Mexican teens can't solve long-multiplication problems. Education authorities don't know how many teachers work in Mexico. Teachers often miss class, and some who do show up have long conversations on their cellphones.
This is the harsh reality of Mexico's education system, both public and private, as displayed in a new documentary titled "De Panzazo!" — roughly meaning "Barely passing."
Directed by filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo and journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, the film blames the deficiencies of Mexican schools on teachers unions and on government officials who give in to the unions' pressure to avoid changes in the system.
"A film was the ideal medium to express the tragedy that the education system is going through," Loret de Mola said after a Tuesday screening of the film for journalists.
The film shows teenagers from public and private schools giving the wrong answer to a basic math problem followed by statistics that say that more than half of Mexican youngsters aged 14 and 15 lack basic math skills.
One of the people interviewed is Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful and influential leader of the National Union of Education Workers, known by the acronym SNTE. Gordillo, who has led the union since 1989, is considered the main obstacle to a professional evaluation of teachers and is often criticized for using the union for political leverage.
When Loret de Mola asks her why there is no mandatory assessment of teachers, Gordillo answers: "All the ills are blamed on the SNTE."
The film presents several studies done by the civic group Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), which helped finance the film. One says that less than 1 percent of Mexican 15-year-olds have advanced math skills, compared to 10 percent in the United States and 31 percent in Hong Kong.
The filmmakers gave students cameras to film their schools. Scenes they captured include a teacher talking on his cellphone during class and a classroom with broken windows in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
The documentary also includes interviews with students and teachers filmed in a dozen schools across Mexico.
"We wanted to give voice to the people," Rulfo said.
Loret de Mola said union leaders have criticized the film, charging it's pushing for Mexico's education to be privatized, but he pointed out the film shows private school students do as poorly as those in public school.
Loret de Mola and Rulfo said the film is a call for authorities to reveal numbers on education spending, to increase school hours and the length of the school year, to end the practice of teachers passing their posts on to relatives, and to stop corrupt officials from selling fraudulent teaching certificates.
"De Panzazo!" opens Feb. 24 in 18 Mexican cities.
Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter http://twitter.com/agomezlicon