Education in Mexico

Education in Mexico
Secretariat of Public Education
Secretary of Education
Deputy Secretary
Aurelio Nuño Mayer
National education budget (2007)
Budget MXN$200,930,557,665
General details
Primary languages Spanish as the standard. Other minority languages are available in their local communities.
System type Federal
Current system September 25, 1921
Literacy (2012)
Total 95.1%[2]
Male 96.2%
Female 94.2%
Total 26.6 million
Primary 18.5 million
Secondary 5.8 million
Post secondary 2.3 million
Secondary diploma n/a
Post-secondary diploma n/a

Education in Mexico has a long history. The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico was founded by royal decree in 1551, a few months after the University of San Carlos in Lima. By comparison, Harvard College, the oldest in Anglo-America, was founded in 1636. Education in Mexico was until relatively recently largely confined to elite males and under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.

The Mexican state has been directly involved in education since the nineteenth century, promoting secular education. Control of education was a source of ongoing conflict between the Mexican state and the Roman Catholic Church, which since the colonial era had exclusive charge of education.[3][4][5][6] The mid nineteenth-century Liberal Reform separated church and state, which had a direct impact on education. President Benito Juárez sought the expansion of public schools. During the lengthy tenure of president Porfirio Díaz, the expansion of education became a priority under a cabinet-level post held by Justo Sierra; Sierra also served President Francisco I. Madero in the early years of the Mexican Revolution.

The 1917 Constitution strengthened the Mexican state's power in education, undermining the power of the Roman Catholic Church to shape the educational development of Mexicans. During presidency of Álvaro Obregón in the early 1920s, his Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos implemented a massive expansion of access to public, secular education. This work was built on and expanded in the administration of Plutarco Elías Calles by Moisés Sáenz. In the 1930s, the Mexican government under Lázaro Cárdenas mandated socialist education in Mexico and there was considerable push back from the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Socialist education was repealed during the 1940s, with the administration of Manuel Ávila Camacho. A number of private universities have opened since the mid twentieth century.

Education in Mexico is currently regulated by the Secretariat of Public Education (Spanish: Secretaría de Educación Pública) (SEP). Education standards are set by this Ministry at all levels except in "autonomous" universities chartered by the government (e.g., Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Accreditation of private schools is accomplished by a mandatory approval and registration with this institution. Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools; however, religious associations are free to maintain private schools, which receive no public funds.

In the same fashion as other education systems, education has identifiable stages: Primary School, Junior High School, High School, Higher education, and Postgraduate education.

Structure of the basic education system

Students in Monterrey, Nuevo León

In Mexico, basic education is normally divided in three steps: primary school (primaria), comprising grades 1-6; junior high school (secundaria), comprising grades 7-9; and high school (preparatoria), comprising grades 10-12.

Depending on definitions, Primary education comprises primaria and secundaria, which are compulsory by law, while Secondary education only includes preparatoria, which was not compulsory a few years ago, but it has been made mandatory as well.

Primary School

The terms "Primary School" or "Elementary School" usually corresponds to primaria, comprising grades 1-6, when the student's age is 6 to 12 years old. It starts the basic compulsory education system.

Depending on the school, a bilingual education may be offered from the beginning, where half the day instruction is in Spanish, and the rest is in a second language, for example, English, French, Tzotzil or Tzeltal.

Junior High School

The terms "Junior High School" or "Middle School" usually correspond to secundaria, comprising grades 7-9 when the student's age is 12 to 15 years old it is part of the basic compulsory education system, it follows primary school, and comes before "high school" (preparatoria).

At this level, more specialized subjects may be taught such as Physics and Chemistry, and World History. There is also the técnica which provides vocational training, and the telesecundaria which provides distance learning.[7]

Despite the similarities of the words "Secondary school" and secundaria, in Mexico the former is usually translated to preparatoria, while in other countries, such as Puerto Rico, or within the Spanish-speaking populations of the United States, the term secundaria refers to university.

