The following post is based on a conversation with Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo. I reached out to Dr. Rincón-Gallardo to learn more about his work in Mexican schools and to better understand how the current political climate in Mexico has influenced the grassroots reform efforts of Redes de Tutoría, a small NGO that catalyzed a movement to transform conventional classrooms in public schools into learning communities where independent learning and tutorial relationships are practiced by students and teachers. An excerpt of our conversation appears below. Click here to read more of the interview.
As we have covered in earlier IEN posts, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012 he introduced education reforms that sought to address issues of educational quality and governability through what Andres Delich called a “mix of centralization and decentralization.” As covered in the Harvard Policy Review, lackluster Pisa scores have called attention to the fact while enrollment and basic skills have improved, repetition rates remain high and resources are distributed inequitably. The country’s system for hiring and paying teachers has been pinpointed as a problematic issue. In Mexico, all teachers join the union (SNTE), and the union assigns teachers to schools; teachers earn lifetime tenure after just six month of service. In an effort strengthen government control, President Peña Nieto bolstered the power of the national evaluation agency (INEE), and established higher professional standards and accountability measures for teachers. Peña Nieto also arrested union President, Esther Gordillo, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, and teachers have been protesting the reforms everywhere from Mexico City to Guerrero.
In the context of all of this change, we wanted to learn more about how the new policies influence the practice of education and, as Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo explains, the social and political aspects of pedagogical reform.
Can you tell us about your work in Mexico, and the ways in which political changes in the country have been influential?
Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:
Let me tell you a little bit about the Learning Community Project (LCP), which provided the context for my research. In 2004, I was part of a small NGO called Convivencia Educativa, A.C. (now Redes de Tutoría, S.C.) that started working with a few teachers in a small number of schools, providing very intensive classroom-based support for teachers interested in turning their classrooms into Learning Communities. We started working on a very small scale, about eight schools total, working with voluntary teachers in middle schools that were built in marginalized communities with very small populations. We started working with some teachers there, providing coaching and training, but also spending a lot of time in classrooms working with them to turn their conventional classroom into a learning community. We would spend a whole week with each teacher every month in their classrooms, trying to understand what we needed to do and what we could do to turn the classrooms into Learning Communities.
Even though the scale was very small there was a strong impact on the engagement and excitement of the teachers and students who joined the project: students were learning better and they were gaining a lot of confidence to undertake individual study, to engage in research and learn on their own, but also to express their views and their learning in public, both in writing and in oral presentations. Maybe most importantly, they also started to work as tutors to other students who were interested in learning what the students had come to master.
The excitement that we started seeing in this small number of schools started to spread through the outreach of teachers themselves, and some local authorities who started to get excited to see what these young kids were capable of and how excited they were about learning. They started reaching out to other teachers in other schools, other local authorities in other regions, visiting other classrooms to showcase or display the practice, and then having other people come to their classrooms to see what was going on there. There was a lot of movement and excitement.
In four years we had moved from eight schools to about 400 schools that were engaged in this new practice of Learning Communities – we call it the Tutorial Relationships Practice. At that point the Deputy Minister of Education at that time visited one of our schools, and he was very impressed with what he saw there, in terms of the engagement and the skill of the students, so he decided to adopt the model and bring it to scale to 9,000 schools all over the country.
At the same time that the movement at the grassroots was taking place, one of the key leaders of the NGO, whose name is Dalila López, was invited to join the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of Education at the national level, and she was able to bring in people from our organization to the ministry. So we were able to create a team within the Ministry to support the kind of work that we felt was worth supporting, which was developing the conditions for teachers to learn the new practice of tutorial relationships and disseminate it to other places. What the leadership at the top did was create opportunities and mobilize infrastructure for teachers to be able to visit other schools in their regions or in other states so that there was the exchange of information and practice all over the country. We found really good results really quickly.
The large-scale project started in 2010. By 2012, the schools that had data available, but also the ones that had been engaged in this model for a long time, since 2010, increased the percentage of kids scoring with an excellent levels, at a faster pace than and surpassing the national average. This happened in 2012, everything was moving very smoothly and powerfully. There has not been any other program or initiative in Mexico that has shown a clear and significant impact on student learning, even as measured by standardized tests. We started getting a lot of international attention. We had Richard Elmore from the Harvard School of Education, come to visit our schools. He experienced being tutored by a girl from a rural community, Maricruz, a 13 year old girl who was just amazing at guiding him through his own thinking, and identifying some of the weaknesses in his own thinking about how to solve a geometry problem. She was very masterful in supporting him. Throughout that visit, Richard and I were able to write a paper for the Harvard Education Review that discusses this model, and he got very excited about it. He’s been talking about it in his classes, and in 2012 and 2013 we welcomed about 10 students from Harvard’s Educational Leadership Doctorate program to come and learn about the model and report back to their cohorts about what they have learned. We had that for two years, so in total we have had 21 visitors or so. The work has been attracting the attention of several other international experts.
What’s happened since that pinnacle of performance? We had a change in administration at the presidential level, and also a change in the Ministry of Education. They came with a very clear agenda of cutting down any relationship with union leadership, in particular Esther Gordillo and her people. And it so happened that the Deputy Minister who had been supporting this work at the national level, and the one who invited us into the Ministry, was the son-in-law of Gordillo, the leader of the teachers’ union. As soon as this new administration came, they decided to cut down any relationship with them which meant also kicking out the whole team that had been building and supporting this work from the top. So the the leaders who launched and disseminated the Learning Community Project are again grouped around a small NGO called Redes de Tutoría, and they’ve continued to support the work on a smaller scale, but at a deeper level. Right now they’re working with five states that have expressed very clear interest in continuing this work. So the idea is to still go to scale – not at the national level, but at the state level. The strategy is to create “Regions of Excellence,” where you would have several schools who are engaged in this practice and sites where people could come and see what’s possible but also having this as a professional development site for others interested in learning the practice. We’re not entirely sure how many schools are going to continue with this work. As we are putting the pieces together we are trying to find ways in which we can continue to support teachers who are committed to this work but not getting a lot of support from the state-level authorities. We are trying to find a strategy to help continue this work. We’re doing the lobbying that we can because we know that there is some vibrancy in this work that won’t disappear unless somebody wants to really shut it down. I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but we don’t have the political backing at the national level so that teachers can feel free to innovate. The practice has gone underground, it’s invisible but it’s still there.
Please continue reading.