Baby Steps to Evaluate Teachers’ Skills: The State of Teachers in Mexico, Part Two

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is the second in a series of articles by PREAL Report Card Associate Alexandra Solano on the teaching profession in Mexico. In Part I, “Failed Effort or Historic Achievement? The State of Teachers in Mexico,” Solano discussed Mexico’s new universal teacher evaluation program.

On July 22, Mexico published the results of its fifth National Skills, Knowledge and Teaching Competencies Exam (Examen Nacional de Habilidades, Conocimientos y Competencias Docentes). Results of the exam–taken by current teachers and recent graduates applying for new, full- or part-time, competitively-announced positions in public pre-K-12 schools –were disappointing for several reasons.

First, the posts put up for competition represent only a small number of all available teaching positions. Only newly created positions are eligible for competitive selection, and even then civil society groups estimate that only a fraction of new posts (roughly 7% according to a 2011 statement  by the Citizens Coalition for Education) are actually competed. The vast majority of teaching jobs in Mexico continue to be assigned to existing teachers, inherited, sold or given away as political favors, with no test of candidates’ knowledge and skills.

Second, while almost all of the applicants (96%) scored well enough to make the “approved list” from which posts are assigned according to rankings based on exam scores, eligible applicants only needed to get 30 correct answers out of 100 on the exam to get on the list. (In previous years, candidates needed 30 out of 80 correct answers to “pass.”) Because the bar to get a teaching position was so low, and because almost twice as many candidates applied as there were positions available, the test is unlikely to do much to ensure the most knowledgeable teachers are placed in the classroom.

Equally worrying is that, of the current teachers who applied to the new posts (40% of all candidates who took the exam), 4% obtained unacceptable scores. Most will probably continue to teach in their present position. Although this is a small percentage of the teachers taking the test, it is worth noting that even small percentages of ineffective teachers can impact the economic chances of students and nations. For example, a 2011 study  by Eric Hanushek found that replacing the least effective 5-7% of teachers with average teachers in the U.S. could increase its annual growth rate by 1% of the GDP.

Not all the news is bad, however.  Although current efforts to measure teachers’ knowledge and skills remain limited in scale, they are a step in the right direction. Younger teacher candidates received higher scores than older teachers, suggesting that the quality of teacher training may be improving.

Also, compared to previous years, states have increased the number of posts they put up for competition (each state decides how many competed posts to offer).  This year, states put five times more teaching positions up for competition than when the exam was first offered in 2008.

Finally, comprehensive media coverage of the results is bringing much needed attention to the issue of teacher selection and teacher quality in Mexico. A month after the results were published, national newspapers and electronic media continue to comment on the issue. As Alberto Serdán Rosales, from the civil society organization Mexicanos Primero, notes in an August 2, 2012 article, although the test is an imperfect mechanism (it is a multiple choice standardized test that can greatly be improved),  it offers an opportunity for change and reinforces the principle that being a teacher is a public good to be safeguarded.

These are small steps on a long road to strengthening the quality of teaching in Mexico. Hopefully, next year’s results will take us even further–with a higher percentage of positions competed, higher levels of test participation, improved testing instruments, and a higher standard for passing. When it comes to high quality teaching, even baby steps can make a difference.