High School

The terms "High School"[8] or "gymnasium"[9] usually corresponds to preparatoria or bachillerato, and follow "secundaria" comprising grades 10-12, when the student's age is 15 to 18 years old. Students may choose between two main kinds of high school programmes: The SEP incorporated A and a University Incorporated one, depending on the state. Other minority of programs are available only for private schools, such as the International Baccalaureate which carries a completely different system. Nevertheless, in order to be taught, it must include a national subject at least. In addition, there are programs such as tecnología and comercio that prepare students for a particular vocational career.[7]

Preparatoria traditionally consists of three years of education, divided into six semesters, with the first semesters having a common curriculum, and the latter ones allowing some degree of specialization, either in physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) or social sciences (commerce, philosophy, law, etc.). The term bachillerato is most commonly used for institutions that offer a three-year education program that "prepares" the student with general knowledge to continue studying at a university. In contrast, the term preparatioria is most often used for institutions that provide vocational training, in two or three years, so the graduate can get a job as a skilled worker, for example, an assistant accountant, a bilingual secretary or an electronics technician.

Quality of education in Mexico

Interior of Biblioteca Vasconcelos, photo taken during Wikimania 2015

In recent years, the progression through Mexican education has come under much criticism. While over 90% of children in Mexico attend primary school, only 62% attend secondary school ("secundaria"). Only 45% finish high school ("preparatoria"). After secondary school, only a quarter pass on to higher education.[10] A commonly cited reason for this is the lack of infrastructure throughout the rural schools. Moreover, the government has been criticized for paying teachers too much and investing too little into the students. In its annual report on education, the OECD has placed at below average in mathematics, science, and reading.[11]

A program of education reform was enacted in February 2013 which provided for a shift in control of the education system from the teachers union SNTE and its political boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, to the central and state governments. Education in Mexico had been controlled by the teachers union and its leaders for many years.[12] Shortly thereafter Gordillo was arrested on racketeering charges.[13] As of 2016 the government continued to struggle with the union and its offshoot, CNTE.[14]

Higher education

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México The main campus of this public university in Mexico City.
Universidad Iberoamericana, a private institution founded in the early 1940s

There are both public and private institutions of higher education. Higher education usually follows the US education model with an at least 4-year bachelor's degree undergraduate level (Licenciatura), and two degrees at the postgraduate level, a 2-year Master's degree (Maestría), and a 3-year Doctoral degree (Doctorado). This structure of education very closely conforms to the Bologna Process started in Europe in 1999, allowing Mexican students to study abroad and pursue a master's degree after Licenciatura, or a Doctoral degree after Maestría. Unlike other OECD countries, the majority of Mexico's public universities do not accredit part-time enrollment programs.[15][16]

Undergraduate studies

Undergraduate studies normally last at least 4 years, divided into semesters or quarters, depending on the college or university, and lead to a bachelor's degree (Licenciatura). According to OECD reports 23% of Mexicans youth from ages 23–35 have a college degree.

Although in theory every graduate of a Licenciatura is a Licenciate (Licenciado, abbreviated Lic.) of his or her profession, it is common to use different titles for common professions such as Engineering and Architecture.

Postgraduate studies

New regulations since 2005 divide postgraduate studies at Mexican universities and research centers in two main categories:[17]

Educational years

School years

The table below describes the most common patterns for schooling in the state sector:

El Colegio de México (The college of Mexico)
Minimum age Year Months Schools
2 N/A N/A Nursery Maternal
3 1° de preescolar N/A Preschool Kinder / Jardín de Niños / Educación preescolar
4 2° de preescolar N/A
5 3° de preescolar N/A
6 1° de primaria N/A Primary school / Elementary school Primaria / Educación básica
7 2° de primaria N/A
8 3° de primaria N/A
9 4° de primaria N/A
10 5° de primaria N/A
11 6° de primaria N/A
12 1° de secundaria N/A Secondary school / Middle school / Junior High School Secundaria / Educación básica
13 2° de secundaria N/A
14 3° de secundaria N/A
15 4°/1° de preparatoria 1st and 2nd semesters High school Preparatoria / Bachillerato / Educación media superior
16 5°/2° de preparatoria 3rd and 4th semesters
17 6°/3° de preparatoria 5th and 6th semesters
18 N/A 1st and 2nd semesters / 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarters Bachelor's degree / Licentiate Licenciatura / Educación superior
19 N/A 3rd and 4th semesters / 4th, 5th and 6th quarters
20 N/A 5th and 6th semesters / 7th, 8th and 9th quarters
21 N/A 7th and 8th semesters / 10th quarter
22 N/A 9th and 10th semester (in most of the cases)
N/A N/A ... Master's degree Maestría
N/A N/A ... Doctorate Doctorado

