Mexican documentary blasts broken school system

MEXICO CITY -- A new Mexican documentary sheds a harsh light on how Mexico's education system is failing compared with the rest of the world.

MEXICO CITY – Do you know what happens in schools?

That's the tag line of Mexico’s hottest new documentary, De Panzazo!—a sharply critical look at the country’s failing education system that hits theaters Friday. De Panzazo!, roughly translates to "just barely," an idiom akin to "by the skin of our teeth."

Using a combination of interviews with education officials, parents and students, filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo and journalist Carlos Loret de Mola take viewers into the halls of government, into the classrooms of rundown public schools and well-kempt private schools, and concludes that the entire system is broken.

Only 60 percent of Mexicans finish secondary, or middle, school. Eight of 10 students who reach secondary school don't know how to multiply. Private schools perform almost as badly as public schools across a range of measurements.

Mexico ranks No. 30 of 30 OECD countries surveyed on education, the documentary reveals.

The country's standing among OECD nations is dismal in secondary school graduation rates, reading, math and other statistics, yet the country devotes the highest percentage—more than 20 percent—of total public expenditure to education. Meanwhile, Mexican students spend an average of 4.5 hours in school per day, compared with six hours in the U.S. and eight hours in Korea.

This news may come as a shock to many Mexican parents.

In a 2007 national survey of parents, 77 percent of those interviewed reported that the quality of education services provided by their children's school was good or very good, even though in a key OECD benchmark assessment showed that roughly half of Mexican 15-year-olds enrolled in school performed at or below the lowest level of proficiency established by the test.

The documentary asks what is wrong with the system: Is it the students? The government? The unions? The teachers?

It answers: "It’s a gigantic problem. It's an entire system that is failing."

The movie is especially critical of Mexico's powerful teacher's union and the woman who has run the National Union of Education Workers since 1989, Elba Esther Gordillo.

In Mexico, teachers do not face evaluations or measurements of competency. Loret de Mola confronts Gordillo on this point in an interview. She replies that she, too, wants to evaluate teachers. They shake hands on it, and Loret de Mola responds: "You’re shaking my hand, but why do I think there is a trick?" She says: "Because you don't trust me."

The union has been vocally opposed to such exams.

Possibly to counter the bad publicity, the teacher's union recently started running ads in cinemas that show neglected classrooms in terrible states of disrepair. A voiceover says: "From schools like these have emerged engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, historians. That’s why we’re sure that to be a teacher in Mexico is a point of pride."

Mexican teachers can earn a spot in the public education system by graduating with a degree in education—but many others can be appointed by the union, "inherit" a post from a family member or friend who is a teacher and who "gifts" their spot upon leaving, or even buy a plaza, a teaching job.

The documentary points out that the Secretary of Education has never released – and may not even know – how many teachers are on the government payrolls in the country.

Photo: Flickr/Bruno Cordioli

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