NOTE: I wrote this piece for Naga city mayor and school board chair Jesse Robredo, who spoke during for the First National Covenant on Local Education Reform on June 29, 2005 at the Asian Institute of Management, Makati City. A week later, Education Secretary Florencio Abad resigned from the Cabinet, together with seven other Secretaries and two senior revenue officials, and called on the President to resign her office.
FOUR years ago, the City Government of Naga pioneered an initiative that sought to improve the quality of basic education in our city. Focusing on the city school board, a local special body provided for under the 1991 Local Government Code, we sought to address the governance of the local public school system, building on the city government’s established competency as a leading exponent of good urban governance.
The program is built on two propositions:
One, education is a shared community responsibility. This paradigm shift, which the Department of Education has began to embrace, is impelled by the reality that our nation cannot depend on a central government agency alone to revive the basic public education system. When he assumed office, Education Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad has declared the public school system to be in a state of crisis, owing from lingering, accumulated systemic failure over the last three decades. Thus, it has no other choice but to partner with local communities, led by their respective local governments, to address this formidable task.
This essentially validated what we had been doing in Naga – where we tapped the city school board as the logical vehicle for promoting and operationalizing partnerships between stakeholders of the public school system towards education reforms. But that is going ahead of our story.
Two, shared responsibility must be twinned with shared accountability among stakeholders of the public school system. In plainer terms, this changed perspective is about (a) defining our respective roles in the common effort to improve the quality of basic education, and (b) consistently reviewing how we are performing these roles. An obvious implication of this new perspective is the need for the local agencies of the DepEd – the provincial, city and municipal schools divisions and districts – to be more open towards engaging with its partners. It also calls for creating mechanisms that will precisely support more meaningful engagement and allow these partnerships to flourish. A careful examination of these two elements alone will show that the crisis facing Philippine public education has a clear governance dimension – something that previous DepEd administrations have failed to recognize, at our peril. Thus, when we conceptualized our effort to reinvent the Naga school board four years ago, we addressed this weakness head on.
Happily, the Schools First Initiative (SFI) of the department under Secretary Abad has risen to this challenge – in the process inspiring us locals not to lose hope when things appear to go wrong, and to work harder and recommit ourselves to this enterprise in spite of its inherent difficulties.
What the project is all about
Our journey to improve the governance of public schools in Naga begun in the last quarter of 2001 – with the end view of addressing local problems facing the public school sector which are symptomatic of the national situation. These include:
- Deteriorating quality of basic education (elementary and high school) that has far-reaching effects on their generation and the city’s future
- The general lack of awareness about the current state of public education among stakeholders
- Weak mechanisms for meaningful parent participation in the education of their childrenWeak “soft infrastructure” support (textbooks, reference materials, continuing professional development, etc.) to facilitate the learning process
- An underperforming City School Board that has been reduced to a mere budgeting agency for local education fundsWeak local involvement and participation in the delivery of public education servicesWeak planning and budgeting practices and processes that contribute to inefficient and ineffective use of local education funds, and
- The lack of transparency and accountability in the administration of the public school system.
Guided by this liberating mindset, we conducted the first ever meeting between stakeholders of the public school system in January 2002 – which clarified to everyone the real state of public education in Naga. In that meeting, local officials finally understood what the 42% achievement level meant – that in a 100-item test, the average Nagueño pupil is able to correctly answer only 42.
This new understanding underscored the urgency for education reform beginning with the school board. It also marked a watershed in school board budgeting. The stakeholders consultation validated results of a survey conducted by the board during the last quarter of 2001, and defined the priority areas it should address. And for the first time ever, its budget incorporated activities that, for more than a decade, fell below the board’s radar screen. Henceforth, those priorities guided the Board’s allocation of the city’s Special Education Fund (SEF).
Building stakeholdership at the grassroots enhances outcomes
The effort for education reform anchored on greater community engagement was carried by the board down to the grassroots level.
From February to March 2003, the board shared with them the real picture of education in Naga and the Philippines. Shuttling between schools, we presented a situationer on the public school system and what the board is doing about it, and asked them what more can be done. As a result, most parents are aware of the situation and have pledged their support to ongoing efforts to improve achievement.
Side by side, sectoral consultations – in the form of consultative meetings with school principals and officials of the city teachers association – yielded very interesting insights that have helped redefine the Board’s directions. One is the overwhelming preference for “soft” infra – textbooks and other instructional materials, desks and armchairs – over school buildings. Another is the need for teacher training, performance-based incentives, and intervention to unburden lesson planning.
In fact, in regard to the latter, the Board supported the preparation of ready-made lesson plans and workbooks by teachers and supervisory staff of the Division of City Schools in the summer of 2003. The “proudly Naga made” lesson plans cover all learning areas in the new Basic Education Curriculum from Grades I to VI, while the workbooks focus only on the tool subjects of English, Science and Math. Since then, all 23,000 elementary pupils have received a free copy for all three.
The ready-made lesson plans sought to unburden the teacher with the task of writing daily lessons, enabling her to focus on how to teach more effectively in the classroom. The workbooks provide parents with a tool to bond with their children and participate more actively in the learning process.
What we have accomplished thus far
Three years later, what has the program accomplished? This can be answered at three levels:
In terms of providing responsive support services to the public school system:
- Through a more transparent procurement process, Naga has practically attained a 1:1 textbook to student ratio in the core subjects of English, Science and Mathematics for both the elementary and secondary levels. This is a significant improvement over the 1:2 textbook ratio four years ago.
