Mandatory but Unsustainable: Early Childhood Education in Mexico

Mandatory but Unsustainable: Early Childhood Education in Mexico

. 4 min read

In 2002, Mexico became the first country in the world to mandate that children ages 3-5 attend preschool. This law came as a result of educational, economic, and sociological research indicating that children experience sustained academic and socio-emotional benefits from early childhood education. However, more than twenty years later, the program has failed to live up to both its enrollment targets and the equity and economic benefits it promised. The timeline of the early childhood mandate’s development, implementation, and enforcement in Mexico makes it clear that external social and economic forces inhibited the program’s ability to reach the students who needed it most.

Benefits of Early Childhood Education

Mexico implemented their early childhood education mandate in response to the growing body of evidence demonstrating the positive effects of early education. Students who attend preschool are more likely to succeed in primary school, and the benefit is especially strong for children from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds. In Mexico, where nearly one third of the population lives in poverty, access to preschool could be life-changing for many young children. The impacts of preschool do not end at kindergarten: Harvard researchers have found that participation in early childhood education makes students more likely to perform better throughout primary and secondary school and, ultimately, more likely to graduate high school than their peers who did not attend preschool. Because of these decisive trends, ensuring widespread access to and enrollment in preschool programs is a critical piece of the Mexican government’s broader social reform efforts.

Limited Success of the Early Childhood Education Policy

However, despite the evidentiary backing for Mexico’s early childhood education mandate, the current educational landscape in Mexico indicates that the compulsory pre-primary education policy did not succeed at increasing school enrollment, either in preschool or in later levels of education. In 2022, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that only 71% of Mexican 3-5 year olds were enrolled in pre-primary school, a rate much lower than the 83% average across all OECD countries, despite the fact that most other OECD countries don’t require pre-primary education.

This overall enrollment rate also masks a broad range within early childhood education—while nearly all 5-year-olds are enrolled in school, only 46.8% of 3-year-olds are. Even more troubling than the moderate enrollment rate among preschool-age children is the fact that the Mexican educational system has not seen the longer-term equity, academic success, or economic growth promised by early childhood education advocates; only 61% of 15-19 year olds (all of whom were born after the early childhood education mandate went into effect) are currently enrolled in school, and more than half of them are enrolled in vocational programs.

Investment in Early Childhood Education

Mexico’s early childhood reform policy went beyond just mandating enrollment; the federal government also implemented a series of financial and structural reforms to support preschools, early childhood educators, and local governments. As Professor Jorge Alberto Lopez of the University of Texas-El Paso explains, the Mexican federal government’s sustained push for pre-primary educational reform in the early 2000s included providing historically underprivileged schools with school supplies and supplemental funds, as well as revising the national curriculum for preschools. However, Norma Jimenez, a school headteacher in an impoverished region of Mexico, argues that this investment was insufficient and not sustained, leaving many schools scrambling to serve their students with minimal support from their local and federal governments.

Security Challenges

Beyond the financial strain of maintaining this program, broader social issues have made school enrollment and attendance, especially for young children, even more challenging for many families. In 2012, a video of a kindergarten teacher in Monterey, Mexico carrying out safety protocol as gun violence broke out next to the school went viral, triggering a nationwide conversation on improving school safety. In response, the Mexican federal government created the “Dignified Schools Program” (“Programa Escuelas Dignas”), which sought to increase infrastructure investment to improve school safety. While the material success of the program is still debated, the historical danger of schools in Mexico has left many students and parents traumatized, causing many parents to keep their children home as long as possible out of fear, even if the schools had their physical safety infrastructure improved under the program. This pervasive trauma and fear led scholars from the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research to conclude that security concerns ultimately undermined the early childhood education policy.

Educational Context

Even if Mexico’s early childhood program had succeeded in achieving enrollment targets, students would still be vulnerable to the failures of Mexico’s broader education system. Mexican children who finish preschool then find themselves in an ineffective primary and secondary education system. As the Guardian reported in 2017, Mexico’s education system is ranked the last in educational performance among OECD countries. Efforts to increase funding and administrative support for schools have been stymied by corruption; money to increase teacher salaries went to administrators or was allocated to retired or nonexistent “ghost” teachers.

Moreover, broader economic and social pressures force Mexican teenagers out of the education system before they have the chance to finish school. As the OECD explains, Mexico’s rapidly growing informal economy and manufacturing sector had “decreased the opportunity cost of leaving education,” making secondary school students in Mexico more likely to leave school seeking full-time employment than their counterparts in countries with less robust non-degree job opportunities. In response to this challenge, Mexico implemented another education mandate in 2012, this time on grades 10-12 (in Mexico, this is called “upper secondary education”), aiming to have all school-age children enrolled in upper secondary education by 2022. The success of this program still remains to be seen, but the government’s choice to mandate higher education without addressing the underlying economic and security drivers of students leaving education may prove unrealistic.

Ultimately, while Mexico’s early childhood education mandate was built around intensive research and dedicated investment, the program alone was not equipped to respond to the broader security, educational, and economic challenges facing Mexican society. Without longer-term investment in addressing the deeper structural issues that shape the educational and social landscape in Mexico, educational reform may be unable to truly achieve its goals.