Santiago Rincón-Gallardo with Deirdre Faughey

The following interview was originally posted on the International Ed News (IEN). Here, Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo speaks with Deirdre Faughey (Managing Editor of IEN) about his experiences with education reform in Mexico. 

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Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo

I reached out to Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo to learn more about his work in Mexican schools and to better understand how the current political climate in Mexico has influenced the grassroots reform efforts of Redes de Tutoría, a small NGO that catalyzed a movement to transform conventional classrooms in public schools into learning communities where independent learning and tutorial relationships are practiced by students and teachers. An excerpt of our conversation appears below.

As we have covered in earlier IEN posts, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012 he introduced education reforms that sought to address issues of educational quality and governability through what Andres Delich called a “mix of centralization and decentralization.” As covered in the Harvard Policy Review, lackluster Pisa scores have called attention to the fact while enrollment and basic skills have improved, repetition rates remain high and resources are distributed inequitably. The country’s system for hiring and paying teachers has been pinpointed as a problematic issue. In Mexico, all teachers join the union (SNTE), and the union assigns teachers to schools; teachers earn lifetime tenure after just six month of service. In an effort strengthen government control, President Peña Nieto bolstered the power of the national evaluation agency (INEE), and established higher professional standards and accountability measures for teachers. Peña Nieto also arrested union President, Esther Gordillo, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, and teachers have been protesting the reforms everywhere from Mexico City to Guerrero.

In the context of all of this change, we wanted to learn more about how the new policies influence the practice of education and, as Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo explains, the social and political aspects of pedagogical reform.

Deirdre Faughey:

Can you tell us about your work in Mexico, and the ways in which political changes in the country have been influential?

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

Let me tell you a little bit about the Learning Community Project (LCP), which provided the context for my research. In 2004, I was part of a small NGO called Convivencia Educativa, A.C. (now Redes de Tutoría, S.C.) that started working with a few teachers in a small number of schools, providing very intensive classroom-based support for teachers interested in turning their classrooms into Learning Communities. We started working on a very small scale, about eight schools total, working with voluntary teachers in middle schools that were built in marginalized communities with very small populations. We started working with some teachers there, providing coaching and training, but also spending a lot of time in classrooms working with them to turn their conventional classroom into a learning community. We would spend a whole week with each teacher every month in their classrooms, trying to understand what we needed to do and what we could do to turn the classrooms into Learning Communities.

Even though the scale was very small there was a strong impact on the engagement and excitement of the teachers and students who joined the project: students were learning better and they were gaining a lot of confidence to undertake individual study, to engage in research and learn on their own, but also to express their views and their learning in public, both in writing and in oral presentations. Maybe most importantly, they also started to work as tutors to other students who were interested in learning what the students had come to master.

The excitement that we started seeing in this small number of schools started to spread through the outreach of teachers themselves, and some local authorities who started to get excited to see what these young kids were capable of and how excited they were about learning. They started reaching out to other teachers in other schools, other local authorities in other regions, visiting other classrooms to showcase or display the practice, and then having other people come to their classrooms to see what was going on there. There was a lot of movement and excitement.

In four years we had moved from eight schools to about 400 schools that were engaged in this new practice of Learning Communities – we call it the Tutorial Relationships Practice. At that point the Deputy Minister of Education at that time visited one of our schools, and he was very impressed with what he saw there, in terms of the engagement and the skill of the students, so he decided to adopt the model and bring it to scale to 9,000 schools all over the country.

At the same time that the movement at the grassroots was taking place, one of the key leaders of the NGO, whose name is Dalila López, was invited to join the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of Education at the national level, and she was able to bring in people from our organization to the ministry. So we were able to create a team within the Ministry to support the kind of work that we felt was worth supporting, which was developing the conditions for teachers to learn the new practice of tutorial relationships and disseminate it to other places. What the leadership at the top did was create opportunities and mobilize infrastructure for teachers to be able to visit other schools in their regions or in other states so that there was the exchange of information and practice all over the country. We found really good results really quickly.

The large-scale project started in 2010. By 2012, the schools that had data available, but also the ones that had been engaged in this model for a long time, since 2010, increased the percentage of kids scoring with an excellent levels, at a faster pace than and surpassing the national average. This happened in 2012, everything was moving very smoothly and powerfully. There has not been any other program or initiative in Mexico that has shown a clear and significant impact on student learning, even as measured by standardized tests. We started getting a lot of international attention. We had Richard Elmore from the Harvard School of Education, come to visit our schools. He experienced being tutored by a girl from a rural community, Maricruz, a 13 year old girl who was just amazing at guiding him through his own thinking, and identifying some of the weaknesses in his own thinking about how to solve a geometry problem. She was very masterful in supporting him. Throughout that visit, Richard and I were able to write a paper for the Harvard Education Review that discusses this model, and he got very excited about it. He’s been talking about it in his classes, and in 2012 and 2013 we welcomed about 10 students from Harvard’s Educational Leadership Doctorate program to come and learn about the model and report back to their cohorts about what they have learned. We had that for two years, so in total we have had 21 visitors or so. The work has been attracting the attention of several other international experts.

