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date: 08 August 2020

Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Summary and Keywords

Challenges to Mexican educational leadership and equity fundamentally have to do with class struggle and shaping the national identity to conform to one of two competing narratives: México as a country that strives to ensure its place in the first world, subordinating itself to the demands of external bodies and forgoing its own history; or México as a country that sustains and advances its historical struggle for social justice. México’s democratic teachers represent an important voice of educational leadership, as they struggle for educational equity for their students and through active resistance to reforms that rob teachers of their labor rights and intellectual autonomy, and rob students of their rights to the vast epistemological resources that their languages, history, culture, and identity represent. Facing new forms of colonialism that neoliberal education reform ushered in, the teachers fight in contested space that the Mexican curriculum is; they do so with renewed commitments to defeat education reform efforts that have more to do with the restructuring of their labor rights than the education of children in the classroom.

Keywords: México, educational leadership, neoliberal education reform, teacher resistance, educational equity

Mexican Education: Contested Space

Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Figure 1. José Velasco, Valle de México (1877). Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) of México; used with authorization.

The eruption of modernity onto the Mexican landscape is captured by José Velasco in his paintings Valle de México (1877) [Valley of México] and Cañada de Metlac Citlaltépetl (1897), also known as Ferrocarril [railway, locomotive]. Velasco documents the refiguring of the landscape that was executed to draw out the land’s utility, to make it into an instrument of progress and profit, in which agricultural fields and machinery mark the moments when México joined modernity. In Valle de México (Figure 1), faintly drawn plots of land that have been neatly measured and delineated by sharp lines and sharp corners appear in the mid-ground of the painting. These plots divide the painting: the area nearest the plots in the top half, or background, of the painting depicts the colonial basilica built in 1709 to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego. Farther into the background, toward the top of the painting, a cathedral is seen in the hazy distance in the horizontal spread that is México City. To the left are the volcanoes that are emblematic of México and its indigeneity through narratives of a sleeping woman, Ixtaccíhuatl, at the foot of the “smoking mountain,” or Popocatépetl. In the foreground in the bottom half of the painting, below the plots of land, are cacti and an eagle, iconography symbolizing the settlement of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán (México City), and the ultimate establishment of the Mexican state. A cactus, eagle, and serpent make up the coat of arms on the Mexican flag; their inclusion here is important. They appear in the area at the bottom half of the image, where nature remains unchanged and intact. They serve as representations of uncultivated life that is beyond the reach and regulation of the state. Order, legibility of the terrain, and faith in scientific laws that enable individuals to create, design, and see like a state characterize high modernism (Scott, 1999), and are emergent in the painting’s mid- and background. Unruliness remains in the foreground and is defined as the space where the cactus can grow between craggy rocks and leafy trees, and the eagle can hunt.

Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Figure 2. José Velasco, Cañada de Metlac Citlaltépetl/Ferrocarril (1897). Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) of México; used with authorization.

In Cañada de Metlac Citlaltépetl/Ferrocarril (1897; Figure 2), Velasco shows what has come to be: modernity made train, speed, and movement. The train’s geometric shapes—rectangular boxcars with straight-cut windows, cylindrical chimneys, round metal wheels, and a trapezoidal cowcatcher—cut through the more organic form of the hills, dividing the flora, relegating some of it to one side of the tracks and some to the other. The natural areas remain free from mathematical design, and, therefore, are hidden from state surveillance. The passenger cars and the engineer cab contain non-descript human figures, fill-ins for active, though unimportant, random participants in a narrative about modernity.