International education

As of January 2015, the International Schools Consultancy (ISC)[18] listed Mexico as having 151 international schools.[19] ISC defines an 'international school' in the following terms "ISC includes an international school if the school delivers a curriculum to any combination of pre-school, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country, or if a school in a country where English is one of the official languages, offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum and is international in its orientation."[19] This definition is used by publications including The Economist.[20]


In central Mexico, the history of education stretches back to the prehispanic era, with the education of Nahuas in schools for elites and commoners. A formal system of writing was created in various parts of central and southern Mexico, with trained experts in its practice. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, friars embarked on a widespread program of evangelization of Christianity. In the colonial era, schooling of elite men of European descent was established under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Liberals' attempts to separate church and state in post-independence Mexico included removal of the Catholic Church from education. Education remains an important aspect of Mexican institutional and cultural life, and conflicts continue about how it should be conducted. The history of education in Mexico gives insight into the larger history of the nation.

Education in Mesoamerica Before the Spanish

Codex Mendoza, Folio 61 recto
(top) Formal education of 15-year-old Aztec boys trained for the military or the priesthood.
(bottom) A 15-year-old girl gets married.

In the central Mexico in a cultural area known as Mesoamerica, the Aztecs set up schools called calmecac for the training of warriors and schools for the training of priests, called cuicacalli. An early post-conquest manuscript prepared by native scribes for the viceroy of Mexico, Codex Mendoza shows these two types of schools. Aztec religion was highly complex and priests held a high status, so that the creation of schools to train them in ritual and other aspects of religion was important. Overseeing an imperial, expansionist empire, Aztec rulers needed trained warriors, so that the creation of formal schools for their training was as important.

Colonial-era education, 1521-1821

Education of the Indigenous in Central Mexico

The Spanish Crown made a significant commitment to education in colonial New Spain. The first efforts of schooling in Mexico were friars’ evangelization of indigenous populations. “Educating the native population was a crucial justification of the colonizing enterprise, and that criollo (Spanish American) culture was encouraged as a vehicle for integrating” the indigenous.[21] Fray Pedro de Gante established schools for indigenous in the immediate post-conquest years and produced pictorial texts to teach Catholic doctrine. All the mendicant orders in Mexico, the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, built churches in large indigenous communities as places of worship and to teach the catechism, so that large outdoor atriums functioned as classrooms.[22] Elite indigenous lads were tapped for training as catechists and helpers to the priests, whose small numbers could in no way minister to large numbers of ordinary indigenous.

In 1536, the Franciscans and the Spanish crown established a school to train an indigenous Catholic priesthood, the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which was deemed a failure in its goal of training priests, but did create a small cohort of indigenous men who were literate in their native language of Nahuatl, as well as Spanish and Latin. The Franciscans also founded the school of San José de los Naturales in Mexico City, which taught trades and crafts to boys. The Colegio de San Gregorio was also founded for the education of indigenous elites, the most famous of whom was Chimalpahin, (also known as Don Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin).

Religious orders, particularly the Franciscans, taught indigenous scribes in central Mexico to be literate in their own languages, allowing the creation of documents at the local level for colonial officials and communities to enable crown administration as well as production of last will and testaments, petitions to the crown, bills of sale, censuses and other types of legal record to be produced at the local level.[23] The large number of indigenous language documents found in the archives in Mexico and elsewhere have enabled scholars of the New Philology to analyze life of Mexico’s colonial-era indigenous from indigenous perspectives.[24]

