Sunday, June 04, 2006

State of RP education: Freebies are not enough


MA. Theresa Falcone should consider herself lucky.

She goes to Gen. Pio del Pilar National High School in Makati—one of the best run in the country.

It has all the basic amenities students in most Philippine public high schools can only dream of.

The 15-year-old from a middle class household in Bangkal gets free notebooks, pens, pencils, workbooks, shoes, bags, uniforms, raincoats.

Still, what she gets are not enough.

“We lack facilities, like laboratories. Computers are being shared,” she rightly complains.

She says she is doing well. But overall, the school isn’t, judging by the results of the National Achievement Tests conducted in 2004 by the Department of Education (DepEd).

The topnotcher was a small school in Northern Samar’s remote and impoverished municipality of Lope de Vega.

Lope de Vega National High School does not have the wherewithal that its counterpart in General Pio del Pilar has.

And yet its students scored astonishing marks in English, math and science, leaving in the dust those from the Makati school.

The two schools illustrate the conundrum that is bedeviling the Philippine school system.

Beneficiaries of innovations

In some ways, both are beneficiaries of innovations implemented at the outset of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration five years ago.

These were a result of studies and recommendations that had percolated in countless studies before her time.

Makati, as the country’s premier city, gets approximately P1 billion out of the Special Education Fund derived from 1 percent assessment in real estate taxes. It was one of the measures the Arroyo administration introduced to tap funding outside the usual budget allocation. Financing possibilities are also being explored in the corporate world.

If Gen. Pio del Pilar School is regarded as “nonperforming,” it is because of outside forces that intervene in the development of the child, as anywhere else. For example, many students there come from broken homes and dysfunctional families. Parents don’t care.

Lope De Vega illustrates DepEd’s decentralization efforts and initiatives to involve the entire community. The school’s administrators decide what’s best in what may be a worse case scenario. Because kids cannot do their homework in their huts, have to do household chores, do not have a study desk, they are asked to spend extra hours in school for mentoring.

Size matters

Size also matters, particularly the pupil-teacher ratio. Lope de Vega has only 489 students; Gen. Pio del Pilar has 2,700.

When the professional educators came into DepEd with the appointment of Edilberto de Jesus as Secretary and his successor Florencio “Butch” Abad, they were determined to pull the system out a rut since education became a casualty during the Ferdinand Marcos regime. Security then had become a necessity to prop up the dictatorship. It got the largest share of the budget.

The language Talibans of the Corazon Aquino administration, with its edict of enforcing Tagalog as a medium of instruction, set the nation back further at the dawn of the age of information communications technology.

English had become the lingua franca in the sweep of globalization. We attempted to expunge it from our tongue.

“We said there was no sense trying to sugarcoat the problem,” said Juan Miguel Luz, former education undersecretary for finance and administration and a major cog in the De Jesus team. “There’s a performance gap and there is a quality gap.”

Miserable test scores

This was manifested in miserable test scores and such indicators as dropout and completion rates.

No doubt, there were individual exceptions.

“We need solutions that cut across the system. That’s been the hardest part because when you are highly centralized, you have a one-size-fits-all model,” says the 48-year-old Luz.

“That’s why with Butch Abad and the Schools First Initiative, we tried to start allowing the divisions to start changing the way they do things.”

This did not happen until the “Governance of Basic Education Act” was passed in 2001.

3 Rs

The “three Rs” that De Jesus conceptualized came into full play then. These were raising academic standards, reducing the resource gap and reengineering the system.

New methods were put in place apart from attempting to raise classroom performance. The technocrats sought new ways of bidding out and constructing classrooms. They used soft drink trucks to deliver to far flung barangays materials otherwise withering away in warehouses for years. The deal was to do away with shenanigans and hucksters.

Alas, the gains of the past several years began to unravel as President Arroyo grappled with the worst political crisis of her administration. The technocrats began leaving the service after calls for her resignation came over charges she manipulated the 2004 presidential election.

Nearly a year after Abad quit in a huff, Ms Arroyo still has to name his replacement.

“No initiative will move until there is a permanent secretary,” says Abad.

“The tendency of the people in the bureaucracy is not to take any risks or not to start anything, fearing that when there is a change of leadership, then it is possible that the priorities will change. So why risk it, or why waste effort,” says Abad.

Luz says he had presided over three textbook procurements—a source of massive corruption in previous years.

“In all three years, we opened the bids and within 12 months, we completed delivery. Never been done before,” says Luz. “In the last year, which was 2005, we actually paid out within 12 months.”

Luz says that in November 2005, DepEd went on the same bidding process. No award has yet been made in an era where ideas and concepts come and go with the blink of an eye.

“Do you think they will be able to deliver before the end of the year? No. It’s going to be the middle of next year, which means they have lost two school years.

Opportunity in old ways

“All of this is because the new people who came in are intent on trying to do it their way, which is really another way of saying, I think, let’s go back to the old style because there is opportunity for us. That’s the problem,” says Luz.

Take the case of providing furniture. The technocrats wanted it done locally. It stimulates the local economy. That’s what they had, in fact, done. It is pretty much the same situation in constructing classrooms.

“Why do you want to do it at the national level?” Luz asks.

Those people at the national level who win the bids after all are subcontracting the job to the locals. There’s just largesse to be had in all this.

A bad joke

Luz referred to a recent Malacañang announcement that the classroom construction budget had just been released in time for the school year.

“That’s a really bad joke,” says Luz, who has been sacked for not honoring a postdated check issued by the Palace to fund the scholarship program of a Zambales congressman.

Classroom construction, at the earliest, takes seven months to complete. This means that even if you bid tomorrow, you cannot deliver those classrooms until January.

“So why are you saying it’s ready in time for the school year?” Luz says.

Reported by Alcuin Papa


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