These two paintings begin to tell the story of a primary tension within educational leadership and equity in México: whether to follow high modernism (Scott, 1999), “believing in the promises of sciences” (Latour, 1993 [1991], p. 9) that advance positivism and rely on an alliance between experts and bureaucrats to see this vision through, or to draw from a history of continuous resistance to repressive state order, upholding historical commitments to social justice. This tension is expressed in the very forms of leadership that contend for Mexican teachers’ imagined community (Anderson, 1983): the one promising to embrace traditional models of leadership that focus on “managing organizational effectiveness related to student achievement” (DeMatthews, Edwards, & Rincones, 2016, p. 759); the other promising to embrace a social justice paradigm that, in addition to seeking effective ways to support student achievement, extends its commitment to constructing learning environments that support “inclusion, equity, advocacy, and meaningful parent engagement” (p. 769). High modernism informs traditional educational leadership models; these models decontextualize progress (e.g., advancing the meritocracy myth; assuming parity of development), and Western knowledges overtake local ones even as the latter are rooted in generations of experimentation and refinement (Scott, 1999). The struggle for the Mexican curriculum, to paraphrase Kliebard (2004), reveals México’s entanglement with this dynamic: continuously recruited by both external mechanisms and internal actors to assume its place in the global order, México faces being subsumed into a project of denationalization and neocolonialism (López Aguilar, 2015), and, under the logic of state legibility, is required to conform to global standards of education in which standardization is posited as a form of progress, camouflaging its controlling and homogenizing function.

Dichotomies do not always define the tension. There are illegible, unregimented spaces that represent alternatives. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was such a space, in which the tools of modernity accompanied the valor and vision of the revolutionaries and were used to liberate México from latifundismo [landlordism] and church dominance that supported the interests of landowners. In its demand for an equitable redistribution of land, and a lay, free, and critical education, the revolution relied on trains, the Winchester lever-action .30-30 rifle, and reason over superstition to dismantle the institutionalized oppression of latifundismo and the church. Through this mostly campesino [peasant] movement, composed largely of indigenous people, a new relationship was established between México’s indigenous communities and the state (Barraclough, 1994).

The struggle between the state and local knowledges persists even with the election of a president whose administration has proposed to end the neoliberal education reform imposed in 2013. The 2018–2024 administration is explicitly pro-democracy, has embraced an economic justice agenda that includes ending corruption and lifting citizens out of poverty, and, while not encouraging dissent, honors it among the citizenry. At the time of writing (2020), teachers who were imprisoned for civil disobedience by the previous administration were being released by the new one. There is greater consideration for teacher autonomy and teacher-driven designs of alternative models of education. The changing policies and practices accompanying the change in administration exemplify how in México, as in many nations, even with increased decentralization of public education, governmental regimes matter in determining the educational philosophies and curricula, and labor practices, that are adopted to run the nation’s schools.

Table 1. Progress Without Equity but With Resistance


Era and Institutions



Progress through “fomento” [development]; land reform, which mainly allows for accumulation of private property; undergirded by positivism and scientific thinking; massive privatization of public land; colonization for crop development for export; establishment of agronomy schoolsa

The Porfiriato, mid- to late 1800s; Department of Agriculture

Public land was “dead capital”; land policy outsourced to companies that served as intermediaries between the government and the Mexican people

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 to reclaim land rights; the Constitution of 1917 that redistributed land through ejido system and established a free, lay, and compulsory education

Prosperity through joining the transnational global economic orderb

Salinas de Gortari presidency, 1988–1994; free trade, loss of labor rights

Nationalist discourse and identity positioned as economically dangerousc; economic policy dictated by Global North, capital elite of México, and transnational corporations through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

The Zapatista Uprising by the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) [National Zapatista Liberation Army]

Change for México by joining the neoliberal global education reform movement

Nuño, Secretary of Public Education, 2015–2018; quality discourse, loss of teachers’ labor rights

“Only a quality education can change México”d; education reform and policy dictated by private industry and global policymakers (e.g., OECD, World Bank)

Teacher resistance, articulated by the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) and students enrolled in teachers’ colleges in the “normalista” system

(a) Lurtz (2016, p. 437).

(b) McDonald (1997, p. 284).

(c) McDonald (1997, p. 271).

(d) (Mexicanos Primero, 2009 p. 5).

Challenges to Mexican educational leadership and equity can begin to be understood by problematizing the leadership construct, examining the historical and social context of Mexican education, and moving forward on the assertion that Mexican resistance to global models of education and education reform is a stance against a social order that seeks to keep México within a hierarchy of dominant–subordinate states, and a politics of dependency, a discourse of development, and an economy of spoils. The differences highlighted are representative of the general tendencies and social change that reverberate throughout Mexican history, its institutions, and in the current moment in México (Table 1).