Education of Elite Creole Men

The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico was founded in September 1551 at the request by Mexico’s first viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza to the Spanish crown. The university was located in the central core (traza) of History of Mexico City. Its first rector, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, wrote an account of the university. The institution initially trained in priests, lawyers, and starting in 1579, medical doctors.[25] These were the traditional disciplines of the medieval and early modern eras. The Royal and Pontifical University was the sole institution that could confer academic degrees. With the title of royal and pontifical university, its degrees were titled the same as European degrees.[26] The Jesuits arrived in Mexico in 1571 and rapidly founded schools and colegios, and sought to confer degrees; however, the Council of the Indies, the royal entity overseeing the Spanish overseas empire, decided against them.[26]

The university retained its premier position. One of its best known graduates was Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, a Mexican savant of the seventeenth century, who was a friend of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a cloistered nun and intellectual, famous in her lifetime as the “Tenth Muse.” Sor Juana was barred from attending the university due to her gender.

Interior del Colegio de Infantes de la Catedral de México, José Jiménez, 1857. Museo Nacional de Arte.

In general, educational institutions were urban-based, with the capital Mexico City having the largest concentration. However, there were seminaries to train priests in provincial cities, such as the Colegio de San Nicolás, founded by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in the city now called Morelia. Insurgent leader Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla served as rector there until he was relieved of his position. One of his students was insurgent leader Father José María Morelos. Educated priests were prominent in the movement toward independence from Spain.

Education of Girls and Mixed-Race Children

Most of the Mexican population was illiterate and entirely unschooled, and there was no priority for education of girls. A few girls in cities attended schools run by cloistered nuns. Some entered convent schools at around age eight, “to remain cloistered for the rest of their lives.”[27] There were some schools connected to orphanages or confraternities. Private tutors educated girls from wealthy families, but only enough so that they could oversee a household. There were few opportunities for mixed race boys or girls. “Education was, in short, highly selective as befits a stratified society, and the possibilities of self-realization were a lottery of birth rather than talent.”[28]

Post-Independence Era, 1821-present

Logo of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, founded in 1868.

When Antonio López de Santa Anna put his Liberal vice president Valentín Gómez Farías in charge of running the government, the vice president created in 1833 a public education system. This preceded the establishment of a Ministry of Public Education.[29] This reform was short lived, but with the Liberal Reform in the mid-nineteenth century, a normal school for teacher training was established.[30] The Liberals push for public education awaited the end of the War of the Reform and the ousting of the French Empire in Mexico (1862–67). The restored republic of President Benito Juárez reaffirmed the liberal principles separation of church and state, which in the educational sphere meant supplanting the Catholic Church by the Mexican state. Primary education in Mexico was henceforth to be secular, free of fees and tuition, and obligatory.[31]

A key figure in higher education in Mexico was Gabino Barreda, who chaired Juárez's commission on education in 1867.[32] Barreda was a follower of French intellectual Auguste Comte who established positivism the dominant philosophical school in the late nineteenth century. The Juárez government created a system of secondary education, and a key institution was the National Preparatory School (Escuela Nacional Preparatoria), founded in 1868 in Mexico City, which Barreda directed.[32] Education at the Preparatorio uniform for all students and "was designed to fill what José Díaz Covarrubias identified as the traditional void between primary and professional training."[33]

In 1910, the government of Porfirio Díaz under the minister of education Justo Sierra established the secular, state-controlled Universidad Nacional de México. The Pontifical University of Mexico under religious authority was suppressed in 1865.

The government expanded normal schools after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.[34]

The 1960 national census illustrates the historically poor performance of the Mexican educational system. The 1960 census found that as to all Mexicans over the age of five, 43.7% had not completed one year of school, 50.7% had completed six years or less of school, and only 5.6% had continued their education beyond six years of school.[35]

In 1950, Mexico had only three million students enrolled in the education. Today, there are 32 million enrolled students.[36]

In 2012, some teachers from rural areas, specifically, from Michoacan and Guerrero states, opposed federal regulations which prevented them from automatic lifetime tenure, the ability to sell or will their jobs, and the teaching of either English or computer skills.[34]

