While working for the Mexican secretariat of public education in 1995, Ernesto Trevino, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, witnessed firsthand the devastating state of education for indigenous children in the Chiapas region of Mexico. “Teachers were consistently absent and bilingual education simply did not take place,” he says.
Trevino’s experience led him to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s International Education Program in 2000 where he concentrated on how schools shaped educational opportunities for indigenous children. His research culminated in his dissertation, Are indigenous schools promoting learning among indigenous children in Mexico? A comparison of indigenous student achievement in indigenous and rural schools, which recently earned the prestigious Gail P. Kelly Award for Outstanding Dissertation in 2007 by the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES).
The award annually honors a doctoral dissertation that “manifests academic excellence, originality, and methodological, theoretical, and empirical rigor, and that addresses issues of social justice and equity in an international context.” Candidates are nominated by their advisors and the dissertations are reviewed by a CIES award committee.
Professor Fernando Reimers nominated Trevino for the award in the fall. “He has always been a role model for me and a fervent supporter of my research,” Trevino says of Reimers. “After being designated the winner of the award, a whole constellation of episodes of my academic journey at HGSE came to my mind and my heart. Family, friends, and mentors that accompanied me were present at that moment.”
Trevino’s dissertation closely examines the educational opportunities for indigenous children. The Mexican public school system includes segregated “indigenous schools,” which offer a bilingual education in both the children’s native languages and Spanish. Through his research, Trevino sought to challenge “a long-held belief that [these schools] are the best way to educate indigenous children,” he says.
Trevino’s research led to two significant findings. “First, [the dissertation] demonstrates that indigenous schools deliver a very poor quality and incoherent curriculum for bilingual education,” he says. He cited the use of indigenous languages for directional purposes only and the consistently low achievement levels of indigenous students as evidence for this claim.
The second major contribution is the way in which his dissertation compares students in indigenous schools to indigenous students attending regular public schools. “When comparing indigenous children with the same social background in both types of schools, those attending regular schools do consistently better,” he says.
By addressing the assumption that indigenous schools are the best education for the students who attend them, Trevino has provided new research-based evidence for the state of education for indigenous students in Mexico. “It is my expectation that serious research can inform policymaking in Mexico for improving the quality of the education that indigenous children receive,” he says. “I am also convinced that it is only through high-quality education that marginalized populations can find opportunities for social mobility.”
As this year’s Gail P. Kelly Award winner, Trevino will receive a certificate and a grant to attend the annual Comparative and International Education Society Conference, which will take place at Columbia University in March. The award will allow Trevino to disseminate the results of his research more widely. As a result, he hopes to draw attention to the need for equity in the educational opportunities of indigenous children and increase the amount of research in this area. “This award strengthens my motivation to continue working in a field of research that can contribute to social justice,” he adds.