Actors Within Mexican Educational Leadership and Equity

Mexican educational leadership has had many individuals and bodies structure its discourse, aims, and practice. The educational philosophies that drive these actors’ involvement in Mexican education reveal their respective aspirations for Mexican education and schoolchildren, and their motives for taking an active role in defining Mexican education. As in many national education systems, the chain of command suggests traditional modes of leading, beginning with forms that express the official stance and aims of the nation’s secretary of education, and individual states’ secretaries of education. Department heads of each level of education are next in command: in México, schooling begins in preschool, which is mandatory. After preschool, children attend elementary school (grades 1–5), a combination of middle- and junior high school (grades 6–9), trade schools and high school/community or junior college (10–14), and university. Below the department heads are municipal superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, parents, and, finally, students. However, in México, influence is exerted by a collective teachers’ voice that has as its official representative the national teachers’ syndicate, the SNTE, and more localized stakeholders tied to the state, such as state syndicate leaders. Social and political participation in educational leadership includes the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) [National Coordination of Education Workers], which facilitates forums in the country as part of its continuous service and work to interpret, clamor for, and shape the future of teaching (2017); to encourage others to care about that future; and to engage in resistance to anti-labor-rights forces and marketization of schooling. Finally, Mexican civic society, both organic and groups that promote their own self-interests, seeks to determine educational policy and assume an active role in education.

As these various entities struggle for the power to shape Mexican education, Mexican schoolchildren, who are required to attend school from preschool through the 9th grade, face many intervening factors that influence whether they will complete their schooling. Factors such as proximity of schools to the student’s home and the socio-economic status of their family can often dictate the possibility of that student’s making use of available resources. An effort was made to decentralize the public school system and grant more autonomy to the states, but the system was readily recentralized as the nation embraced neoliberal education reform; this required making changes to the Mexican constitution. Massive restructuring of teacher labor rights and testing practices of children and teachers were set in motion following the constitutional reforms. This marked México’s participation in what has been referred to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). GERM itself is a tool of neoliberal market ideology; the model is based on global competition through student performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. PISA is a standardized test that is administered to 15-year-olds; the results are compared to other results of PISA-test-takers around the globe.

Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) materials promote PISA as a test that can define and drive school reform, and one video presents Germany and Brazil as examples of how the countries used PISA data to establish standards for students and to support teacher development (OECD, 2016). PISA is said to shape countries’ education reform based on these two examples. This approach is designed to standardize education, minimize risk to reach academic goals, embrace corporate management models to manage student and teacher performance and overall school effectiveness, establish test-based accountability policies for schools, and narrow the curriculum to focus on core courses that concentrate on literacy, numeracy, and science (Sahlberg, 2012).

The Broader Context of Mexican Educational Leadership and Equity

Mexican educational leadership and equity have their roots in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, whose social justice aims were codified in the country’s 1917 constitution. The collective voice of revolutionaries and reformers was inscribed into that document, one that called for the redistribution of land from private hands to local and communal ownership; the separation of church and state; national ownership of the nation’s subsoil; the right to organize for labor rights; and the right to a free, lay, and compulsory education. Autonomous from church surveillance and control, this form of democratic education sought to redress social ills and inequities, and found expression through the leadership of México’s first secretary of education, José Vasconcelos, and under diverse presidents in the early part of the 20th century. Álvaro Obregón, president from 1920 to 1924, for example, proposed that a socialist education should lift Mexicans out of poverty and away from plantation economics. This could lead to a more balanced relationship between capital and work by reducing the power of capital. Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio (1934–1940) granted rural teachers’ colleges, normales rurales, federal funding to support the making of critical educators. The socialist imaginary of the Mexican Revolution saw teachers as “social leaders … due to their contact with communities and their training as teachers [which] was rooted in the social commitment to education as a social right” (Arriaga Lemus, 2016, p. 3).

The constitutional guarantees of an education placed Mexican schooling within the control of the federal government. With a right to organize granted by that same constitution, teachers established a national teachers’ union in 1943, the Síndicato Nacional de Trabajadores en Educación (SNTE) [National Syndicate for Workers in Education]. For decades, the SNTE, with almost two million members, has leveraged the power of its sheer size to elect candidates of its choosing. Its willingness to serve in this way compromised its legitimacy but not its autonomy; notes researcher Mayer-Serra (2009, p. 186):

The SNTE is an extreme case … it … has a political party of its own, New Alliance … With a political party controlled by the SNTE plus SNTE members in various other political parties … the SNTE has been able to legislate in its own favor. The most obvious example is the 2002 reform of the Education Law, which obliged the government to spend the equivalent of 8 percent of GDP on education in 2006. The number is absurd given the level of tax revenues collected in Mexico: 8 percent of GDP amounts to almost the total of income tax and value added tax combined. This ploy is just one more in the union’s search for resources, and without the SNTE being bound by any reciprocal performance commitment in return.

Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Figure 3. Aurora Reyes, Trayectoria de la cultura en México, section ‘Maestra atacada’ (1962).

Photograph by Saúl Arroyo Morales; used with authorization.

Even amid the corruption Mayer-Serra describes, the perception of teachers as social leaders persists and continues to carry social force, albeit with successful media campaigns that challenge this positioning of teachers and denigrate the profession. Representative of the social justice aims that mark México’s history in land, labor, and educational rights is the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) [National Coordination of Education Workers]. The CNTE is a critical actor in organizing and sustaining teacher resistance to the insinuation of neoliberalism within education. The CNTE advances inclusive, critical, and democratic forms of education and defends teacher labor rights. It is part of the larger teachers’ syndicate, the SNTE, and has members throughout México organized in “secciones,” or sections. It upholds the Mexican teacher as a “historical actor of modernity and Mexican education as fundamentally humanist” (Velázquez Barriga, 2018, p. 53), a positioning that is captured by México’s first female muralist, Aurora Reyes. One of Reyes’s most important works, Trayectoria de la cultura en México [The trajectory of culture in México], is housed in CNTE/SNTE Sección 9 Democrática’s building in México City in the Belisario Domínguez Auditorium. Reyes dedicates part of the sprawling mural, which occupies three walls of the large auditorium, to Mexican teachers in a struggle for a lay, democratic, and democratizing education (Figure 3).

The CNTE was founded in 1979 as a democratizing force and unified movement functioning within the SNTE through regional governance. As a movement, it is “flexible, being able to shift its site of power and protest from one group to another through waves of activity … to articulate a social response at a national level” (Arriaga Lemus, 2016, pp. 4–6). From its founding to the current moment, the CNTE has resisted domination by the SNTE and the Secretaría de Educacíon Pública (SEP) [Secretary of Education], which is the official government entity overseeing the nation’s schools. In the period 2012–2018, the SEP was charged with establishing neoliberal order among the teaching force by agitating for a series of labor reforms to the Mexican Constitution under the rubric of education reform. Teacher resistance to these neoliberal labor reforms is marked not only by opposition but also by suggesting alternatives to SEP proposals. The CNTE’s alternative models of education are grounded in engaging critical pedagogies; exercising constructivist thought and practice; honoring pluralism; upholding a social justice ethic; and advancing holistic approaches to teaching, learning, and assessing (CNTE, 2017).

Educational leadership during the 2012–2018 period was also defined through a bureaucratic and administrative discourse promoted by the non-for-profit but entrepreneurial organization Mexicanos Primero (López Aguilar, 2015), which views educational leadership as residing in the person and role of the school administrator. In this understanding of educational leadership, as noted by Berry (2016), aspiring and current school principals partake in an area of study with coursework that is part of a career ladder. Advanced certification and an advanced university degree are possible final outcomes; the approach is similar to the U.S. model that links educational leadership to university-based programs in educational administration and the bureaucracy of schooling (Berry, 2016).

In both México and the United States, educational leadership is still an emerging construct open to definition. In the United States, its roots lie in early industrial management models that have returned with greater force and funding under a “new Taylorism” brought forth through neoliberal school reform (Au, 2011, p. 25) and informing GERM. Efficiency and notions about what that meant for education were introduced by the early 20th-century education reformer John Franklin Bobbitt, who aspired to introduce to schooling the ideas of Frederick Taylor, an engineer with scientifically based approaches to management (Au, 2011). U.S. schools, according to Bobbitt, had to function like the factory of the 1900s, because standardization and efficiency were considered hallmarks of quality. Consequently, and with current models of neoliberal education reform that harken back to Bobbitt and Taylorism, educational leadership as a course of study typically departs from the promise, commitments, and collective work of an education grounded in social justice praxis. Instead, educational leadership as practiced in the United States, embraced by Mexicanos Primero, and inscribed in professional development models in México, narrows the definition of leadership by promoting an individualistic, and competency- and performance-oriented, understanding of leading, teaching, and learning. This model relies on an army of experts and managerial forms of governance.

