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Thursday, July 27, 2006

SONA and the state of education

Much has been said by columnists and bloggers about the last SONA and how impossible the President's goal is to fight corruption, set up the "super regions," and build infrastructure. I noted with some frustration, tinged with just about the right hint of righteous indignation, that she said barely anything about education. Only that ladderized education must be continued. But what about basic education? Sadly, the President again has failed (as usual) to see or is glossing over the fact that the education system in the country is in crisis and that to save it, focus must be given to basic education. Let us look at some basic facts. Resource gaps are unfortunately represented by the shortages in classrooms. At daily single shifts with one teacher per 50 students, there is a gap of around 10,000 classrooms. At double shifts, that's still 4000 to 6000 classrooms. There is a lack of teachers, or to qualify, a lack of really good teachers who can teach the subjects they majored in. Teachers are paid only basic wages and have to make do to survive in light of rising consumer prices. Yet the output expected of them, when they have to teach something like 50 to 100 students in a class in the worse conditions, is so high. On the average, students’ mastery levels of even the most basic subjects like English, Math and Science is wanting. They average near the 50 percent level when mastery level is at 75 percent.

The education budget, which the Constitution mandates should be the biggest, is only at P119 billion in the last national budget that has yet to be passed. Around 80 percent of this amount is already spent to pay the salaries of around half a million teachers. While an improvement over the last amount given to the education department (P112 billion), this amount is not enough to turn things around. Just to cope with the increase in population, the system needs more than P120 billion. To achieve any real significant improvement, the budget has to be so much more.

It was also frustrating to note that even if she had already had her cabal of local executives inside the Batasan during her SONA, she said nothing to push them to invest and focus on education. Nothing for them to eschew the usual PR picture-taking of dear Mr. Mayor giving out school supplies to school children and instead to put their thinking caps on (if they have one) to figure out how to improve the performance of their schools.

Infrastructure and fighting corruption is all and good. But for the country to move forward, there must be a serious and focused program to close the resource gaps in education and improve the performance of the students or the problems plaguing the sector will never ever go away.

More than building infrastructure (and spreading the largesse around in the process), the country must first develop its most valuable asset, human resources, or else this country will never budge an inch. It’s ironic that the President, who once taught in college, failed to see what is literally in front of her perky little nose. Or is it she isn’t tall enough?


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