Margarita Gomez-Palacio Munoz

Prevention of School Failure in Basic Education in Mexico

The school as every institution with precise objectives tries to have its students reach a minimum desired level. Not reaching these objectives constitutes a failure. In the case that concerns us, it is school failure. By school failure we understand a low, unacceptable performance by the students who, because of this, cannot be promoted from their grade.

Despite the term "school failure, " it is not possible to specify if it is the school or the students who fail. A widely held view is that the school cannot fail, given that it is the school that has defined its own objectives; therefore it is students who fail. It is necessary to search for the origin of student failure. Others think that given the magnitude of school failure, it is the school that has failed because it has not been able to make students achieve the desired objectives. It I necessary to question the school about the relevance of its programs and of its curricular contents, about the preparation and quality of its teachers, and about the school materials offered, both to teachers and students, and so forth. As in all problems that concern a large population it is not possible to take sides because there are multiple elements that determine school failure, and surely each studentís failure responds to irremediably differing combinations of these elements. However, the analysis of simple statistics around the entire world shows us that generally the students who fail are in the first grades of primary school, and that this determined by the failure to adequately learn to read and write. In Mexico this problem has been one of our preoccupations for more than twenty-five years

At the request of the government of Nuevo Leon we began a study of the causes of failure and dropout in basic education at the end of 1973. Educational authorities were disturbed by the high indices of failure shown by educational statistics, despite the fact that the state of Nuevo Leon had always been distinguished by having one of the highest levels of education in Mexico.

We knew that failure and dropout led to school failure. In Mexico in 1973, only 38 percent of primary school students finished primary school on time: that is to say that 62 if every 100 student repeated the same grade 1, 2 or 3 times, which indicates that if student did not ultimately drop out, it took them up to ten years to finish the sixth grade.

In our first study in Nuevo Leon we found that independent of whether or not students attended preschool by the tiem they were six years old, the age which primary school begins in Mexico, there was an enormous difference among the students in their cognitive development, which depended more on their cultural environment than on other factors such as health. Trying to understand the origins of this difference, we thought that because reading and writing were the most important topic in the first grades, it could be useful to measure he studentsí levels of conceptualization when they began the first grade in rural areas, as well as in marginal urban areas and in middle class urban areas. Table 23.1 gives the percentages of students in each of these groups of schools in each of the differing levels of reading and writing ability. Level 1 (the highest) indicates students who did not know how to read, and Level 5 (the lowest) indicates students who did not know where reading took place, if reading is of drawings or of writing, if a student could read a text without drawings, and so on.

At the end of the school year we found a large correspondence between the levels of conceptualization that the students had at the beginning of the school year and the level of failure at the end of the school year, which reached almost 40 percent. Moreover, we found that of students who failed the first grade, 80 percent came from the marginal urban or rural zones and only 20 percent came from the urban middle class. With these data at hand it was decided t crate a program to meet the needs of the children who had failed. This program was called the "Nuevo Leon Plan," and it was considered to be a remedial program. The "Nuevo Leon Plan" created a center composed of specialists, where teachers were trained for the first grade following a methodology that focused on increasing studentsí comprehension and adapted to the needs of each child. Seven centers were formed in the poorest regions. Each center aided twenty groups that functioned within regular schools; students returned to their schools once they overcame their problems. At the same time, the pilot center continued to carry out research on the topic of language acquisition. This was how the ĎProposal for Learning Reading and Writing" was formulated.

These special groups were called "integrated groups"; their use was extended to the entire nation. However, we saw that a preventive program with the aim of helping students at risk was not the best way of reducing school failure and we decided to broaden the program to include regular students, using the proposal that was conceived for this program, which we called IPALE, which is the acronym in Spanish for "Implementation of the Proposal for Learning Reading and Writing." This program was installed throughout the nation but with only a limited number of groups.



Table 23.1

Levels of Language Conceptulization

Rural population Poor urban Urban population


Levels 6 years 6 years 6 years

1 -- -- 32

2 -- 5 36

3 32 36 23

4 58 59 10

5 10 -- --

6 100 100 100

Source: Author



Preliminary Results of IPALE

Given that during the first ten years of operation of the program of integrated groups and then of IPALE, only a minimal share of the population benefited and the character of the intervention was more therapeutic than preventive, the results could only be estimated for the recovery or success of the students who were part of the program. In the case of the integrated groups, there was a good recovery level: 80 percent, if we take into account that we are describing a population with difficulties whose students had repeated the first grade one or more times, or had been diagnosed as having learning problems.

Broadening the program to normal studentsí populations led to an increase in the level of success: 92 percent of students were promoted from the first to the second grade. When we presented this evaluation to the Secretary of Education, we were invited to broaden the program, which then was called "PALEM," whose acronym in Spanish stands for "Proposal for Learning Reading, Writing and Mathematics." PALEM was gradually extended to the thirty-two states of Mexico, and included students in both the first and second grades, but could not include all students in these grades in all schools. Although this program was successful, it could not be implemented everywhere because there were insufficient funds for training and advising all teachers. On the other hand, because the program only covered the first two grades of basic education, it could not guarantee that the rest of primary education would maintain the quality of education we demanded, not to mention the fact the material distributed by the Secretaries of Education distributed did not provide the communication and functional focus that we wanted to give to the program.

