Mexico documentary points up sad state of public schools


MEXICO CITY — Mexico picks a president in July, and the winner would be smart to study the lessons of a new film depicting public schools in the country as a giant factory of failure.

Classrooms that are crumbling. Pupils who don’t understand what they read. Parents who aren’t involved. Teachers, often inept, who are protected by a powerful union boss and the politicians who fear her.

If this were science class, Mexico’s education system might be floating in a jar of formaldehyde, a sorry specimen of how not to prepare young people for the 21st century.

Although flaws in public schools are well known in Mexico, they have perhaps never been as crisply cataloged as in “De Panzazo,” a documentary that has been outdrawing Oscar-winning features since opening across the country in February.

“De Panzazo,” slang for “barely passing,” is a dissection and call to action in one. Sponsored by a reform group called Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), it was directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo, a well-regarded documentary maker, and Carlos Loret de Mola, a Matt Lauer-like host of a morning news show on the nation’s dominant network, Televisa.

“De Panzazo” isn’t likely to be the first time that viewers have heard about problems with public schools in Mexico or elsewhere. As in many places, even humble families try to scrape together what money they can to send their children to private schools to avoid the public system.

But the film offers an unusual look inside those battle-scarred classrooms — about a quarter of the movie was shot by students with borrowed cameras — as it tallies the shortcomings of a system responsible for 35 million youngsters.

“We don’t all have the same level of education,” says a private school student quoted in the film. “If poor people got the same level we do, maybe they would stop being poor.”

A girl at a public junior high expressed worry over the toll of a teacher work stoppage.

“I’ve been reading my guide for high school,” she says. “There’s a lot I don’t know.”

The list of troubles is long, and illustrated by copious statistics showing just how far Mexico trails in academic performance (very far), how many hours students spend in class (fewer than half of what they do in education-rigorous South Korea) and how long they attend school (on average, only through junior high).

And despite ranking high in public spending for education, Mexico finished last among 34 nations in math, reading and science tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Half of the Mexican students flunked and more than a quarter barely passed. Less than 1% scored “excellent.”

Rulfo said the film was meant to awaken Mexicans to a crisis that many accept as a fact of daily life.

In a country where “education for everyone” has been a battle cry since the Mexican Revolution 100 years ago, “De Panzazo” finds fault all around.

It starts with teachers, who in recent days have taken to the streets to resist performance evaluations, and then methodically turns the spotlight on other faltering pillars: parents, school officials, the national teachers union.

The lasting impression is of an opaque system in which some good teachers and committed students and parents stand little chance of success in the face of inertia and political expediency.

Teachers often pay money to the union to gain classroom slots they aren’t qualified to hold, while bureaucrats appear to be relegated to the role of hapless bystanders as students’ scores sag.

In one amusing if contrived sequence, Loret chases officials at the federal Education Ministry for an answer on what should be a no-brainer: How many teachers are working in Mexico?

No one knows. In the end, the journalist is referred to the longtime union chief, Elba Esther Gordillo, one of the most powerful, and detested, figures in Mexican public life. The film then shows a string of video of Gordillo over more than 30 years in which she promises, again and again, to fight for educational excellence.

The three-year film project grew out of the reform group’s work. Its leaders, who include Alejandro Ramirez, chief executive of the huge Cinepolis theater chain, approached Loret to pitch a series of news pieces on the state of schools.

Loret proposed instead a full-length documentary and took a first stab at it. Rulfo, who also has won praise for films about the families of U.S.-bound migrants and about workers toiling on a highway-building project in Mexico City, was recruited because of his reputation for empathy.

Not all are pleased with the result. Many teachers view the movie as an unfair assault, while some leftists can’t warm to Loret, a symbol of Mexico’s establishment. Some commentators grouse that “De Panzazo” hits no harder than a conventional TV news story.

“It doesn’t look at the root of the problem,” complained Santos Villagran, an elementary school teacher in Mexico City.

He said parents do too little at home to help school their children.

But the film has soared at the box office in 32 cities. Mexicanos Primero plans to use inflatable screens to show “De Panzazo” in rural zones lacking commercial theaters.

At the ticket counter, moviegoers get a card with sections that can be torn off and passed to education officials and teachers, exhorting them to improve schools.

“It’s important for people to get angry, bothered, that they know their children deserve better,” said David Calderon, director general of Mexicanos Primero. “If they leave the movie theater angry, we will have done our job well.”