[OPINION] The devil is in the details: Suggestions for post-pandemic education

Eighteen months after the first COVID-19 lockdown, which has never really been totally lifted, the education sector has emerged as the biggest victim of the virus. Taking teachers and staff, students and their parents, no sector covers a larger number of people. It serves as a key driver of the economy. How it copes with the health crisis will condition the country’s future prospects. Placed by government policy in suspended animation since March 2020, the Philippine educational system joins that of the reputedly failed state of Venezuela as the only two in the world still unable to resume face-to-face learning.  

As DepEd prepares for the 2021-22 school year, some legislators have acknowledged the learning crisis and have welcomed PBEd support for the convening of an EdCom II. They have accepted, in principle, fundamental  proposals that are no longer controversial: addressing malnutrition and stunting among children; raising budgetary resources for education; improving the compensation and status of teachers through a national scholarship program; rationalizing and reinforcing the mother tongue-based, multilingual education strategy; developing an independent, national assessment agency. 

The devil is in the details. While targeting goals already agreed upon as “foundational,” these proposals must still undergo discussions, to use a suddenly popular term, at a “granular” level, to thresh out operational requirements. While constructing the foundations, education stakeholders must also reach a common commitment to the architectural design of the intended educational structure. This design is also not a radical innovation. For some 50 years, reform advocates have pressed for greater decentralization and devolution of responsibility and power to as far down as practicable. The most recent incarnation of the principle described the approach as “school-based management.”

Schools must serve all kinds of communities, some in agricultural valleys, some along the coastal seas, some in upland forest areas, some in densely congested urban areas. They face varied challenges and differ in their concerns, constraints, available resources, opportunities, even in weather patterns. Why should all schools start at the same time and not according to the rhythm of the community’s life? The pandemic has reinforced the need to abandon the “one-size-fits-all” mindset that has served as the premise of government educational initiatives. Coronavirus contagion does not affect all schools to a uniform extent.  

The principle does not dispute the need for expert, central-level policy planning and oversight. Still, however excellent the plans and programs crafted at the national level, their success will ultimately rest on their execution on the  ground. This approach aligns with generally accepted management principles. Beyond respecting the principle of subsidiarity, it also offers the best chances of realizing ethics and equity norms that shares decision-making powers with the parties which have the biggest stake in their outcomes — the students and their parents. The call among legislators for the strengthening of local school boards suggests the general acceptance of this approach.

Some such boards have doubtless betrayed the trust given to them and used their powers to promote personal and partisan purposes. No one can guarantee that LGUs will not abuse their powers. But let’s play the odds. Scatter seeds generously among the 42,000 LGUs. Many will doubtless fall among rocks, on barren soil, or get choked by weeds to wither and die. Yet, a thousand flowers may bloom. Alternatively, a centrally-mandated template, maliciously crafted or just incompetently conceived, can wreak havoc on all LGUs. It will also endanger those who see through the folly who fall into the temptation of evading misguided rules and exposing themselves to legal action.

School-based management, like the direct transfer of the budget, is honored as policy, but more in the breach than the observance. Its practice is not likely to improve, until systems to ensure accountability can credibly protect the grant of autonomy. If we give teachers and principals greater say in managing their classrooms, we must be able to hold them accountable for delivering results and, accordingly, basing their rewards on their performance.  

Accountability is something legislators often demand. Over the years, the government has rightly raised the compensation levels for teachers and other civil servants. This administration has paid special attention to  soldiers and policemen. With what effect? As empirically demonstrated in other countries, serious reforms require serious financial resources. As important as the level of available funding, however, is how funds are allocated and spent. Across different administrations, it has been too easy to give mainly across-the-board-raises, without discriminating between good and bad performance, a patently unfair system likely to discourage conscientious, exemplary performers. Accountability enhances the power of incentives – indeed, enables them to work as intended.

That said, developing the accountability metrics will not be so easy and will probably encounter opposition from some teachers and principals themselves. Merit-based rewards, essential to enforcing accountability, requires the protection of a robust assessment system. Regrettably, assessment has remained a problematic area in education. DepEd still has to report on the performance of the first batch of SHS students who had graduated in 2018. Consider  also the decades-old campaign to shed light on the Licensure Examination for Teachers, a high stakes examination that sometimes approaches the failure rate of the bar exam and every year breaks the hearts of 60 to 70% of examinees who fail. How can we be sure that it is still serves to confirm that those to whom millions of parents will entrust their children have the correct competencies? How do we ascertain that the LET is meeting the objectives for which it has been established?

Beyond agreement on programmatic goals, their alignment to the bedrock principles of  autonomy, accountability, and assessment must stand as the measure of their value. Accountability systems serve as necessary means to realize autonomy, but building a National Assessment Center separate from DepEd, already one of the foundational programs in the PBEd reform agenda, may well be the essential first step. – Rappler.com

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.

Voices features opinions from readers of all backgrounds, persuasions, and ages; analyses from advocacy leaders and subject matter experts; and reflections and editorials from Rappler staff. 

You may submit pieces for review to opinion@rappler.com.