Primary school students study in their classroom in Acapulco, Mexico.
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MEXICO CITY — Mexican children troop back into their classrooms today, and they’re going to have a quick lesson: Not just school kids make mistakes.
Their brand new textbooks have the kinds of errors that they are supposed to be learning not to make: words written with a “c’’ instead of an “s,” too many commas, not enough accents and at least one city located in the wrong state.
The foul-up is becoming a national embarrassment in the midst of a planned government overhaul of Mexico’s much criticized school system. Teachers are being given a list of the errors so they can try to manually correct at least 117 mistakes that the Education Department has acknowledged it found only after 235 million elementary textbooks were being printed.
“It’s unfortunate these things happen with the children’s textbooks,” said Consuelo Mendoza, president of the national parent teachers association. “We are talking about the education of millions of children.”
Education Secretary Emilio Chuayffet has called the errors “unforgivable,” but he blames Mexico’s previous administration for the stumble. He says he was faced with the predicament of choosing between stopping the printing of flawed textbooks so they could be corrected and making sure the country’s 26 million school children had textbooks at the start of classes.
Earlier this month, Chuayffet pledged to investigate to find out who was responsible. He also gave the Mexican Academy of Language the task of reviewing textbooks so future editions won’t have such errors.
“How are we going to nurture minds with grammatical mistakes?” he said when he signed an agreement with the academy.
While Chuayffet has called the slipups inexcusable, his department has been less than transparent about the problem, failing to release the list of the errors to the public or even to the language academy members.
The news blog Animal Politico did an independent review and found that words are misspelled in the Spanish textbook and accents forgotten or misplaced. A geography text wrongly puts the Caribbean resort city of Tulum in the state of Yucatan instead of Quintana Roo, it said.
The scandal erupted in the summer and the rhetoric has heated up this month as teachers take to the streets to protest a sweeping educational overhaul that will submit them to evaluation and loosen the control held by their union over hiring and firing.
President Enrique Pena Nieto last week sent a package of rules for implementing the education law that was enacted in February. Angry teachers responded by blocking several major streets in the capital and causing a major rush-hour traffic jam. The union promised more to come if legislators pass laws that mandate the firing of teachers who don’t take or pass evaluation exams.
Political observers say the textbook scandal is just the latest sign of the weakness of Mexico’s education system.
Only 47 percent of the country’s children graduate from the equivalent of high school. Mexico spends a greater share of its budget on education than any other member of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but scores the lowest in standardized tests.
Experts say many teachers are unqualified, and under the old rules have been able to buy and sell their positions, which are relatively well-paying for Mexico’s rural areas. At the same time, teachers point to a host of problems they have nothing to do with: class sizes up to 40 students, curricula that promote rote learning over engagement, a lack of state money for maintenance.
The teachers now can add textbooks to their list of complaints.
Since the late 1950s, Mexico’s National Commission of Free Textbooks has printed millions of books that are mandatory for both private and public schools.
Freelance editors who get paid less than $250 a month missed the errors in the new texts, commission head Joaquin Diez-Canedo said.
“The telephone rings, you have to go to the bathroom. You get distracted. You miss a word,” he told the newspaper Milenio.