(i) In a study with college students from Mexican and U.S. universities, Dugan, Rossetti Morosini, and Beazley (2011) report on general forms of leadership (i.e., not linked to educational leadership); they found that individualistic models of leadership that are common in the United States are at cross-purposes with Mexican leadership models. The researchers suggest that the cultural context of each country explains the different value systems each country holds. The United States invests optimism in rationality, data, and measurement, while México emphasizes “reflection, process-orientations, and learning through intuitive and contemplative means” (Dugan et al., 2011, p. 466). The study is relevant here because it explaines why the Eurocentric, individualistic leadership model that first emerged from bodies like Mexicanos Primero, did not find traction with teachers and administrators whose pedagogy and leadership are grounded in commitments to social transformation that address social equity, pluralism and democracy. The democratic teachers readily identified the contradictions between the OECD’s stated goals of helping nations “develop the knowledge and skills that drive better jobs and better lives, generate prosperity and promote social inclusion” (OECD, 2020)” through a “quality” education, and its focus on standardization, global testing with PISA, that reduce heterogeneity and result in educational exclusion.

Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Figure 4. Federal police enforcing the teacher evaluation process, Chiapas, México, 2015; public domain.

Educational administrators in México, as in the United States, have been required to adhere to policies and practices that surveil and control schoolchildren through high-stakes standardized tests (when México was administering such tests). While teacher evaluations in the United States are based, in part, on student outcomes and, in some states where value added models have been embraced, determine teachers’ salaries, in México, the teacher evaluation system undercut the labor rights that were gained in the early 1900s by making job security contingent upon teacher performance in an eight-hour test; however they performed, moreover, they lost tenure. The teacher evaluation is being overhauled under the new administration and will no longer be punitive, but during the 2012–2018 period, when neoliberal education reform was rolled out and implemented, Mexican teachers were mandated to submit to the evaluation. Teachers who passed the test were promised a raise; teachers who refused to take the test were fired; and teachers who failed the test were required to participate in professional development. Two failures would result in being fired. In all scenarios, the teachers lost tenure. Changes to the Mexican Constitution, promoted by Mexicanos Primero and the SEP, made these labor practices possible. However, a study by the RAND Corporation (n.d.) found that compensation models for good performance on tests “did not produce [their] intended effects of improving student achievement outcomes or teacher attitudes, perceptions or behavior” (para. 1). In México, the press for standardized teacher evaluations backfired, even with, or perhaps because of, the use of state confrontation and force to compel teachers to participate in the evaluation (Figure 4).

The SNTE and the CNTE present competing understandings of what the relationship between schools, communities, and society should be and what leadership means. The SNTE is vested in party politics and ideologies of the state apparatus that perpetuate profound inequalities within Mexican society. At the same time, the SNTE’s ability exponentially to increase its membership made it a strong negotiator at the government’s bargaining table, and throughout the years has been able to gain benefits for teachers, such as low-interest loans for houses and cars, and funded opportunities for teachers to complete master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. However, when the SNTE challenged neoliberal education reform on one point, removing teacher tenure, its leader was imprisoned.

The CNTE seeks autonomy from the state apparatus and the status quo. It harnesses epistemological resources within México and educational philosophies that promote democratic practice to co-construct curricula with students, teachers, and families. This has been evidenced by the CNTE’s ongoing conversations with diverse stakeholders through public forums across the country as part of its ongoing resistance to neoliberal education reform (Hernández Navarro, 2013). In late 2017 and mid-2018, the CNTE published more iterations of its proposal for alternative education and assessment. It agitated for the reinstatement of dissident teachers who were fired; for the release of political prisoners who are teachers and who were incarcerated during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–2018), whose administration imposed neoliberal education reform through constitutional reforms and violent, militarized confrontations with teachers; and for the complete abolition of the “mal llamada reforma educativa” [the poorly named education reform]. In the first months of the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, political prisoners were released, the reinstatement of fired teachers began, and the abolition of neoliberal education reform has been approved. Even so, diverse members of society—from teachers to intellectuals and social critics—argue that neoliberal education reform remains intact, because teachers’ labor rights have not been reinstated; the quality discourse, which implies standardization and measurement, has been not abandoned but rather reaffirmed; and the normalista teacher preparation system has to compete with lateral entry teacher hiring practices (RompevientoTV, 2019). The abolition of the reform navigated legislatively to change “leyes secundarias” [subsidiary laws] that constitute the full law. Even as these were abolished, the reform, according to critics, remains entrenched in local and state school systems. The current president has held more than 10 meetings with CNTE teachers and the leadership; the CNTE remains on alert and plans to mobilize again to denounce what they view as a political move with no substantive changes to the reform (A Contracorriente, 2020).

