Monday, June 01, 2009

We need big solutions

This is my column today.

The school year officially opens today, and with it, a number of annual traditions.
Harassed school officials and teachers will be running around like headless chicken trying to manage the usual school opening day problems. We all know them by heart; all of them have to do with not having enough of the necessary resources. Not enough teachers. Not enough classrooms or study desks. Not enough books. Not enough pay. Etc.

Parents, once again, will be wailing about how so much more expensive this matter of sending kids to school have become. Some will complain about the spike in tuition and other fees and hyperventilate about what happened to the supposed assurances of government and certain educational associations to freeze tuition increases this year. There will be those who will screech at being made to pay certain fees such as Parent-Teacher Association dues at certain public schools.

A great number of course, will simply ensure that their kids are safe inside classrooms in their brand new uniforms, shiny new bags and unused pencils and notebooks; heave a sigh, and go on with their lives. These parents, however, will not find their way into newscasts. The ones with a complaint, the ones with a tearful story of not having prepared for the school opening as if it were a sudden emergency rather than something that is already programmed into our national life, will be all over the place.

Media of course will be right there, left, right and center of the whole melee. Many pundits and armchair analysts will rant about the inadequacies of our system. There will be lots of finger pointing and justifying.

Even this column has become an annual tradition of sorts. I’ve been ranting about the whole thing for quite some time now although I must stress that I do it many times around the whole school year.

And then, two weeks after, everything will become settled and the problems will disappear magically, relegated into our collective bin of memory. It will be as if we simply imagined all our school day opening woes and tribulations. We will all make do with what we have. We will dig deep into our reservoir of patience and forbearance. Until next year, of course, when we will have to do the whole thing all over again.

It’s been pointed out many times by many experts that our problems are cyclical because they are systemic and therefore require more comprehensive solutions that need to be pursued aggressively and deliberately all throughout the year rather than just at the opening of the school year.

The problem of not having enough classrooms, for example, is something that requires a collective response from everyone. Government alone cannot do it. We all know we lack classrooms but the problem is that this problem only becomes visible at the start of the school year. In fact, I don’t think we know exactly the extent of the problem since no one seemed to have come up with a comprehensive analysis of exactly how many more classrooms we need and where.

What we obviously need is one big comprehensive program that aims to lick the problem once and for all; a program that aims to involve everyone government, private institutions, politicians, community organizations, citizens and which prescribes specific timelines and accountabilities. I know what some are thinking the lack of classrooms is not the only problem. But my point exactly is that we need to start somewhere and prioritize.

I am also aware that there are many other problems in this country and that they too require our attention. As I said, the problem is that we seem to be addressing all of them at the same time in the process spreading resources so thinly that the impact of any achievement is not felt at all. If only we are able to prioritize our problems and focus our energies into solving the most critical few, then we definitely will have more chances of succeeding.

To my mind, education must be on top of the list of problems that we urgently need to address. I don’t think I need to make a litany of just exactly how critical the problems related to our educational system is making a huge impact on our life as a nation. I’ve said this before, but I am going to say it again: Human resource is our only source of sustainable competitive advantage.

For example, we can focus the spotlight on the problems of the educational sector in the next two years and make building classrooms the priority program for all. We can compel congressmen and senators to allocate even just half of their countryside development funds into the program. We can require all private institutions from business organizations to civic and professional clubs, the church, even private individual donors - to devote a sizable part of their corporate social responsibility programs into the building of classrooms. We can marshal the citizenry —the ROTC cadets, the scouts, everyone into volunteering for the program. In short, we can do a bayanihan. But we need a program to make this happen, one with clear goals and activities.

When we really come to think about it, this problem and the need for a program to address it are not that incomprehensible to Filipinos. Each family in this country is acutely aware of these on a daily basis. Every family has a variation of such a bayanihan scheme in place to make sure that the kids in the family get to go to school. Families devote a sizable portion of the budget into the education of members of the family. Everyone pitches in on the effort elder siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. What we need to do is get organized, put in place the mechanisms and the structures, and make a compelling and inspiring campaign to get everyone on board.

I know. Such an ambitious undertaking would require political will and credible leadership, two things that we seem to have a dearth of in this country at the moment. But I maintain that that is so not because we lack leaders with these qualifications per se; just that we have a system that does not enable leaders with these qualifications to succeed.

The truth is that the problems that surface at the opening of the school year are really just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. We need to dream big and act big on the educational problem rather than simply make it annual fodder for short-term drama and political grandstanding during school year opening season.

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