> Education: Plugging leaks, shortages – Juan Miguel Luz

Education: Plugging leaks, shortages

 By Juan Miguel Luz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:50:00 07/26/2009 

MANILA, Philippines—In January 2001, the Arroyo administration had a nine-year window of opportunity to take a poorly performing education system and radically restructure it.

Sadly, today, we have the same overcrowded structure, the same processes, and the same low education standards but with millions more children to attend to. In summary, an opportunity wasted.

Let me frame the discussion in three statements:

One, if you have a leaking boat and a short period of time, all you can do is plug the leaks in the boat to keep afloat. In the long-run, however, the decision must be about building a new and better boat. This thinking is the difference between a manager and a leader.

Two, in a globally competitive world, if we do not keep up with our neighbors (even if we report growth of whatever rate), we are actually falling further behind.

Three, if you get poor output from your input, using more of the same will only generate more poor output. You have to change what you are doing to get better output.

How do we measure success in the management of our education system? Let us look at three indicators: spending, structure and outcomes.

Government spending in basic education is an indicator of its investment in the future (e.g. young children).

The eight years of the Arroyo administration can be broken down into two periods: The first four years of benign neglect (spending barely keeping up with enrollment), followed by four years of frantic catch-up spending.

From 2002 to 2005, education spending by the Arroyo administration grew slower (2.6 percent average annual growth) than the entire national budget (7.6 percent annual growth).

This was reversed in 2006 to 2009 when education spending grew faster (11.2-percent annual growth) than the total budget (10.6-percent annual growth).

This is misleading, however, because the growth in education spending outpaced the growth of the national budget only in 2007.

In the three other years, the national budget still grew faster than the education budget. Overall, the last eight years of the Arroyo administration has seen the education budget grow at an average of 6.9 percent per year versus 9.1-percent annual growth for the national budget.

Contrast this with the administrations of President Corazon Aquino and President Fidel V. Ramos when growth in education spending outpaced growth in the national budget (18.6 percent versus 16.1 percent and 18.8 percent versus 12.8 percent respectively).

On the other hand, the growth rate in education spending fell drastically during the short-lived Estrada administration to half that of the national budget (4.9 percent versus 9.7 percent).

In 1986, the last Marcos year, President Aquino inherited a budget that allocated only 10.8 percent for basic education and increased this to 12.9 percent by the time she left office in 1992.

During President Ramos’ term, education’s share in the national budget went up further to a high of 16.1 percent in 1998 before falling during the administration of President Joseph Estrada. In 2009, basic education spending was a low 11.9 percent of the national budget.


In 2003, recognizing the inadequacy of a short 10-year basic education cycle, the Department of Education under Secretary Edilberto de Jesus put in place a “bridge program” as a first step toward building an expanded high school.

At the same time, work began on building incrementally a universal preschool program.

The combination of both would have added two years to the basic education cycle, enough to catch up with the rest of the world. Instead, in 2004, the Arroyo administration scuttled the bridge program for political reasons and announced that the day-care centers would be the de facto preschools needed by the system.

Why the need to restructure? By adding two years to basic education, the same curriculum could be redistributed over more years of schooling. Children would have time to learn things more deeply.

With preschooling, children would be able to read at an earlier age. And graduation from high school would be at 18 years of age rather than 16 years on average.

This age is more fitting for college or for the world of work in terms of maturity. Think about it: Would an employer hire a 16-year-old fresh from high school?


In basic education, four indicators matter most: participation (enrollment in schools), retention (leading to graduation), and achievement (learning with competence).

In between elementary and high school, there is transition. Focus on getting these indicators right and we solve the majority of problems in the system.

This, however, is not just about throwing money at the shortages. Rather, it has to be about creating a quality learning environment for all.

Because the Arroyo administration is focused on shortages, the Sona will be replete with figures about new classrooms built, new teachers hired, new textbooks procured, new computers provided.

If this is the measure of success, then this administration passes as the most successful provider of education in Philippine history. But input is not matching outcomes.

Rice, noodles not the answer

For example, why are a quarter of our young children (i.e. Grades 1-3 pupils) not able to cope with the rigor of daily schooling and dropping out?

This, in reality, is a health and nutrition problem. And rice distribution and noodles are not the answer.

An integrated school health intervention, including in-school feeding, should be the response.

Why are boys dropping out faster than girls in late elementary and high school?

It is not solely about work as the surveys reveal. Rather, it is because of poor reading and arithmetic skills at the end of Grade 3. Reading and math programs are needed to develop these critical lifelong learning skills.

At the end of high school, those kids left standing are only half inclined to go on to college. The other half (again, more boys than girls) do not feel they can cope with college.

Unfortunately, most have no idea what they want to do. The education response should be technical-vocational education returned back to the high school level as an alternative course.

Again, structural reform.

Build a new boat

The key to change is not to plug the leaks, but to build a new boat. You can deal with shortages every year but a fast-growing population will only mean more spinning of wheels while staying in place.

When the facts change, we have got to change our strategy (to paraphrase Mark Twain).

What should have been done back in 2003 was to build a new platform for basic education as planned and already approved at the level of the board of the National Economic and Development Authority.

If the Arroyo administration stayed the course on the bridge and the pre-school programs, by 2009, we would have built that platform and education would be moving on a different trajectory.

‘Low pass’

Instead, nine years after Ms Arroyo took office, we are still on a 10-year basic education cycle when the rest of the world has been on 12 years for decades.

Nine years later, we still do not offer universal pre-schooling. Nine years later, our college students are graduating with skills woefully deficient of what our industry and economy need.

In summary, we wasted a golden opportunity. In my books, that is a “low pass” if not an outright “fail.”

(Editor’s Note: Juan Miguel Luz served as undersecretary for finance and administration of the Department of Education under the Arroyo administration, and director of the Presidential Management Staff under the Aquino administration. Prior to government service, he taught at the Asian Institute of Management. He has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University.)

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