Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Education Innovation

Macario Schettino sketches out a fairly simple plan to significantly upgrade the talent in Mexico's workforce:
To compete for the future, it's necessary to compete for the creation of knowledge. Mexico can't do it, not so much because we don't invest in science and technology, but rather because we don't adequately invest in basic education. Many people, especially researchers, want greater spending on the final part of the creation of knowledge: higher education, research, et cetera. But that's not where we are seriously failing, but rather in middle school. It will not serve us much to increase spending at a level to which practically no one arrives. Mexico manages to produce less than 10,000 capable young people each year (out of 1.8 million) graduating from middle school.

Independent of many things, it seems to me that we should make an urgent decision to elevate the number of potential researchers (to whom we will eventually have to grant abundant funds). This decision consists of opening opportunities to dedicate themselves to serious study to the children evaluated the best at the end of elementary school. This means establishing a group of schools of excellence, to which only the highest evaluated students would have access, in which the best practices that we have would be used (for example, those of the Secundaria Anexa a la Normal: more time, more attention, more involvement by the parents). We could, with a bit of effort, dedicate 3,000 schools to this project, enrolling 100,000 students.

In six years, these kids, having escaped the destructive power of the present educative system, would transform the universities. In ten, we would be filling the graduate schools of the world. In 20, Mexico would finally be able to compete. It's a project that could transform Mexico, that shouldn't cost much and that could easily attract private capital. But only if we want to compete for the future, of course.
One thing I've noticed over the past half-decade is that the meritocratic, striver ethos in Mexican education is plainly insufficient. I've spend most of my time here working at two different elite grade schools, and in both cases, the general desire among the students and their parents to be academically outstanding is significantly less than what I witnessed in my middling public school classes growing up in Northern Virginia. (Apologies for the generalizations and I encourage you to take this and any other personal anecdote with a grain of salt. I also hasten to add that at both of the schools there have been extremely motivated and bright students, but I'm more talking about the middle 80 percent than the upper tenth.) I hesitate to say that Mexico should actively imitate Northern Virginia in any way, and the flip side of this is that Mexican kids grow up in environments that are not nearly as cutthroat, either socially or academically, as do Americans. But there is a healthy middle ground between the two extremes, and a plan like Schettino's would help inject some needed competitiveness into Mexican classrooms, and not just among the 3,000 magnet schools.

Update: The last paragraph is also surely affected by an unseemly "in the good old days when I was a squirt" sentiment, which is a worrying sign that not only am I getting older, but that I'm doing it in the most boring way possible. So again, apply your grains of salt, but nonetheless, I think the underlying argument is true.


Jan-Albert Hootsen said...

Hi Patrick,

Very recogizable post. When I studied at the UdeG in Guadalajara, I noticed there were several students in my class with admirable ambitions to reach the top. The vast majority of my fellow students, however, lacked the will to reach academic excellence, and were merely focused on getting their diploma.

Of course, the UdeG is a public school and I have no experience on elite institutions. But friends of mine who went to ITESM, the UDLAP or the Ibero felt the same way.

One thing that did strike me, was a story I heard about students at the ITESM in Mexico City. A teacher told me many of his colleagues were scared to give grades according to performance (which would mean that many students would fail their exams time and time again)and just passed everyone, because failing students from rich families could cause them difficulties. He said some of them were even threatened by bodyguards of rich families' offspring.

I'm not sure how widespread this is. They may just be isolated incidents at this particular university, but I can imagine it very hard to create a mentality of striving for academic excellence in a university if teachers at an elite school are simply scared to give low grades...

pc said...

Hi Jan-Albert, thanks for reading.

I don't think it's that different at the elite uni's. Maybe it's a bit more extreme, but what you describe sounds about right. I do wonder how much of this is me remembering the my own motivation and that of my classmates with rose-colored glasses, but you say you saw the same thing as a student. I also took some classes at the tec, which places more emphasis on groupwork (at least in my classes it did), and the level of work from about 60 percent of my adults group-members was simply pathetic.

I've never heard anything quite as extreme as threats to teachers, but I've definitely witnessed and experienced much tamer versions of that. Years ago ago after I failed a student (which in the worst of circumstances for him simply meant he just had to take an extraordinary exam and pass the class that way), coworkers told me that they mom was saying that I'd changed the failing exam because I hated her son. And I've seen some enormous pressure placed on the teachers of the scion of a very prominent retail chain you've surely heard of. The special treatment that kid received was simply astonishing, and only because he had money.