What has been the evolution of the nationís education, based on statistics? Mexicoís terminal efficiency of education (80 percent) has grown slowly and is at a level well below that obtained by the leading first world nations (98 percent) (see Table 23.2)

Table 23.2

Desertion and Failure Rates, 1985, 1995

Year Desertion rate (%) Failure rate ($)

1985: 1st to 3rd grade 14.4 40.2

4th to 6th grade 12.8 18.9

1995: 1st to 3rd grade 16.1 31.8

4th to 5th grade 11.5 19.2

Source: Author


We find that if the failure rate fell in the first three grades between 1985 and 1995, dropout increase, especially in the first three grades, which is especially troubling. Moreover, if we not only take account of the quantity but also a surface evaluation of the quality of education of students when they finish the sixth grade of primary school, we find that only 4 percent of the students have a reading and writing level greater than that of the sixth grade; 16 percent are at their grade level and the remaining 80 percent are at the fifth, fourth, third ad even second grade levels, which indicates that even though the level of terminal efficiency has improved, the level of quality continues to be very much below that desired, which in part determines the high percentage of students who graduate from primary school but do not continue their education by enrolling in secondary school, even when this is required. This, along with a very high share of students who fail the first grade of secondary school, determines the low number of students who complete basic education.


At the beginning of the current presidential term in 1995, the Secretaries of Public Education established the goal of strengthening programs for reading and writing and, being aware of the preponderant role played by the adequate management of oral and written language in education, created the National Program for Strengthening Reading and Writing in Basic Education (PRONALEES). PRONALEES, utilizing the human resources already existing that had had experience in IPALLE, and in PALEM, created a group of a limited number of experts to improve the quality of teaching, with the aim of (1) formulating a program of teaching language that reflected the results of research and work undertaken during the last twenty-five years; (2) elaborating free textbooks that are given to children, and providing corresponding teachersí guides; (3) creating a national network of advisors that would be placed in updating programs for teachers, helping them to improve the quality of their educational practices; (4) collaborating with all the programs and institutions that directly or indirectly strengthen reading, for example, the programs of Public libraries, of Reading Corners in Schools, Adult Education; the exposition of writersí workshops; an increase of book fairs; (5) continuing research programs in reading and writing; (6) publishing works that aid teachers in their job of teaching reading and writing; (7) establishing pre-reading programs at the preschool level to improve the level of students' preparation upon entering primary school: and (8) aiding and training teachers who will teach handicapped students or those with learning disabilities, so that they will truly benefit from entering normal classes.



It can be said that during these three and a half years of intensive work, PRONALEES, with the aid of the government, has achieved the following:

  1. The formation and consolidation of the programís structure has occurred. There is a central office in Mexico City and a coordinator in each of the nationís entities.
  2. Creation of a network of advisers who are trained and responsible to the state coordinator, who program and facilitate courses, consultancy, seminar, and workshops for teachers. Currently there are around 5,500 consultants who have been trained, but three times as many are needed to meet studentsí needs.
  3. The revision of the Spanish program and the claboration of a new program for the first to sixth grades of primary school took place. This new program assures the coherence and continuity of communication and functional focus proposed from the beginning of the efforts to improve reading and writing. The program covers the four indispensable elements of oral language, reading, writing, and thinking about language. The program was drawn up in consultation with very experienced teachers and applied as a pilot project with a significant group of students.
  4. The completion of free textbooks that respond to the programís requirements for first and second grade primary school students. They are being prepared for third and fourth grade students and we hope that they will be distributed in September 1999. Each grade has a book of reading, a book of activities, and a book of cut-outs. Three and a half million copies of each of the books have been printed and distributed throughout the nation, to students and teachers, principals, supervisors and those in charge of technical teams. The books have had an excellent reception by students, teachers and parents.
  5. The preparation of books for teachers. These include: (a) the teachersí book, which follow each of the readings in the studentsí book. It explains simply to the teacher the aims of the lessons, the theoretical limits it invokes the proposed activities, and the way of evaluating studentsí progress. (B) The file of activities. These have been claborated for first to sixth grade teachers: they provide complementary activities that the teacher can undertake not only in Spanish but also in other areas. (C) The Program Advance. This is simply a guide that allows the teacher to evaluate the degree of improvement that his/her group has achieved, and to verify that it has included all the proposed points of the program. (D) A large number of teachers have been given three books that form part of the "Teachersí Library" program. These three books explain different psychological, sociological and linguistic theories that could aid teachersí educational practices.


School failure and educational quality have been the "neuralgic" themes of all governments and especially of the Mexican government. We are aware that the efforts that we are making will take a long time and that only time will allow us to see to what degree we have achieved our aims. We count on the great aid given by the Secretaries of Education and by the thousands of teachers who have adopted our programs, and we hope that the effort we are making will promote the arrival of a better Mexico.