Gonzalez demanded that the schools be replaced with private ones, calling the normales “mediocre, and a mess of politics and complainers.” Gordillo said they were graduating “monsters” instead of “ducklings.” 

The PTEO envisions “a training program that sees a teacher as an agent of social change,” Lavarriega counters, “someone who has roots in a community, is interested in all the problems of the children, is familiar with the culture of the people, who can promote education projects with parents. In other words, a teacher the ruling class doesn’t want.” 

In the PTEO vision, teacher training should develop critical thinking and creativity, rather than dependence on rigid curriculum and a textbook. “But it won’t happen just because we give a workshop or some five-day course,” he cautions. “We ourselves are too much the product of the training we want to change. Nevertheless, if we start a gradual process, I think that in several years we can create new teachers.” 

Those new teachers will join a workforce with a reputation for stopping work every spring to fight with the government over salaries. Ninety percent earn between 3000 and 3500 pesos ($240-280) every two weeks. Many interns make as little as 1500 pesos, on six-month contracts with no Social Security benefits. “In a marginalized community,” Lavarriega says, “teachers can spend 10 to 15% of their salaries on supplies for the students-crayons, markers, binders.”

However the PTEO would actually end the individual bonuses given under the Teaching Career system. In its place it proposes financial rewards for schools and collectives that develop effective educational projects. This would encourage collectivity, the union believes, and ties with the community. 



Schools without water, sewer connection

More than 26,000 of Mexico’s 223,144 basic education campuses have no water and more than 100,000 no connection to sewers. Four-fifths of the furniture doesn’t comply with safety standards. The PTEO proposes that teacher collectives, and groups of parents and community authorities, design buildings appropriate to the local environment, using resources that come from the federal government. But the PTEO and the state of Oaxaca don’t control those resources. “In Oaxaca alone there’s a documented budgetary need for 16 billion pesos, and each year they only appropriate 180 million,” Lavarriega charges.

The existence of a state program like the PTEO that differs from the federal ACE is a product of Oaxaca’s intense political turmoil. Teachers there were bitter enemies of the PRI governors who ruled the state for 70 years, and a teachers’ strike became a virtual insurrection in 2006. But in 2010 Section 22 joined with other independent political forces and defeated the PRI, electing Gabino Cue governor. That opened the door to the union’s reform proposals. 

“Because the money comes from the federal Department of Public Education, we need their agreement to implement the PTEO,” Lavarriega explains. “The state helped form a joint committee of the Institute of Public Education (Oaxaca’s state education department) and Section 22. We agreed on our proposal, and Governor Cue and [then] union president Chepi signed it. The next step is to present it to the federal Department of Public Education and the national union. There has been a change with this new government in Oaxaca. There’s greater flexibility, and more willingness to work together. We still lack a lot, but the door is opening.”

Section 22 set up the first work groups to design alternatives to the federal reforms in 2008. It organized assemblies and distributed a booklet at the start of every school year describing the developing proposals. When it established the first school collectives, it included the families of students. Finally last May and June the first parts of the PTEO were implemented in 280 pilot schools. Each was responsible for setting up a collective, analyzing the needs of students and the community, and developing an educational project.

Torres’ school wasn’t chosen as a pilot, but he says the PTEO has affected it nonetheless. “My school has a lot of very marginalized families,” he explains. “They want their school to get a lot of awards, to be very beautiful, and their students to get straight As. But a better school is also one that can help those who need it most – single mothers, families with lots of economic problems. Our parents are beginning to ask, what is the function of a school? It’s more than shining floors, with all the teachers wearing ties. Our school should be changing reality. That’s what helping students really means.”

Photo: David Bacon



David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.