Mexicans who can, tend to choose private schools for their children. Does that mean they’re better? Looking at scores on standardized tests of academic performance such as PISA and ENLACE, it becomes clear that while private school students have slightly higher average scores, that is not attributable to their educational system but rather to their students’ economic and cultural opportunities. Controlling for socioeconomic status, performance is no different. Schools with advantaged children, be they private or public, have similar results on measures of academic performance.
In some aspects such as professional development, teachers in public schools arguably have more and better opportunities, even though the latest TALIS survey found that 56.2% of Mexican teachers considered that the courses and workshops offered them were largely irrelevant.
However, many private schools don’t offer professional development at all. More than one private school director has confided, “If we train them they go elsewhere for better pay. What happens if I invest in my teachers and then they leave?” It’s best to answer this question with another: What happens if you don´t provide professional development and they stay? That might be worse!
In the United States, charter schools are paid for with public education funds. Admissions policies are similar to those in public schools, but they are administered by the private sector and they have greater freedom to select their own personnel and curriculum. After many years’ experience it has become very clear that on average, charter schools do not demonstrate better academic performance than public schools.
However, there are exceptions. The freedom to experiment with new models of education has produced some extraordinary schools that show outstanding results on measures of academic performance with lower-income students. Groups of schools such as the KIPP Network and the Northstar Academies have had the highest test results year after year despite their majority lower-income enrollment. One common factor: these schools invest time and money on professional development and support for teachers.
In Latin America, consider the example of the Innova Schools of Peru. These are private schools with mostly middle and lower middle class enrollments. Tuition levels are modest, but results (61% proficient in math) are far higher than public school averages (17%). Design of infrastructure and educational systems was developed in partnership with IDEO, the San Francisco-based design firm. Interviewing potential students and parents helped IDEO identify aspirations to be incorporated into the educational model. Most aspired to a better life, which they associated with proficiency in English and digital technology, and the incorporation of an improved aesthetic sense in their daily lives. IDEO designed school buildings to be modular and adaptable to different terrain, with lots of light, open spaces and bandwidth. Sandy Speichar, Head of Educational Practices for IDEO, explained, “The buildings had to be beautiful. We wanted people to feel proud to drop their kids off at school every day.”
The Innova educational model alternates between group time and solo time. In group time, 30 students work in small groups to solve problems with the help of their teacher. In solo time, groups of 60 students practice content and skills using digital or blended learning programs such as Khan Academy, Time to Know, and My English Learner (Pearson) with teacher supervision. Programs in Spanish (Modus, for teaching Science and Spanish Language and Literature) were developed by Innova in cooperation with the Catholic University in Lima. Teachers in the 23 Innova Schools are supported by the “Teacher Resource Center” with more than 20,000 lessons on file. New teachers are expected to take 80% of their lessons from the Resource Center, while veteran Innova teachers can add more lessons of their own.
In Mexico, the private sector needs to step up its participation in the search for quality education. Private schools operating without the burden of some of the restrictions that limit public schools could experiment with new educational models combining direct instruction with small-group problem and project-based learning, along with the use of digital and blended-learning programs in order to get better results with the same or lower levels of funding. In Mexico, as in other countries, success by some sets the bar for others who seek to achieve.