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Mexico wants its kids speaking English as well as Spanish within 20 years

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, right, confers with Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño during a visit to Rodolfo Menendez Primary School in central Mexico City in December 2015. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

MEXICO CITY — President Trump may want to wall off America's southern neighbor, but Mexico is still happy to talk.

With an eye to making its population more competitive in the global economy, Mexico is pushing ambitious new plans to have all of its students speaking English as well as Spanish within two decades.

Mexican Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño said Monday night that he expects that every school could have an English teacher in 10 years and then wishes to pursue a longer-term goal to have all teachers fluent in English and Spanish. English classes would be provided for students from elementary through high school under the new plan.

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The English goal is part of a broader overhaul of Mexico's education system that began four years ago at the beginning of President Enrique Peña Nieto's term. The thrust of the change is to get away from a public school system known for rote memorization and complicated bureaucracy to one of higher-quality education where teachers are qualified and children “learn to learn” in different ways, Nuño said.

The Education Ministry also plans to allow schools to choose 20 percent of the curriculum. As of last year, schools could choose the length of the school year based on local conditions.

The education reforms have faced stiff resistance. Powerful teachers unions, particularly in the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas and Michoacan, have opposed the reform requiring mandatory tests for teachers. Peña Nieto's administration has attempted to wrest control from union bosses that in some areas controlled hiring decisions and education budgets. This conflict spawned regular protests, roadblocks and other demonstrations that have at times turned deadly.

Several people were killed last summer when protesters clashed with riot police in the southern state of Oaxaca. The government has fired some 4,000 teachers who refused to participate in the testing.

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Nuño, who was formerly Peña Nieto's chief of staff, acknowledged that previous governments have announced ambitious goals to boost bilingual education and bring better technology to classrooms, and those plans have not materialized.

“We are facing a very big credibility problem,” Nuño told reporters during a briefing on the plans at the Education Ministry. “For almost 20 years parents have heard about English and computers, and no plan has worked. That's the truth.”

The current proposal, he said, is a more detailed plan with specific goals and benchmarks. Mexican authorities plan to focus English training first on Mexican teachers colleges so that incoming educators will have a background in the language.

“The first step is that they are bilingual,” he said. “If we do that, we will be halfway down the road.”

Some education experts in Mexico were skeptical that a couple hours of English instruction per week could produce fluent English speakers by high school.

“I don't see that other strategies exist to achieve the goal,” said Angel Rogelio Diaz Barriga, an education researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We don't have sufficient teacher training for that. We don't have enough teachers.”

Others warned that such long-term plans are subject to drastic change when a new administration takes power. The current leader in the polls for the 2018 presidential race is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist politician who has been one of the most vocal supporters of the teachers protesting education reform.

“Clearly, it's a worry,” Nuño said. “The sincere answer is that continuity, unfortunately, is not assured.”

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.