- Using purely local resources, we have attained a 1:1 workbook-student ratio in the same core subjects for the elementary level. Previously, only those enrolled in private schools had this privilege.
- At the elementary level, we have standardized the quality of instruction in English, Science and Mathematics through printed lesson plans.
- Complementing national and regional testing, we have supported the conduct of annual localized pre-testing and post-testing. We are using its results as basis for providing performance-based incentives to teachers out of the General Fund of the city government.
- We have reduced average class size to around 45 students divisionwide. We have initiated and introduced efforts toward transparent recruitment of public school teachers that sought to attract the best teachers in the city. We are happy to note that DepEd Order No. 16 has incorporated the essential elements of these efforts.
- To equalize opportunities, we have embarked on a comprehensive IT education program for the public schools in Naga. Toward this end, we established a Computer Literacy and Instructional Center for Kids (CLICK) laboratory, with complementary internet access, in each of the city’s 23 public elementary schools. We have set up i-Link, a teacher training center that is working to upgrade teacher competency on IT education and the integration of IT lessons in the basic education curriculum. We have also partnered with the Naga City People’s Council (NCPC) in providing wireless internet access to four rural public elementary and high schools.
- To improve access to basic education, we have localized and expanded an AusAid project that sought to improve children attendance in school. Now called Sanggawadan, this complementary program helps around 3,000 households in ensuring that their school-age children will stay in school.
- To promote fiscal autonomy at the school level, we have allocated an average of P100,000 as their own School Empowerment Fund. Use of the fund is for developmental purposes, and is entirely at the discretion of the community – so long as it is not used to pay for the monthly utilities and operating expenses of the school.
- Capacity building. We are reaching, engaging and in the process strengthening the capability of other stakeholders to become more effective partners in governing the public school system.
- Performance measurement. The board, through its regular meetings and consultation events, has become a venue through which access and quality performance indicators of the public school system in Naga are regularly discussed.
- Resource mobilization and allocation. Through a more participative planning and budgeting process, we have ensured that the priority needs of local public schools are identified, validated and allocated with the corresponding resources from the SEF. It has also initiated activities through which community resources can be tapped and harmonized in support of these needs.
- Procurement of SEF-funded services. Leveraging the city government’s transparent procurement process, the board has essentially done more with less – in recruiting competent teachers and securing adequate instructional materials.
- Promoting participation. To ensure better stakeholder representation in the Board, we have created an advisory council consisting of four non-voting representatives of the NCPC, the local private schools, the business chamber, and the media.
- At the elementary level, improvement in academic achievement in the core subjects of English, Science and Mathematics registered an average annual increase of only 3.7 percentage points between 1999 and 2004 (from 32.07 to 50.58). But with strong intervention under the program, we attained a 9.5 percentage point improvement for 2005 (with a divisionwide achievement rating of 60.10).
- At the secondary level, a 2.2 percentage point increase was attained between 1999 and 2004 (from 37.26 to 48.31). This year, it went up by 6.2 percentage points (on a divisionwide achievement rating of 54.56).
- Both improvements are in line with our medium and high annual target under the city’s education plan for the next three years. The road ahead
Last February 21, we were fortunate to have Secretary Abad as our guest of honor during the first-ever local education planning exercise in Naga. That event enabled us to review our performance as a means of identifying and specifying strategies that will solidify local gains towards improving the quality of basic education in Naga City.
At this point, Naga is well over the awareness factor insofar as the education crisis is concerned. The challenge facing us is to the rechannel the so-called “social outrage” over what had been wrong with the public school system into positive, measurable outcomes. In fact, our 3-year plan uses the Schools First Initiative (SFI) as an adjunct framework in bringing our education reform efforts further forward.
I am confident that this imprimatur from the DepEd leadership at the national level will accelerate and institutionalize the reforms we have initiated and experimented with in the city – and minimize the difficulties that will be encountered by other LGUs interested in local education reforms.
In closing, there is clearly a pressing need for local action in the delivery of quality basic education services. The country’s experience with a closed, overly centralized system for delivering public education services has only led to declining education standards. In response to this, we are offering Naga’s experience in reinventing its school board as a model that other Philippine local authorities can explore.
To recapitulate, our experience shows that:
- Local education reform can be done. Without the need for rewriting current laws governing local government operations, the city of Naga has shown that local education reform is both doable and feasible. Its experience show that empowered and functional local schools boards have both the mandate and legal personality to serve as focal point for these reforms.
- LSBs are the most logical vehicle for reform. Local schools boards can bring together local communities and key players in the public school system in discussing the state of local education, in the process answering the question “where we are.” The answers will certainly not be pleasant, but coming to grips with reality and acknowledging there is a big problem facing the sector is the only way to start.
- Shared responsibility goes together with shared accountability. Local school boards can clarify the locus of accountability and set targets and timetables for monitoring and evaluation, essentially answering the question “where we want to go.” While our experience shows that education, after all, is the shared responsibility of stakeholders, there is equally a need to define and delimit what our respective responsibilities are under this configuration.
- Broad-based stakeholdership enhances outcomes. Moreover, local school boards, through its annual planning and budgeting process, can serve as entry points for greater and more meaningful stakeholder participation – the “how do we get there” aspect of the equation. Regular grassroots consultations not only make for good politics; they are also avenues for multi-level and multi-stakeholder assessment of where we are in the journey to build better schools.