What emerges are diverse entities struggling for the Mexican curriculum: the socialist-humanist imaginary is defended and advanced by the CNTE, and the neoliberal efficiency-industrial model, globally integrated in testing regimes was historically advanced by the state through the SEP, the country’s ruling elite, and bodies that include Mexicanos Primero and such global actors as the OECD, which play a key role in promulgation of standardized curricula and evaluations.

Sharing the landscape with such titanic actors as Mexicanos Primero, the OECD, the SEP, the SNTE, and the CNTE are principals who carry out social justice work as part of their day-to-day role. Silva et al. (2016) found in a qualitative research study of principals in Costa Rica, México, and Spain that the principals in their study worked with marginalized student populations and were committed to social justice. The principals believed that “education was a right, that there should be equal educational opportunity, and fair distribution of resources” (p. 316). The Mexican principal in their study served in a school with a high indigenous population, but she did not have staff who spoke the children’s language. Still, she expressed a commitment to social justice, defining this as everyone having the same rights, worth, and opportunity, and having a school that is inclusive (p. 323). She added, “We are interested that children should know their rights and obligations […] respect […] equity” (p. 324). The principals conduct social justice work as they navigate around the failures of the school system. The Mexican principal notes that:

the obstacles that the educational system presents to us do not have an impact on my results, but rather they impact my way of doing things. They wear me down a little, but I look for alternatives to solve the problems and I focus on the positive aspects. (p. 327)

As larger bodies fight for control of Mexican schooling, this principal’s everyday practice constitutes a resistance and struggle of her own, for an education focused on equity, equality, rights, and opportunity for her students.

Challenges to Mexican Educational Leadership and Equity: The Politics of Dependency, Development, and an Economy of Spoils

Challenges to Mexican educational leadership and equity are discourses that continuously seek to establish regional hierarchies that relegate México to a subordinate status. Perennial discourses that serve this function are dependency, development, and an economy of spoils.

Dependency refers to the asymmetry and inequality that define the relationship between what are referred to as first- and third-world countries (Amin, 1976). A spatial location is assigned to each, with the former referred to as the “core” and the latter as the “periphery.” First-world countries are countries that become wealthy, highly industrialized nations with a highly educated citizenry, and do so by means of the resources that flow from third-world countries. Third-world countries experience high rates of poverty, low levels of educational attainment, and remain underdeveloped. Marxist theory would say that, in fact, the periphery is what developed the core and made it rich. More clearly stated, the invasion, colonization, and extraction of the riches of Latin America gave rise to the great wealth of Europe.

The dependency discourse introduced important observations about relationships between wealthy and poor nations: wealthy and poor nations are constitutive of each other; politics and economics are related, such that an economically weaker state can be dominated by a stronger one; and these relations of dominance are replicated within nations. To illustrate this last point, a reason, for instance, to eliminate Spanish–English bilingual programs in U.S. elementary schools has as much to do with the dominance the United States has in the region in relation to Latin America, as it does to nativist and Anglo-conformant tendencies within the United States. A move to introduce mandatory English-language instruction in Mexican elementary schools to promote bilingualism, as Mexicanos Primero did, ignores the multilingualism of indigenous children and youth enrolled in bilingual public schools where they learn Spanish and their indigenous language. These schools are overlooked, because they do not conform to the global push for English-language learning and subordination to the Anglo-centricity of global education. Although Spanish–English bilingualism in México is proposed as another way for Mexicans to be able to compete on the global stage, critical educators suggest (Personal communication, 2015) that knowing English will simply give Mexicans access to lower-level jobs that will cast them as the technicians of empire, and push the nation into greater dependency.

