Mexican Education's Sad Legacy in the U.S.

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on January 5, 2011
Yesterday I described

the situation of a Mexican couple who are illegal immigrants in New York and who have been saving their money to pay a $2,000 fee to a smuggler prepared to bring them their 11-year-old daughter, who is living with relatives in the state of Puebla. I noted the traumatic changes the young girl is likely to experience during the journey and after she arrives. Today I'd like to take note of an essay in the Mexican magazine Nexos that helps explain why so many Mexican youngsters are poorly prepared to schools in the United States.

Written by Mexican political thinkers Jorge Castaneda, the country's former foreign minister, and Hector Aguilar, the essay is titled "A Future for Mexico." On balance, it is an optimistic view, claiming that despite pockets of intense narco-violence and despite widespread public pessimism, the country has been changing for the better for the past 15 years. They say Mexico has become "infinitely better than the one that we Mexicans carry in our heads."

But Castaneda and Camin have little good to say about the state of Mexico's system of public education. They call it "a silent catastrophe" that has not received the public attention it must have if the country is to advance.

"Mexican education is bad in every sense, by every measure, by every comparison and at all levels," they write. "It doesn't just compare poorly to more wealthy countries. It also doesn't come out well against those whose income is similar or worse."

They go on to note the system's consequences for Mexican youngsters who move to the United States, reporting that their performance "is inferior not just to their Anglo or Asian American peers, but also to the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Cambodians.

"The socio-economic level of the Mexican migrant is not inferior to that of these other nationalities, except in the case of the Koreans. The Mexicans who emigrate are not poorer than the Salvadorans or the Filipinos, nor are they more stupid or more intelligent. The only explanation for their poor performance is their previous education, which they received in Mexico."

Castaneda and Aguilar find many reasons for the deficiency: poor funding, school days of only four and a half hours, school years shortened from their official length of 200 days by days off caused by everything from floods to strikes to teachers meetings.

But they take especial aim at the administrators and teachers and at the union that facilitates their incompetence and protects them from consequences. (My colleague George Grayson has written on this here.)

They also note a problem that was of great concern at the Phoenix school where I worked as a volunteer in the late 1990s: the lack of parental involvement. But while we were frustrated that many parents showed no interest in meeting with teachers, Castaneda and Aguilar say that in Mexico the parents are usually systematically excluded.

They note that despite a federal law that mandates the establishment of a school council to involve parents, the Secretary of Public Education reported last year that fewer than half the schools had established such a council and that the majority of those that had been established were "non-functioning."

Is it any wonder that Mexican youngsters who come to the U.S. from such an impoverished educational culture often struggle and drop out of our schools, especially when so many of our schools are so poorly equipped to meet their needs?