Mexico’s Education Reforms and Latin America’s Struggle to Raise Education Quality

On January 10th, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) and the Global-CERES Economic and Social Policy in Latin America Initiative at Brookings (ESPLA) co-hosted an event on education innovation in Latin America. The guest was Andres Delich, the former minister of education of Argentina. Delich now applies his education expertise to the broader Latin American region and his remarks focused on Mexico’s education reform. Afterwards there was a wide ranging discussion with participants from Brookings as well as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. government, and others.

Delich began by providing an in-depth analysis of the origins of education reform in Latin America. He delved into the history of the region, beginning with the first efforts to create coherent national education systems in the 19th century. At that time, shortly after most countries had attained their independence from Spain, political leaders were focused on the creation of a national identity rather than the development of human capital. Young nations were primarily driven by the need to forge a national character that would differentiate them from their former colonial powers.

The outcome was a highly centralized state. Education was no exception, and school systems developed largely into top-down institutions, defined by rigidity and homogeneity of structure and curriculum. As Delich argued, this foundational history defined the region’s education systems for the next 100 years.

But by the second half of the 20th Century, it was clear that the status quo was suffering from two distinct but interrelated problems. Not only were school systems not reaching everyone—a problem of access—but the quality they were delivering was substandard by international standards as well.

In an effort to reverse these trends, the decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw a movement towards decentralization led by countries like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Instead of a dominating central administration, more autonomy was given to local institutions. But as Delich pointed out, reformers did not alter the fundamental dynamic of their education systems. Rather, they simply transferred the same bureaucratic mechanisms and centralized controls from the national level to state governments instead.

Coverage was indeed improved and more students received access to school. At the same time, the quality of the education they received continued to stagnate and Latin America as a whole fell further behind global education leaders in Europe and Asia.

Enter Mexico’s current education reform effort, which was launched by the administration of President Pena Nieto as part of a raft of ambitious reforms to the Mexican state. These reforms are unique in the sense that they seek to address the underlying governability issues of the education system through a pragmatic mix of centralization and decentralization.

Under these proposals, the Mexican state will recover some of the powers that it relinquished in previous reforms. While individual schools will continue to be administered by the states, the national government will take more responsibility for teacher certification, evaluation and salary decisions.

But there will be some decentralization as well. Schools will be given more autonomy over how they manage their own resources, define their own curriculums and utilize their teachers and staff. In other words, the national government will use its authority to set and enforce broad standards of quality, particularly when it comes to teachers. But within that framework, the local schools will have greater latitude find creative ways to improve learning and student outcomes.

The key, as Delich argues, is achieving a new transparency that will allow educators to understand what works and what does not, and to allow a greater linkage between resources and performance.

Political opposition from states and local unions who fear seeing their authority diluted means that the implementation and long term sustainability of these reforms is still very much a critical challenge. Some also argue that local schools are not prepared to successfully handle such increased responsibility and that the central government will struggle to transparently manage its new oversight responsibilities—for instance, the creation of the nation-wide teacher training and evaluation mechanisms that need to be set up extremely quickly.

Delich did not deny that there will be challenges. But as became clear over the course of the discussion, no one seriously contends that the status quo is acceptable, especially given that spending more money often solves very little. Instead, reforms must go to the heart of the system and change the overarching incentive structures facing teachers and administrators.

Mexico is taking a step toward focusing the debate in Latin America around education quality, and at heart, how to leverage resources to achieve the best possible performance. It is a debate that cannot come soon enough and all eyes will be on Mexico as it takes its next crucial steps.