telesecundaria | Geo-Mexico, the geography of Mexico

The rapid expansion of literacy and education in Mexico

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The rapid expansion of literacy and education in Mexico
Nov 282011

Data from Mexico’s 2010 census indicate that considerable progress has been made in the recent past. Literacy of those over age 15 has increased from 87.6% in 1990 to 90.5% in 2000 and 93.1% in 2010. This is to be expected since literacy varies with age. As the older people, many of whom are illiterate, die off, they are replaced by younger, more literate, Mexicans. For example, in 2010, 34% of those over age 75 were illiterate, compared to under 2% for those aged 15 to 29.

Literacy is highest in the Federal District (97.9%) and lowest in Chiapas (82.2%), Guerrero (83.3%) and Oaxaca (83.7%). In future decades, illiteracy will continue to decline significantly, especially in the poorer southern states. However, with life expectancy increasing and older people living longer, illiteracy will not decline as fast as it might.

Preschool, primary schools (primaria) and junior high schools (secundaria)

educationAbout half of Mexican children aged 3 to 5 attended preschool in 2010. Basic education begins with primary schools (primaria) with grades 1 to 6 for children generally between the ages of 6 and about 12. Junior high schools (secundaria) cover grades 7 to 9 and focus on 12 to 15-year-olds. In Mexico primaria and secundaria are compulsory; however, in the past, many children dropped out for a wide variety of reasons (the need to work and support the family being a major one). Mexico’s telescundaria system brings junior high school lessons to students in remote areas via satellite.

In 2010, an impressive 95% of those aged from 6 to 14 attended school, compared to 91% in 2000 and 86% in 1990. The majority of the 5% not attending school in 2010 did attend school previously and had acquired basic literacy. The rather poor state of Hidalgo had the highest attendance rate in 2010 with 96.4% (tied with Tlaxcala and the Federal District). The lowest levels were in Chiapas (90.8%), Michoacán (92.4%) and Guerrero (93.1%).

The rather small difference between the highest and lowest rates suggests that most Mexicans throughout the country have relatively equal access to basic education. Even in the poorest 125 of Mexico’s 2442 municipalities 88% of 6 to 14-year-olds were in school, according to the 2010 census.

High or senior high schools (preparatoria)

Senior high school education (prepatratoria) offers grades 10 to 12 and is not compulsory. Students generally are aged between 15 and 18. Some of these schools focus on preparing students for university while others focus on vocational training. In some rural areas, students must travel considerable distances to the nearest senior high school, and some have to live away from home during term time.

Teaching hours and the quality of education

Unfortunately, school attendance is not a reliable indicator of the number of teaching hours. Students receive only 2.8 hours of real instruction per day according to a new study by Mexicanos Primero, a citizens’ group focused on improving the quality of education. The study indicates that Mexican students get 562 hours of instruction per year, compared to 710 hours in the USA, 875 in France, 1172 in Finland and 1195 in South Korea. Mexicanos Primero complains that too much real instruction time is lost due to preparation for parades and festivals, teacher absenteeism and school closures.

There are also issues concerning the quality of education. According a recent Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Mexico is doing a poor job of educating its youth. Only 1% of Mexican 15-year-olds have the knowledge and skills needed for full participation in modern society, compared to 30% in Hong Kong and 26% in South Korea.

Higher education has made impressive gains. In 2010 over 40% of those aged 15 to 24 were attending school compared to 33% in 2000 and 30% in 1990.

temporary classroom

Temporary classroom while a new school is being built. (Jungapeo, Michoacán, mid-1980s). Photo: Tony Burton.

Years of schooling

The “average years of schooling” figure has increased about one year a decade, from 6.5 years in 1990 to 7.5 in 2000 and 8.6 in 2010. The Federal District is the most educated with an average of 10.5 years of schooling, compared to 6.7 in Chiapas and 6.9 in Oaxaca. Given historical trends, older adults have significantly fewer years of education than younger adults.

There are still some serious urban-rural differences. The best educated municipality is Benito Juárez in the Federal District with 13.9 years, compared to levels between 2.3 and 3.4 years for the ten lowest municipalities, which are all in the rural south and are predominately indigenous language speakers. In these poor indigenous rural municipalities, most of the elderly have virtually no schooling even if the majority of children are now attending school and learning Spanish.


Oct 222011

Mexico’s pioneering “telesecundaria” or “television secondary school” system began back in 1968. It now provides junior high school classes in remote areas, serving about one million students in grades 7 to 9, 17% of the total nationwide enrollment in these grades. Many of the telesecundaria lessons are now available on the Internet, and before long, about 4,500 classes will also be available on a DVD collection.

The geographical network of telesecundarias is truly amazing. In the early 1980s, I came across one high in the mountains in a distant corner of the state of Hidalgo, in a remote Huastec village, beyond even Coca Cola’s delivery routes. A visitor was such a surprise that the entire village turned out to inspect me!

Telesecundaria in Ixcatepec, Hidalgo

Telesecundaria in Ixcatepec, Hidalgo (1983) Photo: Tony Burton

It was that experience that made me realize that Mexicans take education very very seriously. The telesecundaria was perched on the hillside overlooking the village. I later discovered this was a fairly typical example, with three classrooms, rustic restrooms in an outhouse, and a small playground. Most telesecundarias also have a science laboratory and a small library.

