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Improving Flexibility, Quality and Equity in Upper Secondary Education in Mexico

April 10, 2017

High school students in Latin America review their notes. Photo: © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

More than one-third of Mexico’s students in upper secondary education (USE; in Spanish, Educación Media Superior, or EMS) are now enrolled in schools that (i) share a competency-based curriculum for developing the skills USE graduates require as citizens, employees, and university students; and (ii) have been accredited by the National Upper Secondary Education System. Despite large increments in enrollment (from 58.6 percent in 2008 to 71.5 percent in 2015), dropout rates have decreased considerably, from 16.3 percent in 2008 to 12.6 percent in 2015. In addition, gaps in transition, enrollment, and graduation rates between poor and well-off students have narrowed.


The subsystems comprising Mexico’s upper secondary educational structure worked independently and without clearly defined national policies. Also lacking were adequate quality assurance mechanisms to guarantee the relevance of the education provided and to avoid excessive, ineffective, or inappropriate transfers of students between subsystems. These gaps in efficacy help explain the persistently high dropout rate (only about 60 percent of students enrolled in USE graduated) and the low levels of achievement and learning among Mexican students. In 2008 only 15.6 percent of the students in 12th grade scored at levels considered good or excellent on the mathematics portion of the census-based standardized test (ENLACE). Upper secondary education represented a major bottleneck in the education system: few students were graduating, leading to a lack of skilled workers. Preparing Mexico’s workforce for the knowledge economy required a different kind of education system — one that emphasized new competencies and analytical ability and responded to the demands of the productive sector.


Between 2010 and 2016, with the Series of Programmatic Development Policy Loans on Upper Secondary Education, the World Bank provided general budgetary support to back up reforms creating the institutional basis for the National Upper Secondary Education System (Sistema Nacional de Bachillerato, SNB).  The development policy loan (DPL) series supported key policy actions to improve the quality, relevance, and equity of upper secondary education in Mexico, and Bank engagement in the reforms proved essential to guaranteeing policy continuity through the changes in ruling party and administration in December 2012. In addition, the technical collaboration between the Bank and the government helped foster reforms based on evidence and international best practices. For instance, an impact evaluation provided information useful in better targeting scholarships to the poor. In addition, just-in-time technical assistance helped overcome some obstacles faced during reform implementation; for example, workshop recommendations on international best teaching practices led to critical design improvements in the Programa de Formación Docentes, the teacher-training program introduced with the reform. 

Students at secondary school. Photo: © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank


·         The flexibility and internal efficiency of the upper secondary education system improved, allowing more than a third of students (1,789,427) enrolled in 1,926 schools to adjust their schooling pathways, without the need to start over, thus completing their degrees in fewer years than they otherwise would have. In addition, these students benefited from important gains in education quality, among them curriculum adjustments to generic, subject area, and professional competencies and the development of minimum learning standards for upper secondary graduates. These reforms were crucial to providing a common ground for the diverse group of USE subsystems and to improving the overall quality of upper secondary education. Before the reform, the curriculum had been content-based and focused on memorization: the new curriculum emphasizes meaningful learning and problem-solving skills.

·         The average annual dropout rate in Mexico’s USE institutions decreased from 16.3 percent in 2008 to 12.6 in 2015.                                                       

·         Students’ results increased considerably on mathematics assessments, with the share of students scoring adequate or better increasing from 15 percent in 2007–08 to 39.3 percent in 2013–14. This gain is even more remarkable considering that higher enrollment and and lower dropout rates could have led to increased numbers of weaker students entering upper secondary education.

·         In contrast, ENLACE test results for Spanish decreased, with the share of students scoring adequate or better dropping from 52.3 percent in 2008 to 44.7 in 2013–14. The mixed results for mathematics and Spanish do not allow a full diagnostic of students’ academic performance relevant to the DPL series. This trend is consistent for primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary students. Education reform and policies take time to impact students’ academic achievement, however, and the DPL series may not have been in place long enough to reverse the negative trend observed in basic education. A longer time span is needed to measure the real impact of the EMS reform on students’ academic achievement. Nevertheless, Bank support for policies to strengthen student assessments, teacher training, and school accreditation are expected to contribute to sustained improvements in USE graduates’ skill levels in the medium term and to their wages and employability when they enter the labor market.

Bank Group Contribution

The Bank, through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, contributed a total of approximately US$ 1.3 million between 2010 and 2015 in a series of three programmatic development policy loans focused on upper secondary education. 


The Mexican government, through the Ministry of Finance, provided sufficient budget to the Ministry of Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP) and ensured that the loans were disbursed on schedule. SEP executed the reform policies continuously, demonstrating its strong commitment to keeping the program on track and to seeking interim solutions enabling achievement of reform objectives. SEP ensured that the policies supported by the Bank were implemented as planned, particularly in the federal system under its direct administration. SEP’s efforts to coordinate actions and information flows across several actors and levels of government were also remarkable. For instance, the subdepartment for upper school education (Subsecretaría de Educación Media Superior, SEMS) effectively coordinated state authorities and other service providers to ensure that the new education policies were implemented nationwide and that students in all states benefited from them.

Moving Forward

The reform strengthened the institutional capacity of SEMS and contributed to developing the legal and regulatory framework for the upper secondary education system. The current administration is particularly keen to continue strengthening policies to improve internal efficiency in and quality of upper secondary education through the support provided by the DPL programmatic series. SEMS is the education subdepartment with the most stability in staffing and management in recent years. Even after elections, the reform is likely to continue in place since all political parties have strongly supported its implementation, even following the change of ruling party and administration in December 2012. The current fiscal situation is putting pressure on the overall SEP budget, however, which can hamper sustainable improvements in upper secondary education. Nonetheless, SEMS is expected to receive an adequate budget provision from the Secretaría de Hacienda y Credito Publico (Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit) to continue implementing the policy changes, at least until the next administration takes office in 2018.

The average annual dropout rate in Mexico’s Upper Secondary Education institutions decreased from 16.3 percent in 2008 to 12.6 in 2015