What’s happened since that pinnacle of performance? We had a change in administration at the presidential level, and also a change in the Ministry of Education. They came with a very clear agenda of cutting down any relationship with union leadership, in particular Esther Gordillo and her people. And it so happened that the Deputy Minister who had been supporting this work at the national level, and the one who invited us into the Ministry, was the son-in-law of Gordillo, the leader of the teachers’ union. As soon as this new administration came, they decided to cut down any relationship with them which meant also kicking out the whole team that had been building and supporting this work from the top. So the the leaders who launched and disseminated the Learning Community Project are again grouped around a small NGO called Redes de Tutoría, and they’ve continued to support the work on a smaller scale, but at a deeper level. Right now they’re working with five states that have expressed very clear interest in continuing this work. So the idea is to still go to scale – not at the national level, but at the state level. The strategy is to create “Regions of Excellence,” where you would have several schools who are engaged in this practice and sites where people could come and see what’s possible but also having this as a professional development site for others interested in learning the practice. We’re not entirely sure how many schools are going to continue with this work. As we are putting the pieces together we are trying to find ways in which we can continue to support teachers who are committed to this work but not getting a lot of support from the state-level authorities. We are trying to find a strategy to help continue this work. We’re doing the lobbying that we can because we know that there is some vibrancy in this work that won’t disappear unless somebody wants to really shut it down. I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but we don’t have the political backing at the national level so that teachers can feel free to innovate. The practice has gone underground, it’s invisible but it’s still there.

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

What I did as my doctoral thesis was to try and explain how you can bring a counter-cultural practice to scale. I used the Learning Community Project as a case study to try and explain how and under what conditions it was possible to bring a pedagogy that runs counter to the traditional schooling to a large number of schools. When Richard Elmore first came to our schools he called the Learning Community Project a social movement. He said “this is not simply policy, it is not only a practice, it is a social movement.” That’s how it can be understood and that’s how it’s mobilized. It’s basically triggering very deep commitments of people to engage in a project of cultural change that is very powerful. So the idea of social movement has been a part of my understanding of what is happening and why. What I basically did was explore current work on large scale educational reform, and instructional improvement as well, but I added one additional layer – an additional theoretical layer to my examination of what is going on with the Learning Community Project, which is some good work that has been done around widespread cultural change. In his book Culture Moves, Thomas Rochon (1998). My thesis is an explanation of how and under what conditions this practice of tutorial networks spread to so many schools in such a short amount of time, looking at three arenas –instructional, social, and political.

Deirdre Faughey:

I’m trying to understand two things. What was different about the classroom? What changes happened there? And also, a little bit more about what occurred to allow these changes to happen in the first place. And then what’s surprising to me, and maybe it shouldn’t be, is just how it could all change because of a personal connection, essentially, at the political level. Could you expand on either of those questions?

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

The idea behind the model is very simple, it’s our basic tenet as to how learning works. The way we put it is: powerful learning occurs when the interests of a learner is matched with the capacity of the tutor. This is a very simple idea, but if you think about the conventional classroom the interests of the learner is not really given any serious consideration.

The capacity of the teacher is the other piece. So you need an interest, but also someone who knows a little bit about what you want to learn to provide support, etc. So the key question is how you create the conditions to facilitate good matches between interest and capacity. In our tutorial networks, the teacher comes to the classroom and offers the students a collection of topics that she has come to master through her own network of tutors, and the students are allowed to choose from among those topics which ones they would like to study. The students are then expected to follow their own lines of inquiry, but also to demonstrate mastery of what they’re learning. They’re expected to demonstrate not only what they are learning, but how they are learning – what are the key struggles, what was useful from the instructor, what helped them make sense of what they’re learning. And then they are expected to present in public what they learned and how they learned it. Very often this happens in the presence of the community, so that parents hear from the students as they demonstrate what they learned and how.

When a student gains mastery of what they studied, they are expected to become tutors as well. So over time what you see is that teachers become students as well, because it doesn’t’ take long – once the practice takes root most deeply –for students to master everything the teacher has to offer. So the teachers need to start allowing kids to explore new topics, but also to support them as tutors. The boundary between student and tutor becomes more blurry, so who is a tutor and who is a student is not defined by your position in the institution, it is defined by who is a master of a particular topic.

What you see in a classroom is students working individually or in small groups, the teacher walking around, every now and then seeing what particular students or groups need, providing some feedback, asking some good questions. You see multiple things happening in the same place because each student is working with a topic they chose. Some students are studying, or getting support, but some alternate between being students and tutors, etc. There’ a very natural flow to the activities, there is no schedule. What you see is that kids end up not noticing that it’s time to end the day because there is excitement, engagement.

