Hope in education

So abiding is the Filipino’s belief in education that we can think of it as occupying almost the same place in our culture as that assigned to religion.  It is probably the only thing that makes us modern.  We have no fear of the future, and neither are we sentimental about the past.  We expect education not only to change us, but to liberate us from everything that constrains us.  As families, we commit all that we have so our children may be better educated than us.

This modern outlook is so pervasive among our people that one must wonder how a nation such as ours can allow itself to be governed by the most backward-looking politicians.  I think the answer to this puzzle might be found in an examination of the dissolution of our communities.  In the wake of rapid urbanization, we failed to develop new publics that could unite our people and keep the collective spirit alive.  Our cities are not only overcrowded; they also have no coherence. We do not have a real polity of informed citizens.  What we have are rootless individuals with no opinions other than those extracted from them by pollsters, and no participation in national life other than as passive consumers of the mass media.

The situation in education starkly mirrors this absence of a unifying national purpose.  Not only has the government consigned to the private sector a large part of its duty to provide basic education, it has also allowed private enterprise to virtually dictate the whole direction of higher education.  The overnight proliferation of nursing schools is but a dramatic symptom of this abdication of an essential governmental function.  It has led to so much waste not only in scarce material resources, but also in human lives.  If one wants to affirm a dark view of the Philippine future, it is normal to refer to the dismal state of the country’s education system.

But last week, at a forum on the practice of sociology in the Philippines, I learned something about what is happening to education that I did not quite expect.  “There is hope,” my University of the Philippines colleague Dr. Cynthia Bautista told her audience. For nearly a year now, as part of a research team, Dr. Bautista has been visiting public schools in the poorest and remotest areas of the country, talking to teachers, parents, and principals, and taking a close look at National Achievement Test (NAT) scores.

The initial findings of her group indicate the impact of a social variable in education that previous programs in education have not highlighted.  This is the role that the local school can play in reviving or strengthening the spirit of community.  The other side of this is the amazing effect on student performance of the community’s concrete involvement in the affairs of the school.

The research shows that the infusion of additional material resources into the school system produces the greatest impact on the performance levels of students when a social organization of multistakeholders is already active in creating an environment conducive to learning.  The introduction of a school-based management (SBM) approach as a component of the Department of Education’s Third Elementary Education Project (TEEP) tapped into a collective energy that I wrongly thought our communities had lost.  Under the SBM, funds for school improvement are placed directly at the disposal of the community led by the principal or teacher-in-charge.  When parents, teachers, and school heads band together to do what is necessary for the sake of their children’s education, everything seems possible.  The results on the ground demonstrate show this in very clear terms.  “I have not seen anything more empowering than this,” Bautista said.

Instead of the politician or the office-bound consultant determining how the funds are to be used, the SBM concept puts total faith in the wisdom and integrity of the school and its community of stakeholders. As a result, all construction is made according to specification.  There is no corruption, no waste, and no misplaced priorities.  More important, the new decentralized approach places the school at the center of community life and activates the spirit of shared accountability.

This approach to education reform was formally launched in 2003 in the 23 most under-resourced divisions of the public school system, from a total of 188 divisions.  It may well be today the most valuable template for revolutionizing the country’s public school system.  Test scores of students in the 8600 TEEP schools (out of about 37000) are the most visible manifestation of the miracle now unfolding in Philippine education.  In 2004-2005, TEEP schools were at par with or did better than even the schools in the National Capital Region and richer provinces.  It wasn’t like that at all in 2002.

The performance of the pupils of Guinsaugon Elementary School, a TEEP school in San Bernardo, Southern Leyte tells it all.  In 2002-03, their mean percentage score in the NAT stood at 35.6.  This rose to 49 in 2003-04, and shot up to 83.1 in 2004-05.  A landslide buried this same school not too long ago, but at the rate they were going those poor kids would easily have bested the pupils of Manila’s most expensive private schools.

The biggest impediment to education, John Dewey wrote, is “the isolation of the school from life.”  The school must break out of this isolation, and “secure the organic connection with social life.”  This is the basic truth about education we are learning here.  There is hope for our country; it lies in the local school serving as a catalyst for the rebuilding of our communities.


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