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La Semana: Sunday, Aug 21
The week in educational policy and the arrest of a former attorney general
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
The State of Education in Mexico: Part I
Arrest Warrants in Ayotzinapa Case
Please share your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You will find all sources linked to directly in the body of the text.
“6 in 10 citizens approve of the president. But only 3 in 10 approve of his management of the economy and security.
In other words, failure in governance but success in rhetoric.”
“You can’t avoid someone setting fire to one convenience store, but what you can do is make it costly in arrests. We will see how many people have been arrested and brought to justice, but so far, very few. To the criminals, this is cheap and easy for them to do.”
—Denise Maerker (journalist) on the wave of narco “terrorism”
The State of Education in Mexico: Part I
“Hay muchos Méxicos.”
There may be no more stark distinction among these “many Mexicos” today than in their educational experience. When students were sent home in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one anticipated that schools would remain closed in Mexico for 18 months, one of the longest periods of closure in the world. While the policy was mandated for private and public institutions alike, families who attended the former (approximately 11.4% of the school-age population) often had the resources and wherewithal to provide their children in-person instruction. In the fall of 2020 and into the following year, as small private schools went “underground” to avoid closure by the authorities and public school students remained at home—or in many cases, entered the labor force—the restaurants, bars and hotels re-opened. This public health policy calculus did not mitigate the transmission or lethality of the virus in the population. Mexico’s excess mortality from Jan 2020-Dec 2021 made it the worst affected in the OECD, with one of the highest excess death rates in the world.
This week brought education into the headlines as the director of the Department of Public Education (SEP), Delfina Gómez, announced she would step down to focus on her election campaign in the governor’s race in Estado de México in 2024. Her replacement, Leticia Ramírez, has been working closely with President López Obrador for decades but her last year teaching in a classroom was in 1984. Ramírez inherits a department that faces its most profound crisis in recent memory. An estimated 500,000 students have abandoned school as of data from June 2022, and 738,000 never completed the 2019-20 school year. The SEP budget has contracted an average of 1.5% yearly from 2019-22. Data on the true depth and breadth of the impact is auspiciously absent. Private school enrollment had the sharpest declines, but it is unclear how many of these students moved over to public schools. The SEP has long struggled to provide even basic data on its schools and their student rosters and this data desert is now making it difficult to properly assess the damage.
What analysts and researchers can determine is that the setbacks have been most acute in poorer, rural areas that already suffered from scarce resources and dilapidated infrastructure. Many schools were looted and vandalized. Teachers and parents in these communities shouldered the burden of trying to continue children’s education on their own: scraping together money to pay for copies of materials that teachers cobbled together, struggling with internet access to log on to classes. In the limited series podcast “Crecer en Distopía” (Growing up in Dystopia) released a year ago, teachers described the reality of remote learning in a system abysmally underprepared for this challenge and in a country where access to technology is still limited amongst the marginalized. I don’t usually tear up listening to podcasts, but in every episode of this one, there was a lump in my throat. “In some communities, teachers have taken to trying to teach children in open spaces with a megaphone, or by driving around in a pick-up truck,” says a teacher interviewed in Oaxaca. “Many of the parents here work in informal jobs and so they spend over half the day at work. My students are left in the care of siblings, grandparents. There are intense situations of domestic violence.”
Depression and suicide rates in minors have escalated, as has also been observed in the US in the past two years. In 2020 alone, suicides in 10-14 year-old children increased by 37% compared to 2019 in Mexico, and a total of 1,150 minors under age 18 took their own lives. There have been 957 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the same population (under 18) in over two years of the pandemic.
Families and teachers have also witnessed other emotional and psychological disturbances in students. “It is indispensable that the diagnosis includes socio-emotional conditions…including lack of socialization, trauma from loss of family members, the involuntary entry into the workforce, early acquisition of responsibilities at home or exposure to violent behaviours in their environment,” noted researchers in an overview of the educational crisis in Nexos. Students with special needs have also been left behind. According to an analysis by Mexicanos Primero, only 40% of the budget allotted to special needs education has been applied this year, and cuts were made in funding support of public special educational services.
The return to classes in the 2021-22 school year was uneven and interrupted frequently by outbreaks that sent students and teachers back home to isolate. While the federal government finally prioritized the return to in-person classes, states were left on their own to manage most of the protocols and logistics. Some states decided to wait longer to re-open their schools. In April 2022, the SEP published a survey of teachers conducted in January-February to assess how far students were lagging behind. In this cursory evaluation, 46% of teachers responded that students showed high or very high learning deficits. The solution (to an under-acknowledged problem) was to extend the school year by 42 days and to lower grading thresholds to make it impossible to “fail” students. Unfortunately, teachers were not given clear guidelines on how to make use of the extra time in school (end-of-year exams had already taken place) and while it seems reasonable not to “penalize” students after 18 months of intermittent instruction by failing them, this further muddies the panorama of educational evaluation. Are these students prepared to move on to the next grade? In an analysis conducted by the Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, it is estimated that Mexican students lost between 1.3-2.1 school years of learning “with respect to the expected learning attainment.”
This mirrors studies conducted in the US on the disproportionate effect that remote learning had on less advantaged students, including one conducted at Harvard University this year. “To give you a sense of the magnitude: In high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2021, the loss was about half of a school year’s worth of typical achievement growth,” explains professor Thomas Kane in an interview about the study in the Harvard Gazette. “The students in high-poverty schools that were remote for most of 2020-21 lost about 0.45 standard deviations in math. There are very few educational interventions that have ever been shown to have an impact that large…In other words, a district could provide a high-quality tutor to every single one of the students in a high-poverty school and still not expect to make up the decline.”
I once heard someone lament the lack of a unified response to the COVID-19 pandemic, how different it was compared to the national (US) reaction in other moments of crisis. To me, the bitter polarization in the US (and to a lesser degree in Mexico) betrays not a generational decline in the virtue of our citizens, but instead a damning demonstration of how unequal our societies are today. How can there be a unified response when there is so little unity of experience?
In Part II, I will dive into the sweeping changes in the SEP curriculum that the government intends to begin implementing in the fall, and the conundrum of the unofficial “privatization” of Mexican public education that has occurred during the term of a leftist president.
Arrest Warrants in Ayotzinapa Case
On Friday, August 19, the former attorney general of Mexico, Jesús Murillo Karam, was arrested, accused of the crimes of torture, enforced disappearance and obstruction of justice in the infamous case of the disappearance of 43 students in September 2014. This is the highest profile arrest made in the case, but warrants have been issued for 83 others who are accused of involvement either directly in the crime or in the cover-up.
As of today, a judge remanded Murillo to pre-trial detention. “The so-called ‘historical truth’ was invented by you, Mr. Murillo Karam, in conspiracy with Tomás Zerón (ex-director of the Criminal Investigation Agency during the Peña Nieto administration), to answer the public outcry for justice which was generating instability in the country. You gave instructions and executed the deeds to sustain the non-existent truth, the fabrication,” stated the prosecutor Lidia Bustamante at the hearing.
“It was a crime by the state,” concluded the deputy director of human rights, Alejandro Encinas, at a press conference on August 18. This has been the refrain for years by the families of the disappeared and many others who have protested the blatant lies told by the government during the investigation. “The actions, omissions and participation of federal and state authorities allowed the disappearance and execution of the students.”
The 83 additional arrest warrants issued are for members of the military, police forces of various municipalities and Guerrero state police, as well as for 14 presumed members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel.
The question everyone is asking is “how high up can this go?” Stay tuned for more on this topic in the weeks to come.