In 2015, 96.2% of six to fourteen year-olds attended school, up from 91.3% in 2000.[37] The state with the highest attendance rate was Hidalgo (97.8%) and the state with the lowest attendance rate was Chiapas (93%).[37] In the same year, 63% of three to five year-olds attended preschool or kindergarten, up from 52.3% in 2010.[37] Also in 2015, 44% of 15 to 24 year-olds attended secondary or tertiary school, an increase from 32.8% in 2000.[37]

Further reading

History, Colonial era

History, Post-independence period

See also


  2. "North America - Mexico". The World Factbook. U. S. Central Intelligence Agency.
  3. Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, "Education: Colonial" in Encyclopedia or Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, pp. 434-438.
  4. Antonio Escobar Ohmstede, "Education: 1821-1989" in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, pp. 438-441.
  5. Mary Kay Vaughan, "Education: 1889-1940" in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, pp. 441-445.
  6. Valentina Torres Septién, "Education: 1940-1996" in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, pp. 445-449.
  7. 1 2 Kuznetsov, Yevgeny N.; Dahlman, Carl J. (2008). Mexico's Transition to a Knowledge-Based Economy: Challenges and Opportunities. World Bank Publications. p. 63. doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-6921-0. ISBN 978-0-8213-6921-0.
  8. United States
  9. German, Dutch systems
  10. Rama, A. (2011, April 13). “Factbox: Facts about Mexico's education system.” Retrieved November 17, 2014, from!
  11. "Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed Country note Mexico” Retrieved June 16, 2016, from
  12. "Mexico's Peña Nieto enacts major education reform". BBC. 26 February 2013. Retrieved June 16, 2016. The law foresees a centralised process for hiring, evaluating, promoting and retaining teachers.
  13. "Mexico union head Gordillo charged with organised crime". BBC. 28 February 2013. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
  14. Juan Montes (June 12, 2016). "Mexico Detains Leader of Dissident Teachers Group in Oaxaca State Rubén Núñez arrested on charges of using illegally obtained funds, Attorney General's Office says". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
  15. Kuznetsov & Dahlman 2008, p. 72.
  16. Kuznetsov & Dahlman 2008, p. 81.
  17. Tamez Guerra, Reyes; Rubio Oca, Julio; Fuentes Lemus, Bulmaro; Valdés Garza, Mario (May 2005). Disposiciones para la Operación de Estudios de Posgrado en el Sistema Nacional de Educación Superior Tecnológica (in Spanish). Mexico: Dirección General de Educación Superior Tecnológica.
  19. 1 2
  21. Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, “Education: Colonial” in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, p. 435.
  22. Aizpuru, “Education: Colonial,” p. 435.
  23. Frances Karttunen, “Nahuatl Literacy” in The Inca and Aztec States, New York: Academic Press,
  24. James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1992.
  25. Martha Eugenia Rodríguez, “Escuela Nacional de Medicina,” in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, p. 458.
  26. 1 2 Aizpuru, “Education: Colonial,” p. 436.
  27. Aizpuru, “Education: Colonial,” p. 437.
  28. Aizpuru, “Education: Colonial,” p. 438.
  29. Victoria Andrade de Herrara, "Education in Mexico: Historical and Contemporary Educational Systems" in Children of La Frontera: Binational Efforts to Serve Mexican Migrant and Immigrant Students, Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), 1996, p. 26.
  30. Andrade de Herrrara, "Education in Mexico", p. 27
  31. Andrade de Herrara, "Education in Mexico", p. 27.
  32. 1 2 Charles A. Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989, p. 140.
  33. Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism, p. 144.
  34. 1 2 Agren, David (December 10, 2012). "'Normalistas' fight changes in Mexico education system". Florida Today. Melbourne, Florida. pp. 4A.
  35. Francisco Alba, The Population of Mexico: Trends, Issues, and Policies (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1982), 52.
  36. Rama, A. (2011, April 13). “Factbox: Facts about Mexico's education system.” Retrieved November 17, 2014, from mexico-education-factbox-idUSTRE73C4UY20110413!
  37. 1 2 3 4 "Principales resultados de la Encuesta Intercensal 2015 Estados Unidos Mexicanos" (PDF). INEGI. pp. 28–32. Retrieved 9 December 2015.


External links

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