The politics of dependency are a driver in introducing the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to México; GERM flattens the complex educational profile of the Mexican child, youth, and young adult by requiring Mexican students to conform to the narrow educational and evaluation standards in math, reading, and information technology set by the OECD. Without overstating the role of the state and actors close to the state that have capitalistic interest in shaping national discourses about the future of México and the Mexican people, the politics of dependency finds and gives voice at the national level. A common strategy engaged by governmental and entrepreneurial entities to promote a politics of dependency is to equate their projects with the future “out there,” the future that other countries have as their present, and to position those who oppose their view as preferring a past that has México mired in underdevelopment. The temporal argument is linked to México either remaining a third-world country or assuming its place in the first world. Ignored is the problematic nature of these statements in light of the complicity of those who contribute to both generating such a discourse, and generating the circumstances that sustain structural inequalities within and across borders. A stark landscape is revealed, in which the socialist promise of a more equitable society—the promise that was taken up in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution as inscribed in the 1917 constitution—is set aside to accommodate corporate interests among transnational and international bodies, and national groups disguised as civil society. There are, indeed, 22 organizations that proclaim to constitute civil society, thereby denying the organic, democratic, and sustained manner in which an authentic civil society is formed (Hernández Navarro, 2018, April 20). Mexicanos Primero is critical in that its founder is the central organizing force that brought the group of 22 together; it alone assumed the nefarious task of denigrating teachers through diverse media platforms, including the film ¡De panzazo!, copycat film of Waiting for Superman, a U.S. film that served the same function. The relationship between this configuration of civil society and the Secretaría de Educacíon Pública (SEP) [Secretary of Education], appeared to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. Of grave concern was the advancement of the factory model of education that puts a high value on efficiency through the standardization of curricula and evaluation, and which reproduces the class and race hierarchies found in society at large. When interviewed in 2015 on a prominent television program about Mexicanos Primero, the organization’s founder, Claudio X. González Guajardo (son), referenced the constitutional changes that require teachers to compete for a job and be assessed through a comprehensive evaluation system. He criticized one of the most linguistically diverse and economically impoverished states in the nation, Oaxaca, for resisting these constitutional changes, alleging that the teacher’s union was corrupt, yet he failed to recognize the neocolonizing impact the reform would have on the state’s indigenous groups (López Aguilar, 2015). These comments and proposed actions have generated criticism from parents, students, teachers, and academics. Professor, researcher and director of the Council for Evaluating the Social Development of México City, Araceli Damian (2018) remarks that “Mexicanos Primero is a classist organization that claims it is the reflection of Mexican society but which is solely a mirror that reflects the interests of Claudio X. González” (para. 12).

The emphasis on competition and evaluation are common to GERM. GERM has received the attention of global elites. In the United States, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded diverse teacher evaluation projects (e.g., Measures of Effective Teaching, 2010–2013) and co-funded others, spending $215 million on Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching, a six-year project (2010–2016) involving three school districts and four charter school management organizations. Both school groups supplied another $250 million to the effort, which was aimed at improving staffing actions by hiring teachers likely to be effective and by identifying and providing professional development to teachers demonstrating weaknesses (Stecher et al., 2018, p. 25). The project incentivized the most effective teachers with compensation and career ladders in order to retain them. The final report admits failure:

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students … student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore … we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers. (p. 488)

Following the final report, Bill and Melinda Gates announced that they would no longer fund teacher evaluation studies. In México, the Secretary of Public Education suspended teacher evaluations for one year in 2015 (Forbes, 2015 June 1); citing budget shortages, the Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación (INEE) [National Institute for the Evaluation of Education] suspended all activity in 2019 (INEE, 2019, January 22). These changes in the scheduled tests came in the aftermath of violent confrontations between federal police and teachers during the administration of the teacher evaluation. The presence of federal police with water tanks, was, nonetheless, lauded by a senior researcher at Mexicanos Primero, who stated that this was a reminder of how the presence of the U.S. national guard ensured the safety of the first African American students who integrated all-White schools. The researcher explained that, similarly, without the presence of the Mexican federal police, administering the teacher evaluations might not have been possible (Personal communication, 2015, December). It remains unclear why the researcher drew this comparison that equated the administration of a mandatory and punitive evaluation that was imposed on Mexican teachers as part of a restructuring of labor law that reduced their labor rights, to a watershed moment for U.S. society that moved it toward achieving civil rights, educational equity, and racial equality for African Americans. What is clear is that the punitive teacher evaluation system was pushing teachers out of their profession: those teachers who agreed to be evaluated, and who failed, were eventually fired, and those who refused to be evaluated were also fired. Those who agreed to be evaluated, and passed, lost tenure despite their performance.

