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."


Jackie said...

Interesting about the young Mexican National and his take on his career. I sponsor a young woman from Isla Mujeres who is going to university in Merida. She wants to be a teacher because “everyone has to start school.” I have good friend on Isla who has two sons at university in Merida and both are planning to continue on to law school and practice in Mexico.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Yeah, but dare to say anything negative about education in Mexico on a forum and be ready to duck and cover. Expats moving to Mexico so desperately want to hear that the schools are better than they are.
Part of it is that the schools teach the regurgitation of facts instead of logic and critical thinking. Knowing the capitols of every nation is valued over deductive reasoning.

Babs said...

I wouldn't touch this with a 10 ft pole, um....... "stilt". I could write a book! And, you would be surprised.........

Steve Cotton said...

Jackie -- There are a lot of heart-warming stories of children making great successes of their lives in Mexico. I say bravo and brava to each of them. But until the education system is repaired, all hopes of Mexico developing its great potential will not be realized.

Theresa -- I know what you (and Babs) mean about this being a touchy topic. Canadians and Americans instinctively know what happens when basic education is denied to people. And we know why the education system is what it is. Critical thinking is always a danger to an authoritarian government. With the onset of true democracy in Mexico, maybe the past can be set aside.

Babs -- Tell us more. We are all ears.

wayne said...

Na-na Jackie! I already have my invite for the graduation party in July! In fact, the elder of the two boys will be redoing my will according to Mexican laws. Anyway, I so agree with what you say, Steve. If Mexico were to ever gets its' act together, get rid of corruption, enforce its' laws and really care about education, this country would be a force to be reckoned with.
Good case in point here on the island. We know a 9 year old from Chiapas who is being supported by an American couple to attend regular school and the English school. He lives here with his uncle. Guess who is pocketing the school money and making the kid work the streets, selling trinkets, until past midnight every night. Education be damned! Sell that necklace!

jennifer rose said...

The future is Mexico.

The newly minted Mexican law school graduate who plans to work as an associate for a Chicago law firm will find himself working harder than a peasant in a strawberry field and then hung out to dry when the next batch of new associates comes along. Sure, the first-year associate salaries are impressive, but they've got a serious price tag attached to them.

Staring at Strangers

Steve Cotton said...

Jennifer -- I agree. One reason I have chosen to work in my current position is that it pays well and it challenges me, but I do not have to surrender my life to simply make a living. My niece-in-law will be joining a very billing-oriented firm when she passes the bar. She is also the mother of a 6-month old boy. I hope she can find the balance to make it all work. I know I could not do it. And that is one reason I am ready to retire to Mexico -- and start a new adventure.

Hollito said...

A large number of teachers do not teach classes: they simply receive a paycheck -- some of them never showing up for work.

BTW: I heard the same about people working in government jobs in MX (and I heard it from a person you can believe).
They never or barely show up in the office but get big money each month.
And they have a university degree they did not earn, because it was bought by the parents, who have money and influence. And that´s also why they get these jobs and can afford not to work: Money and influence of their family.
I remember that a while ago german airline Lufthansa hired people in MX who had attended private universities, but experienced serious problems with their attitude regarding the work...see here (Sorry, it´s in german language)

Steve Cotton said...

Thank you for the article, Hollito. My german is so rusty that I could only understand part of it, but I get the drift.

Cory said...

I have done volunteer work at an orphanage East of Rosarito, Baja.

They have graduated some top notch students who have gone into the university system and have done well.

But on the other side the Mexican government has also made some hideous decisions in regards to this orphanage. It is a long and very sad story. Short version ... they had to start over ... purchasing new property and taking in new kids, as the others were taken away, to who knows where.

Corruption in government, you gotta love (I mean hate) that.

Steve Cotton said...

Cory -- Most of the readers of this blog would give you a heart "amen" on the corruption comment. Hope cannot thrive where the system is stacked against achievement. I give crrdit to President Calderon for tackling the problem, but it will take more than one man to resolve it.