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Mexican Mediocrity Quantified
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December 18, 2011, 04:31 AM
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Something I noticed last year when looking at 2009 PISA school achievement scores is the virtual non-existence of Mexico`s intellectual elite. Mexico`s average scores on this school achievement test of 15-year-olds were mediocre, but the lack of high end scores was startling, compared to a similar scoring country like Turkey, where there is a definite class of very smart Turks. Obviously, there is a stunning shortage of very high-achieving Mexican Americans in the U.S., but I had tended to assume that the really smart guys who run things in Mexico were just foisting off their mediocre people on the U.S. Yet, it`s hard to find test score evidence that there are many really smart guys in Mexico at all. This is not to say the average Mexican is all that uneducated by global standards, just that the far right end of the bell curve in Mexico is a lot thinner than you`d expect.

Perhaps this is just an illusion because all the schools in Mexico with smart students refuse to participate in international tests? The public school teachers union in Mexico is hilariously awful: many teaching jobs are hereditary, and if your heirs don`t want your teaching job after you die, they can auction it off to the highest bidder. But the overall performance of Mexican students on the PISA isn`t terrible (it`s a lot worse than the performance of Hispanics in the U.S. on the PISA, but not miserable by Latin American standards). 

Yet, here`s a 2008 paper on the same subject that takes the lack of cognitive superstars in Mexico seriously:

Producing superstars for the economic Mundial: The Mexican Predicament with quality of education 

Lant Pritchett and Martina Viarengo

Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government

November 19, 2008 

Abstract.   The question of how to build the capabilities to both initiate a resurgence of growth and facilitate Mexico’s transition into a broader set of growth enhancing industries and activities is pressing.  In this regard it seems important to understand the quality of the skills of the labor force.  Moreover, in increasingly knowledge based economies it is not just the skills of the typical worker than matter, but also the skills of the most highly skilled.  While everyone is aware of the lagging performance of Mexico on internationally comparable examinations like the PISA, what has been less explored is the consequence of that for the absolute number of very highly skilled.  We examine  how many students Mexico produces per year above the “high international benchmark” of the PISA in mathematics.  While the calculations are somewhat crude and only indicative, our estimates are that Mexico produces only between 3,500 and 6,000 students per year above the high international benchmark (of a cohort of roughly 2 million [which is about half America`s cohort of around 4 million]).  In spite of educational performance that is widely lamented within the USA, it produces a quarter of a million, Korea 125,000 and even India, who in general has much worse performance on average, produces over 100,000 high performance in math students per year.  The issue is not about math per se, this is just an illustration and we feel similar findings would hold in other domains.  The consequences of the dearth of globally competitive human capital are explored, with an emphasis on the rise of  super star phenomena in labor markets (best documented in the USA).  Finally, we explore the educational policies that one might consider to focus on the upper tail of performance, which are at odds with much of the “quality” focus of typical educational policies which are often remedial and focused on the lower, not upper tail of performance.


I don`t know what the full story is here. Perhaps Mexican elites are just lazy, and they set a bad example for the Mexican masses?