Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back to school problems

This was my column last Wednesday, June 4.

Classes will open next week. As can be expected, media attention has been focused on this seasonal event since last week, in the process painfully pointing out the million and one things that are wrong with our system.

And precisely because of the intense media attention, everyone in this country who suffers from withdrawal syndrome, if not caught within the glare of television cameras or the flashbulbs of news photographers, have jumped into this annual orgy of blaming and counter-blaming.
I have said this before and I will say it again: If only we focus on the problems of the educational system all year-round instead of paying attention to them only when classes open, perhaps we stand a better chance of really fixing them.

I will give the current hoopla two weeks. Within that period, let us brace ourselves for the inevitable finger-pointing, caterwauling, screeching and pompous grandstanding from our leaders, from parents, and from the usual militants and activists.
Parents will complain about the high cost of sending children to school as if this job description was foisted on them only yesterday.

Government officials will organize Oplan Whatever to deal with the classroom shortages and the other problems only within this period, as if they knew about the opening of classes only last week instead of it being an annual event that operates like clockwork. And some media organizations will sensationalize everything of course to further give the impression that we are a country that can’t get things done.

Once media attention wanes and begins to focus on the next scandal or controversy, expect the problems of the educational system to magically disappear as if they never existed in the first place. We bring the issues to the conscious level only around this time of the year and then relegate them to the freezer the rest of the year. And we ask why we haven’t been able to fix the problems?

Around this time last year, I wrote about creative ways to deal with the perennial classroom shortages. In essence, I said that learning did not have to take place only within the confines of a classroom and that creative teachers can find ways to manage the classroom shortage.
So I hope the focus of the discussion this time around will not just be on how many classrooms we are short of, but more in terms of how to deal with that problem. Hopefully, media will also drag into the discussion businessmen and legislators and ask them how many classrooms they have built in the last year.

This idea of moving the school calendar from the current June to March to a September-June schedule has been floated for quite sometime now. The rationale is that we tend to experience the heaviest rainfall during the months of June to August. We all know the kind of mayhem rains induce in this country—streets get flooded, canals and rivers overflow, traffic is at standstill, etc.

Moving the school calendar out of the rainy season will enable teachers to manage the classroom shortages better as it obviously is just easier to hold classes in open air when it is not raining. Everyone seems to agree that it is a good idea. The problem is that no one seems to have the guts to actually make it happen.

The President once again displayed her penchant for micro management when she decreed that schoolchildren who go to public schools should not be required to wear uniforms anymore. To bolster her case, she cited the experience in Europe and the United States where uniforms are not required of schoolchildren. Quite frankly, the comparison stank.

There are a number of reasons why it is a bad idea to require schoolchildren in Europe and the United States to wear uniforms, but two automatically make the comparison invalid. First, they have four seasons and it would be impractical to require different sets of uniforms for winter, spring, or summer. Second, the need to encourage individual expression is just more pronounced in these countries.

The reason cited by the President was economic. The cost of uniforms has increased and a number of families presumably can’t afford to buy uniforms for their children. The logic is that wearing everyday clothes will not be as expensive. I don’t know if that logical deduction can be empirically proven as I think that uniforms tend to be more practical and economical in the long run. If it’s any source of comfort, at least the government did not decree providing free uniforms for all schoolchildren— that would have been pushing mendicancy.

I think that uniforms serve primarily as “equalizer.” When everyone is wearing the same set of clothes, the demographic differences, particularly in terms of economic status, become less pronounced. It reduces discrimination. And then there are the issues about security, identity, pride, etc., that needs to be considered. I think that the last thing we need in this country is for kids to be distinguished in terms of whether they are wearing uniforms or not—or correspondingly, whether they go to private or public schools.

I think the better way to deal with the problem is to even require all schoolchildren in this country, regardless of the school they attend, to wear only one type of uniform the way they do in other Asian countries. It’s like a national uniform for all schoolchildren. And then we can set up a system where students donate old uniforms to the school which then makes it easily available for others who can’t afford to buy new sets. Hopefully the cost would also go down as the quantity of the demand increases.


There are obviously many things that can be done to remedy the problems in the educational system. Perhaps we can do away with solutions that are knee-jerk and populist and instead focus on the ones that are long-term and strategic.

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