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Mexico: Lessons from a Pioneer in Teacher Reform

By Heather Singmaster

I am a Latin Americanist by training. You may imagine that working at Asia Society has not afforded me many opportunities to put my specialty into action—until now.

The Organization of American States/Inter-American Teacher Education Network recently produced a series of webinars on reforms happening in the teaching profession. The region doesn't get much press in this area since Latin American countries continue to struggle in education.

According to the 2009 PISA test, all countries in the region were in the bottom third in all subjects tested. Some have been steadily improving, but are still below OECD average. Of all the countries in the region, Chile does the best in reading and science, but Mexico and Brazil improved the most in math. Mexico, has also notably reduced the proportion of students performing at the lowest levels in all three subject levels and has made significant gains in increasing the number of 15-year-olds enrolled in school.

Dr. Paula Razquin, Universidad de San Andres, Argentina, Escuela de Educacion, presented on Carrera Magisterial, the Mexican effort to reform the teaching profession, which has been ongoing for 10 years. This is one of the pioneering efforts at teacher reform, done in conjunction with the federal and state governments and the teachers unions. It was instituted in 1992 and revised in 2011 through the National Agreement for the Modernization of Basic Education.

The basic goals are to increase respect for teachers, strengthen the teaching profession through promotion and rewards for teachers who improve their performance, and also to improve the conditions of a teacher's life—both in the classroom and out. One key motivation for these reforms is to allow teachers access to higher pay without having to leave the classroom, and enticing them to stay in the classroom longer.

Sound familiar? These are the same reform efforts instituted by some of the highest performing nations.

Under the existing system implemented in 1973, teachers can only receive raises if they are promoted to a new post, which means competition based on knowledge, ability, seniority, discipline, and punctuality. Carrera Magisterial is in addition to this existing system and works in parallel to complement it. Teachers must apply to participate in the program and the majority of Mexican teachers do participate.

Carrera Magisterial provides a clear career ladder, which includes posts like head teacher. Singapore does this, too. This allows teachers to earn more without having to leave the classroom and without having to wait for a new post to open. All teachers are eligible to apply, but they may not all be accepted—it depends on the budget for the year. Requirements for entry include: seniority, academic degree, current teaching category, attendance record, and their evaluation. Once they are accepted they can earn more money by advancing through Levels A - E, through a similar set of criteria including attendance, length of time in the classroom, and their score on the evaluation.

Since evaluations are at the forefront of the teacher discussion here in the United States, you might be interested in what the Mexican evaluation includes (the percentages are the weights for the first level of promotion, after that there is less focus on student achievement):

  • Student achievement: for the first level of evaluation, this is most important at 50% of the evaluation score

  • Continuing education: 20%

  • Co-curricular activities (activities outside of normal instruction hours such as meeting with parents or other activities in school): 20%

  • Professional preparation: 5%

  • Seniority: 5%

  • School management

  • Educational support

Participation in Carrera Magisterial can be lucrative. Salary incentives to participate include a salary increase of about 25% for Level A (the first level) up to 198% increase of their basic salary at Level E.

This program has never been formally evaluated to see the impact on the profession itself in Mexico. This could be because of the complicated policies involved according to Dr. Razquin. Some teachers themselves do not understand the program and the possibilities it offers for promotion. This is one of the main issues—the fact that the program is voluntary versus universal. There is a desire to have the program encompass more teachers and pay more, but there are budgetary limitations. There are other issues as well such as what exactly to evaluate qualitatively and how to weigh the criteria—for instance could they move to a teacher portfolio system or videos of classroom work? But who would evaluate these?

Despite our differences, these are pertinent and pressing questions, not just in Mexico, but also in the United States. Even though Mexico is not a top performer on PISA, it will be interesting to see if they can realize higher student achievement in the next decade, as many other school systems who've adopted these practices have. Let's hope so.

To learn more, see the OECD page highlighting their two years of work with Mexico.

Heather Singmaster is senior associate for policy and international comparison work at Asia Society.

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