Sunday, May 25, 2008
hope on stilts
We added another lawyer to the family on Saturday. My nephew's wife graduated from Lewis and Clark law school (cum laude, the proud uncle adds). While I was waiting for the ceremony to begin, I wandered around to see if I could find a target for my Nikon.
On the far right corner of the stage, a familiar sight caught my eye: the Mexican flag. I thought it a bit strange that a full row of international flags covered the back of the stage. A quick look at the list of nascent attorneys answered the question: this was an international group of graduates -- the first graduate was from Ecuador.
Last week I talked to a Mexican national who had just graduated from the school I attended. I was excited to hear about his accomplishments and my supposition that he would return to Mexico to help realize the dreams of NAFTA. He was quick to tell me that he had a job in Chicago, that he would make ten times in salary in his first year as an associate that he could ever make as a senior attorney in Mexico, and that he was looking forward to becoming an American citizen. When I looked crestfallen, he said: "Don't you know about our education system? There is no future in Mexico."
Yes, I do know about the Mexican education system. It is something that has concerned me for the past few years -- even before I decided to move to Mexico.
There is an interesting article in this week's edition of The Economist entitled: "Testing the teachers." President Calderón has signed an agreement with the powerful head of the national teachers' union to 1) improve the infrastructure of Mexico's 27,000 schools, and 2) establish a testing system for hiring and promoting teachers.
The teachers' union in Mexico is a perfect example of trade unionism gone bad. A large number of teachers do not teach classes: they simply receive a paycheck -- some of them never showing up for work. Like anywhere in the world, most teachers were attracted to teaching because they want to make a difference. That is true in Mexico, as well. But the slacker group puts more pressure on the dedicated teachers -- stretching them too thin.
For once, the issue is not about teacher salaries. Relative to other government workers, the teachers receive competitive pay. The proof that Mexico's system is failing is reflected in tests conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Mexico scored at the very bottom in reading, science, and mathematics.
I work with Mexican families in my church and with the local grade school (where a majority of the students speak spanish at home). I learned early on that there is very little encouragement at home to get an education past eighth grade. There seems to be almost a fatalistic attitude that education is not a path to success.
I have seen the same thing in Mexico. I have corresponded with a couple who travels to Chacala each year to offer their services in the school there. Andee posted several articles about the varying quality of education provided by the government and the number of children who would leave school to work with their parents.
And perhaps the education myth is also reinforced by the multitude of highly-intelligent well-educated college graduates we have all met who are making their way as waiters or tour guides -- when they are not making ends meet as gigolos. Anyone who has spent much time near any of Mexico's resort cities has witnessed this sad phenomenon.
I know not everything is gloomy about Mexico's education system. But, as a society, as Eddie Willers, reminds us: Mexico does suffer from its own culture.
I wish President Calderón well on this project -- because if it fails, Mexico will lose a great opportunity to be the country it is just waiting to be (socially and economically).
It would be nice if I talked with a newly-minted attorney from Mexico next year, who would tell me: "I enjoyed my time here, but the future is in Mexico."