In August 2014, Juan Perez, a student at the Pedagogic University in Oaxaca, Mexico, started teaching the second grade at the only school in Coicoyan de las Flores, an indigenous community in Oaxaca, and one of the poorest in Mexico. The school was in miserable conditions; it hadn’t received any federal funding in the last 10 years. But money wasn’t the biggest problem. Juan’s greatest challenge was the complexity of the student body; more than half of the children only spoke the indigenous mixteco language, and of those who knew how to speak Spanish, most were illiterate. After just 6 months, he left, tired of fighting against the language barriers, and frustrated by his inexperience in teaching to such a complex group of children.
Juan is not alone in his frustration. According to the newspaper La Jornada, 35 percent of the teachers assigned to indigenous districts leave their teaching positions before the school year is finished. The lack of proper training and knowledge of the local language and culture, along with poor living conditions, present serious challenges for the young, inexperienced, aspiring teachers. As part of the controversial Education Reform of 2012, the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP, in its Spanish acronym) created a Teacher Professional Service that aims to standardize the evaluation methods to assess the skills and abilities of those who aspire to become public teachers and to improve the methods to evaluate teacher performance. However, the SEP’s efforts to improve the quality of teaching have yet to produce measurable results for some of the country’s most vulnerable students. In the absence of good, quality data on teacher performance it’s impossible to know where and how to make improvements in education. As a result, Mexico remains one of the poorest scoring countries in the OECD’s PISA tests that measure student performance in language and math.
Among indigenous communities, the indicators are even worse. In 2015, according to the National Institute for Education Assessment, 80 percent of indigenous children failed to score above the level determined to be sufficient in language and communication skills, and 83 percent scored at the same level in math. In contrast, 52 percent of urban children scored above the threshold for language and communication skills and 63 percent above it for math.
Even though there are a number of efforts underway to improve educational infrastructure, such as the program Escuelas al 100 that aims to improve the facilities’ quality and safety, the special needs of indigenous communities and their children demand better qualified teachers. According to the National Institute for Education Assessment, only 9.8 percent of rural teachers have a college degree, and oftentimes the teachers are college students who underwent a brief training program, which they described as “not comprehensive enough to deal with these difficult groups.” Almost 60 percent of the indigenous classrooms are multi-grade groups, requiring two or more lesson plans and grading procedures in each classroom. In addition, only 50 percent of the teachers assigned to these communities speak the indigenous language.
Understandably, the teachers are frustrated. A common lament among Juan and the rest of the teachers in Coicoyan de las Flores, is that “researchers and government officials come, take their pictures and never come back,” even when they have expressed their concerns about training programs or the school’s conditions.
SEP isn’t the only one to blame, however. In the past 40 years, the dissident wing of the teachers’ union, the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, has controlled the assignment of job positions and salaries. The union has sent the younger and less experienced teachers to these communities, while the more experienced and qualified ones go to big cities, where they participate in union’s regular protests and riots. Meanwhile, indigenous children suffer from underprepared and frustrated teachers. Not surprisingly, the dropout rate for indigenous students is 27 percent higher than it is for urban students. According to UNICEF Mexico, often times, families, disappointed by the educational curriculum and the quality of teaching, prefer to send children to work so they can start contributing to the family’s income.
Indigenous students’ low educational performance leaves many condemned to poverty, when according to the latest National Institute of Statistics and Geography’s figures, 7 out of 10 indigenous people live below the poverty line. And yet, despite these numbers and the vicious cycle of poverty that has many indigenous children trapped, in 2016 the government reduced the budget reserved for indigenous social programs. Like Coicoyan de las Flores, there are hundreds of communities, where teachers, despite their best intentions, are limited by their deficient training and experience, and deplorable infrastructure. Without a reorganization of the indigenous education system, geared toward the assignment of the most qualified and prepared teachers to indigenous and rural communities, Juan and his students will have to keep facing an uphill struggle against the complicated task of indigenous education and reducing poverty in Mexico.