In terms of the conditions that have allowed this to happen so quickly, I would say the first condition that comes to mind is – and it becomes very evident as you study this phenomenon more closely – is the power of the margins. There is great possibility in the margins of educational systems. There are lots of very small communities in Mexico that are very removed and very poor. There is a very evident lack of quality opportunities. Usually the teachers with the least credentials, least expertise, are teaching there, and usually the schools in these settings receive the least in resources as well. There is real economic inequality, but also inequality in outcomes. The Ministry knows about the problem, they know they need to do something, but they don’t know what to do. That provides an opportunity for radical departure from conventional schooling.

The second thing is that the margins are more distant from the grip of the state. Because these are removed communities, you don’t have a supervisor showing up every week, making sure that you are complying with the curriculum, etc. That gives you some more leeway to innovate. At the same time, there is a lot of disenchantment with the public educational system. There is widespread boredom in classrooms. It’s horrible to be in a school. And in these particular schools the practice is so rigid, and so highly structured that know how how kids persist there. There is a high dropout rate as well.

When we started working in a few schools, we made sure that we made the new practice and its outcomes visible to the educational authorities so that we could start getting more support, and so that we could discuss with them what kinds of practices and structures were getting in the way of the work that teachers were going to improve their practice – the strict curriculum that dictates what students need to be covering at what point in time, or the grade system. Those kinds of things that were starting to get in the way.

Now, we would not have reached 9,000 schools without the Ministry. So the other part of the equation was gaining political power – access to institutional power, and the fact that Dalila López was the director of the program at the national level, and that she was able to bring part of the team was crucial. That, gave the project political backing and legitimacy, as well as resources for people to move from one place to another, to occupy traditional learning spaces. It was very important to be at the Ministry.

The personal connection at the political level was fundamental. Dalila was very hesitant about taking on this position. We had lots of conversations when she was invited to join the Ministry. And it turned out to be a very important part of the movement. We would never have reached 9,000 schools without access to institutional and political power.

Deirdre Faughey:

Can you share more about what is happening now?

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

There are two things. First, the leaders of the Learning Community Project, organized around a group called Redes de Tutoría, S.C., are working with some states who are supporting this work, so it is being moved from the national to the state arena with the idea of deepening the practice and spreading it at the state level. That being said, when the model came to scale, there was not enough capacity to bring this model to its best in many places. In many places the practice became very mechanized, very ritualistic, rigid. You still had the students picking their topics and putting their work in writing, making public presentations, working as tutors, but what you see when you look closer, it is a mini-class, a tutor dictating what steps need to be followed, rather than meaningful dialogue and learning. So we’re also starting to take some time to professionalize the leadership team as well. Our leaders are very good, they have a good collection of small topics to offer in PD sessions, but I think we need to push them to a much higher level of sophisticated content, but also in their capacity as tutors. We’re trying to put together a professional learning seminar to observe the model in practice, and learn to then understand at what level the practice is and how to move it to the next level.

Another idea that I’m playing with is inspired by work that Anthony Bryk is doing at the Carnegie Foundation, which is about developing research and development besides teachers. So you have a research hub, a group of researchers who collaborate with teachers to develop interventions to have some effect on some student outcomes. Researchers are at the service of practice, instead of trying to enforce some kind of model. The idea is bringing the skill of good research to the practice.

In terms of numbers, I’m not entirely sure how many schools will continue this work. That’s something we want to explore. But we would not expect a huge drop in the numbers. Once the teachers experience this work and see what the kids can do, it is very hard for them to go back to their regular practice. That’s what we have heard and seen very consistently. But we don’t have the means to figure out how many teachers are going on with it. The model is way less visible right now at the national level, in many cases it has gone underground because the political will is not there. Some teachers have had to make it less visible.

Deirdre Faughey:

And that’s because of the pressure for standardization? How do you explain that?

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

Yes, but I think it can have more to do with pressure from “old school” education authorities who would really like to see this work dead (laughs). Now that political support from the national ministry is not there we have seen lots of bullying and ill will against several of our teachers. These teachers are having to do this work underground. In a sense of how many or to what degree, that’s a question we would like to learn more about.

Deirdre Faughey:

From my perspective, following the news in Mexico since the new president was elected, and reading about the relationship – or the failure of a relationship – between the new president and the union, it seemed like there was this push for change to get away from the old ways of doing things, and older practices, and it almost seemed like an innovation would be welcome. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but in terms of this difference between old and new it seems like there’s a push and pull between what that means for classrooms.

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

I hear you. And I agree with you. I was surprised that this team was kicked out of the Ministry because they were showing results, etc. With the new political agenda, they got rid of something that they could have taken credit for. Personally, I think it was a hasty, clumsy decision. But we are continuing to do the political strategizing. We can present a compelling argument for continuing this work. In any case, I believe strongly that the determination of those who want to continue this work is way stronger than any determination to end it.

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