06 March 2007

The continuing challenge of education reform

I HAD the chance to sit at the back while Synergeia CEO Milwida "Nene" Guevara addressed the 2nd national congress of public secondary schools in the country, which has been going on at Villa Caceres Hotel here from March 5-7.

Nene discussed Tonton Torralba's Project Sterling Silver -- one of the less heralded initiatives under the Synergeia portfolio -- which implemented a peer-based accreditation system for Philippine public high schools, covering 23 during its pilot run. Camarines Sur National High and Naga City Science High, which are both located in the city, are among the pilot schools.

The National Association of Public Secondary School Heads, Inc (NAPSSHI), which sponsored the event, is looking at scaling up this accreditation system to another 250 communities nationwide in its second round where Synergeia already has a presence.

The Department of Education (DepEd), represented by Bureau of Secondary Education chief Lolita Andrada, is supportive of the move. The underlying strategy is to involve the community in the accreditation process, which will enable them to get a total picture of the strengths and challenges each public high school faces; this also creates an opening for a collaborative effort in school improvement.

But when Nene mentioned that the Local School Board is an entity that can be tapped to finance this activity, many school heads rejected the idea. "Why is there a need for a non-government entity like Synergeia to be involved? And why doesn't DepEd develop its own accreditation system instead?" one guy asked Dr. Andrada.

"Why should the LSB be involved in the first place when Division Offices of the DepEd know the situation of the schools better?" a younger principal added.

Nene of course patiently explained that Synergeia will not do the accreditation; it will only extend technical, mobilization and networking assistance. Depending on the final design of the accreditation system which DepEd will approve, it will be the community iself that will work together in completing the process.

Andrada added Synergeia is a logical choice for the second round because the active involvement of local governments, through the reengineered LSBs, will assure funding support for the accreditation effort. The teachers association president (and LSB member) from Bacolod City attested to this possibility.

The whole episode demonstrates the continuing challenge facing local education reform efforts. While there is evidence that top functionaries in the DepEd echelon are opening up to the necessity of greater local involvement and community empowerment, the minds of many of its people on the ground remain closed to the idea. I think it has something to do with the learned helpless that too much centralization fosters, which is what actually drove the young Nene Guevara out of her Grade III classroom several decades ago.

But more than ever, it affirms the necessity for the long overdue devolution of basic education as I argued here, at least in localities which have proven themselves ready for it in the country's 15 years of experience with decentralization. In the face of new localism (an invaluable link by way of Urbano) that is being seen to reshape the future of education,
maintaining a one-size-fits-all policy in the face of rich diversity in Philippine local governance is the biggest disservice the national government can do at this juncture.