Global Order Discourses

Dependency, development, and an economy of spoils have been the underlying discourses of neoliberal education reform. A discourse of dependency as it is taken up by neoliberal education reform seeks to make teachers complicit in recruiting others to its project. Teachers, submitted to a dependency discourse, are asked to produce the next generation of empire’s servants. Forced to use scripted curricula and standardized tests to measure student learning, teachers are positioned as the foot soldiers of empire; they work in the front lines of the neoliberal state apparatus, where they risk conforming to the state’s vision of what learning and teaching are. For the OECD and like-minded groups, learning English and mastering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are what matter.

Young Mexican students who, through participation in the neoliberal standardized curriculum that advances this narrow knowledge-base, must give up their own knowledges, culture, and language. This includes abandoning their identification with Mesoamerican civilization in order to assume their role as global citizens—a cherished neoliberal education reform identity—by becoming dependent upon the knowledges, culture, language, and civilization of others. This epistemological and ontological dependency is mis-education (Woodson, 1933 [1990]) and erasure of both a regional and national identity. In this way, it becomes clear that neoliberal education reform functions as a tool of recolonization. Neoliberal education reform is a re-enactment of the destruction of Aztec and Mayan codices, reducing these epistemological resources to anecdotes or footnotes of history. Dependency is maintained through a discourse of development; development is used to perpetuate dominance over the Global South. The Global South cannot be an actor in its own destiny unless it does so as the disabled state that must look to the North for economic aid and technical support in its internal matters. Positioned as disabled, and no longer able to access its vast epistemological resources that constitute Mesoamerican civilization, the Global South’s citizenry is taken as spoils for the Global North, becoming the arms of the world that pick up the crops, load the boxes, lift the cargo, build the towers, and wash the plates.


Challenges to Educational Leadership and Equity in México

Figure 5. La Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación [National Coordination of Workers in Education] during 2015 mobilizations to protest neoliberal education reform; used with authorization.

Resistance is itself a form of educational leadership and a striving for equity that can be carried out by anyone—students, parents, teachers, administrators, intellectuals, and the public at large. Resistance is performative, changing the status quo as resistors resist. For example, neoliberal education reform could no longer be neoliberal education reform once the democratic teachers of the CNTE rose in resistance to it. Neoliberal education reform, in facing resistance, became contested space. Resistance can disrupt institutional inertia, recruit the most passive of citizens, and derail projects that harm México. Activism is part of Mexican social life. It is a permanent resource, ready to assume an active role in transforming society through resistance (Figure 5).


Challenges to Mexican educational leadership and equity are many. Internal and external bodies collude to restructure Mexican society in ways that limit social mobility, perpetuate politics of dependency and development, and deny Mexican students their right to the future. Entrenched corruption has created a grossly unjust society, with 49% of the population living in subsistence poverty. The nation’s infrastructure cannot yet respond to the educational demands of the upcoming generations. The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018–2024) has committed to ending corruption and the neoliberal regime. In his administration, the definition that is taken up is one offered by geographer and social theorist, David Harvey. Harvey (2005) notes that neoliberalism is an attempt to restore class power through the renewed co-optation of the state (p.21). López Obrador advances a social justice agenda as a way to rebuild the nation, one that is marked by 51% of its citizens living in subsistence poverty. This reimagination of social justice and equity builds on the promise of the possible as inscribed in México’s own history and in the ongoing struggle of the democratic teachers of the CNTE. It is yet another form of educational leadership, and it may be the only way out of neoliberal devastation.


I wish to thank the teachers of the National Coordination of Education Workers in México, collectively known as the CNTE; professor and photographer Saúl Arroyo Morales for permission to use his photograph of the mural by Aurora Reyes; and the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) for permission to use their photographs of the paintings by José Velasco.


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