The students in a telesecundaria do have a teacher, but this teacher teaches every subject, whereas in a regular junior high, each student will have up to twelve different subject specialists. Every telesecundaria classroom has a television set to receive lessons broadcast by the Education Ministry (SEP) in Mexico City.

Professional Programs

In the early days, lessons were very traditional, and the TV programs were little more than continuous shots of a “talking teacher”. Interestingly, almost all those early lessons were broadcast live. Nowadays, the entire process is much slicker and far more professional. The TV programs are 15 minutes long and feature all kinds of material, including animated graphics and video footage. Watching them, you are unlikely to see the “talking teacher” even for an instant! It takes about 20 days to produce each 15-minute module and costs up to 50,000 dollars. Most programs have a useful life of between five and ten years, depending on the timing of significant changes in subject content and teaching methods.

After students have seen the TV broadcast, the classroom teacher then uses the remaining 45 minutes of each hour to explain the lesson in more detail and to monitor students as they complete related tasks from their special telesecundaria textbooks.

Nationwide satellite transmission of programs began in 1994 (EDUSAT), enabling the coverage to spread far beyond those areas previously served by conventional TV stations. Programs are broadcast daily.

On-line samples

With the advent of the Internet, the telesecundarias are now being revamped as one part of SEP’s “On-line educational TV” (“Televisión educativa en línea“) project. That page has links to currently playing segments of material for various levels, including telesecundaria, and for teachers. (This is also a valuable resource for non-native speakers working to improve their Spanish and/or their knowledge of Mexico.)

Telesecundarias have proved to be an extraordinarily effective way of improving access to, and standards of, junior high education across Mexico. While the “costs of delivery” are estimated to be 16% higher in telesecundarias, on a per student basis, than in regular junior high schools, they are significantly cheaper on a per school basis. This means that some of the nation’s 13,000 or so telesecundarias can function cost-effectively even with only 10 or 12 students in each grade level.

The success of telesecundarias

Are telesecundarias successful? It certainly seems so. An estimated 79.4% of telesecundaria students complete grade 9, compared with an equivalent figure of 78.8% for regular junior highs. In addition, one study has shown that telesecundaria students may start Grade 7 significantly behind other students but generally catch up completely in math and reduce the deficit in language.

The program has been adopted by most Central American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama—and pilot projects are underway in the USA in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Florida.

So next time you’re traveling in the wilds of Mexico or Central America, play “I spy” and see how many telesecundarias you can find. Bonus marks should be awarded for any that are outside the normal delivery range of Coca-Cola or Sabritas!

Access to services is worst in the smallest rural localities of Mexico

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Access to services is worst in the smallest rural localities of Mexico
May 102011

Access to services such as schools, public transport or the internet are better in cities than in rural areas (localities in Mexico with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants). However some rural areas have far better access than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of inhabitants of a rural locality is directly related to its access to services.

The 2010 census indicates that 26.0 million Mexicans (about 23.2% of the population) live in rural areas. A total of 9.0 million live in Mexico’s 5,921 large rural communities (those with 1000–2499 inhabitants) compared to 11.3 million living in the 22,852 mid-sized rural localities (250–999 people) and 5.7 million in the 159,820 small rural settlements (fewer than 250 residents). The average population in the last group is only 36 inhabitants indicating that many Mexicans live in very tiny communities.

The percentage of communities with access to a health center or clinic is 74.9% for the large rural areas, 50.7% for the mid-sized, and only 37.9% for the small rural areas. The percentages for access to either a secondary school or telesecundaria (Mexico’s satellite-fed secondary schools, see Geo-Mexico, page 126) also differ with the size of the community: 79.6%, 51.5% and 27.0%, respectively. Though these percentages are far lower than those for larger, urban communities, they have improved very significantly. The census indicates that rural areas are catching up with the rest of Mexico, especially with respect to education, life expectancy and fertility, three very important, inter-related variables.

In turn, this suggests that government programs such as Oportunidades are achieving something positive in some areas beyond poverty reduction.

The network of roads providing access to rural villages has improved significantly. 81.2% of the smallest localities now are connected by road, compared to 96.7% for the mid-sized and 98.3% for the large rural areas. However, these data indicate that almost 31,000 rural Mexican communities are still not accessible by road. Only 63.5% of the small rural villages are served by public transport, compared to 74.6% of the mid-sixed and 89.3% of the large rural localities. A total of almost 107,000 rural communities do not have any public transport and are consequently quite isolated. This isolation is a very serious constraint to their economic opportunities and quality of life. The people who live in communities without access to a paved road are among Mexico’s poorest; fully 88% are classified as “very marginalized” (see Geo-Mexico, page 184).

Internet access is only beginning to penetrate into rural areas. Only 3% of the smallest rural villages have public access to the internet (via school, cybercafé, etc.). About four times as many (11%) of mid-sized rural localities have public internet access. Almost half (45.6%) of the large rural communities have public internet access compared to 74.3% of larger communities between 2500 and 4999 inhabitants. Current trends suggest that by 2020, virtually all Mexicans will have some type of internet access, perhaps by cell phone.