A battle to feed young minds

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PEOPLE in one of Mexico’s poorest states breathed a sigh of relief when over 170 tonnes of food were flown in at the start of July to restock local shops. The scarcities in Oaxaca were not caused by a natural disaster or a besieging foreign power. They followed a blockade by teachers, indignant over education reforms, who have once again shown how effectively they can paralyse commerce. In between bursts of lethal clumsiness, the authorities have mostly left the protesting pedagogues free to man their barricades.

All this causes frustration that goes beyond the shoppers of Oaxaca. Across the country, many Mexicans see fixing education as the most important of 11 structural reforms launched by the president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The need to shake up the system is widely accepted. In many schools, unions are in charge of recruiting, teaching jobs are more or less hereditary and bad teachers are almost impossible to sack. Small wonder some 55% of Mexican 15-year-olds lack basic proficiency in mathematics, according to the 2012 tests of the Programme for International Student Assessment. The mean for the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, is 23%.

But Mexico’s militant union, the National Co-ordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), objects in particular to having a unitary test for all teachers. Its power base is in four poorish states, including Oaxaca;…Continue reading