How to Fix a Failing School? In Mexico, Work at an Ant's Pace for Big Change

Students were ready to take on the challenge, not just to teach their classmates how to find the perimeter of a given shape, but to make their school a better place to learn -- a strategy that is rarely employed in failing schools in the U.S.
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When we arrived at the school in Calimaya, Estado de México, the boys were already waiting for me in the library. As they reached to pull out their chairs to begin work, I told them we needed to fetch something first. "For our work today," I said, "we're going to need some tortillas." Gustavo looked at Juan Carlos, Juan Carlos looked at Gustavo. They both cracked up.

Juan Carlos and Gustavo's school is one of the lowest performing public secondary schools in Mexico. Over half of its students failed the national standardized exam for three years in a row. I was there to help a team of people from a program within the Mexican ministry of education initiate a turnaround.

But the approach we took was unlike anything I had seen happen to failing schools as a teacher in New York. Our job in Mexico was to charge students -- as well as their teachers, school directors, district and state-level authorities -- with the responsibility and the tools to make their schools better.

My work using tortillas to tutor the two boys in geometry was an essential piece of the strategy.

In the United States, a school deemed "Persistently Low Achieving" might get a federal grant to do one of four things: close its doors (closure model); become a charter school or similar entity (restart model); fire the principal, replace half the staff and give the new principal more autonomy to institute more data-driven instructional approaches (turnaround model); or change the leadership, extend the school day and provide extensive support for teachers in data-driven instruction and other techniques to change school culture (transformation model).

In Mexico, the teacher's union has a monopoly on hiring and firing policies -- a condition unlikely to change anytime soon. This means school reformers within the Mexican government's new Integral Strategy to Improve Academic Achievement (or EIMLE, for its Spanish abbreviation) have to be a good deal more flexible and understanding of a failing school's particularities.

As I traveled with one EIMLE adviser, Juan Pedro Rosete, from school to school in Estado de México, I noticed that his first order of business was to ask school directors and teachers what resources they needed. Then he would weigh factors as varied as the school's preexisting scheduling, the disposition of the school's director and teachers, and the size of the student population before making a decision about what EIMLE could offer them. In some cases, he suggested a workshop for teachers to help them master math or Spanish content. At other points, he told directors that their schools could become models of a new method of teaching and learning that EIMLE is spearheading. He gently nudged school directors toward accepting EIMLE's support without imposing a monolithic structure upon them, which made even those who hesitated at first more amenable to our ideas. The way Rosete works, it is the school that "chooses" whether to accept EIMLE's support. Why spend more time with a school where leaders are lukewarm, when the one down the road throws open its doors?

But in most schools we visited, leaders already desired change. In Calimaya, Juan Carlos' and Gustavo's math teacher had not attended mandatory training sessions provided by the state. During class, he asked a few students to read the instructions in the workbook aloud, and then told students to turn to the first problem and silently work on it. Most sat, pencils in hand, motionless.

With the director's blessing, we embarked on the truly innovative part of the school turnaround strategy: we plucked 10 students -- and their math teacher -- out of their classes for two days, and they lived a teaching method called relaciones tutoras, which involves training several students in a math problem or Spanish text to arm them with the tools they need to teach their classmates the same material in similar one-on-one relationships later on. The tutor never gives away the answer to the problem, but rather helps the tutee construct it through questioning and examples. I spent eight hours working with the two boys on a single problem. We played with our food, measuring the diameter and circumference of the tortilla and a 10-peso coin so that they could discover where pi comes from.

At the end of our time there, we asked the students and teacher how they felt. Their teacher admitted that he was nervous when he first began to work with his tutor and didn't feel like he had the "profile" to teach the content he was given. Rosete asked the others if they felt nervous at first, and a flurry of hands went up. One by one, students opened up about what they had learned in the few days working with our team, and how they felt about learning in this different way.

Then came the clincher. Rosete asked the group, "What do you do with knowledge once you have it? Hole it up?" They replied, "Share it," or, "Tell it to someone else." By the end of the meeting, the students were ready to take on the challenge, not just to teach their classmates how to find the perimeter of a given shape, but to make their school a better place to learn -- a strategy that is rarely employed in failing schools in the United States.

School reformers in the U.S. feel an admirable sense of urgency about the problem of failing schools. The work that EIMLE does in Mexico can feel so halting and piecemeal in comparison. In fact, Rosete once said that their efforts could amount to nothing more than "trabajo de hormiga" (an ant's work) if EIMLE fails to create lasting networks of schools that experience success, or if it fails to convince schools that refuse help to get on board.

But then we went to a secondary school in the rural town of San Marcos, Malinalco, and saw how far you can travel at an ant's pace. Two years ago, Convivencia Educativa (CEAC), the non-profit founded by Dr. Gabriel Cámara that is now affiliated with EIMLE, gave an intensive training to a group of five schools, including the one we visited. Despite the fact that CEAC's official involvement ended there, the schools continued to practice CEAC's method in which students and teachers tutor each other to learn content. Two years later the school in Malinalco, once on the list of the worst in the country in terms of its test scores, left that category and has been making upward progress.

Aside from the school's numbers, you can see improvement in the way Julia, a third-year student there, expresses herself and what she knows. She stood up in front of a room filled with people to explain how she arrived at the answer to a math problem with the help of her tutor. "Learning this way, you realize that you can be important," she said. "You can investigate more than what you know now. You have the ability to keep looking for an answer, for more knowledge."

The giggly, shy boys in Calimaya were already following in her footsteps.

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