International Education Day: Figures and challenges for Mexico

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Education is a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to all people regardless of their social, economic, or cultural background. However, in Mexico, education faces great challenges related to other structural problems of social inequality. The poorest population, rural and indigenous communities, and children in hostile contexts are the ones who face the most barriers on the way to effectively exercise the right to education.

“I had never had a problem with not knowing English or not having the habit of reading, really. You can even watch movies in Spanish, always with the minimum effort, you know? But to enter the UNAM, there I gave it my all, I tried three times before getting in and, barely, I did not drop out. I was afraid of needing English, but then I realized that even for research I was behind compared to my classmates,” Sara Carillo tells El Economista.

Sara Carillo entered the Faculty of Law of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) in 2016 and remains in the fight to finish the credits and graduate.

In addition to having complications to accredit the second language, a basic requirement for graduation, Carrillo says she faced obstacles to carry out research work, read at the pace of the classes and deliver projects on time and in form. “I think they are skills that one develops before, in primary school, mainly,” she says.

Basic education – which integrates preschool, primary and secondary – serves almost 25 million children and adolescents in Mexico and is one of the social areas with the greatest inequality and stagnation. In addition, the group of students who attend these first years of school life was the most affected by the confinements during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those skills that Sara Carrillo talks about are evaluated, with global parameters, in the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment) promoted by the OECD. For the 2022 exercise, it was observed that Mexico lowered grades in all areas of study, even reaching levels not seen in more than a decade.

In 2022, Mexico fell 14 points in the average performance in mathematics, nine points in science and five points in reading comprehension compared to the previous measurement of 2018. Not even 1% of basic education students are outstanding, a significantly low level compared to similar economies that had between 7 and 9% of their students with outstanding results.

But Mexico, not only has very few outstanding students, it also has many who do not meet the minimum competencies for their academic grade: 66% of the students had a performance below the minimum required in mathematics, which implies that they do not manage to interpret and recognize, without direct instructions, mathematically a simple situation such as comparing distances between alternative routes or converting prices between different currencies.

51%, half, of the students did not show skills to make correct explanations of familiar scientific phenomena, nor to identify, in simple cases, if a conclusion is valid based on the data provided.

On the other hand, in the area of reading comprehension, it was observed that 47% of the students in Mexico do not manage to find the main idea in a moderately long text, find information based on explicit criteria, or reflect on the purpose and form of the texts.

“It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Because one thinks that knowing how to read is knowing the letters and associating them with something, but no. I have struggled with that, sometimes I had to read a page three or four times to understand it. In the end, in Law (the career) it is about that, knowing how to read,” Sara says with a laugh.

One of the areas where Mexico has lagged behind is English proficiency, the language in which most of the educational texts and professional documents in the world are written. In 2022, Mexico ranked 89th out of 113 countries in the English Proficiency Index, prepared by Education First (EF).

Although the decline in students’ competencies is a global trend, in Mexico it has been deeper. The persistent gaps of regional, income and gender inequality hinder the progress of education in Mexico, in addition, budget cuts have been observed in recent years.

Why can’t students improve their academic performance?

Attending school, getting good grades, being on the honor roll, finishing the year and continuing to study continuously is almost impossible for many children, adolescents and young people in the country. Although education is a right, there is still a long way to go to effectively access it.

Educational availability is limited in many regions, in many cases education is inaccessible, other students face economic hardships, do not have quality food, suffer from family violence or develop in hostile contexts. Here are some figures that show the gaps and challenges in education:

At the national level, the average rate of years of study is 10.3, which implies studying primary, secondary and just one year of high school

In some urban areas the schooling rate is 12 years, on average, while in some poor municipalities it falls to 7 years

At least 2 out of 10 students in Mexico have educational lag, which means that they do not attend the educational grade according to their age

The educational lag in the decile I (the poorest) is almost 30 points higher than in the decile X (the richest)

The socioeconomic status of students represents about 10% of the variation in student performance

37% of young people aged 15 to 21 who have completed secondary school do not attend units of upper secondary education (high school or baccalaureate)

Only 3 out of 10 students of basic education in extreme poverty receive a scholarship

About 1.5 million students of basic education face excessive travel times to educational institutions

22% of secondary school students in Mexico take more than an hour to get to their schools

The availability of units of upper secondary education is reduced by almost half in rural areas; 40% of the students in this grade take more than an hour to get to their schools

2 out of 10 students of primary and secondary school do not have basic furniture in their schools, for high school the figure scales to 7 out of 10

About 3% of academic institutions do not have toilets

Only 23% of basic education schools have adequate infrastructure

Upper secondary education is where most students drop out; 9 out of 100 enrolled leave school before completing the school year

Between 25 and 30% of the students who drop out of high school do so due to lack of economic resources

For women, in addition to money, other factors of school dropout are marriage, pregnancy or the need for care at home

1 out of 4 students say they feel lonely or like a stranger at school

19% of women and 17% of men in basic education are victims of bullying or school harassment

In 2023, the functional public budget allocated to education fell to its lowest level in a decade

The resources allocated to education amount to only 3% of the national GDP

Source: El Economista