Monday, November 27, 2006

The clue is in Leyte

WE have found some vital answers to the constant dilemma over the country’s poor educational system and they’re not in the glitzy, expensive, air-conditioned rooms of exclusive schools here in Metro Manila and other urban areas. It’s in the remote town of Tomas Oppus in Southern Leyte where visitors have to travel hours of unpaved roads just to get to Rizal National High School that recently topped the National Achievement Test for Freshmen Students.

Based on the story of this paper’s reporter Rommer Balaba, Rizal National High School (RNHS), being a public school, has nothing to show in terms of fancy gadgets and technology. But its teachers, parents and community leaders have the will and concern to ensure that students get to school and are taught properly despite the limited resources they have.

Asked about the reasons for the school’s success, Violeta Merin-Alocilja, Leyte’s division superintendent, had a short, self-explanatory answer: “Stakeholder participation, which includes the barangay leaders, parents, and local government executives, coupled with teacher dedication. There is a strong linkage between the school and the community. Parents, in particular, realized they have to give support either technically or financially so that teachers can focus on teaching.”

Now that—“stakeholder participation”—is really nothing. We often hear this word being mouthed by do-gooders and people who dream for change. The only difference is that people in Leyte took it seriously and voila, they got the high scores in areas such as English, mathematics, science, Filipino and social studies. It helped that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided soft loans in terms of teacher’s training, textbooks and new learning interventions. But that simply proves the point that given a little more resources and a lot of innovative community involvement, it’s possible for any school in the Philippines to raise its quality of education. There must be a way for the Department of Education to distill the lessons from this social experiment and upscale the efforts to the larger educational system so we could achieve drastic improvements in the quality of education in the Philippines.

We say we need drastic improvements in the country’s educational system because the Philippine economy, nay the entire world, is changing fast. In the last three years, the Philippine economy has been growing quite decently at 5 percent to 6 percent and there are indications it might yet achieve 7 percent a few years from now, and yet unemployment rate in the country has remained high at more than 8 percent. Why?

The usual reason is about “jobless growth” or the inability of the economy to generate enough jobs for the new entrants to the labor force, despite expansion in economic activities. Others say we are producing overqualified college-degree holders when all the economy needs is an army of skilled labor trained from vocational and technical schools.

Sounds valid enough but recent trends in the economy tend to show that these assumptions are no longer valid. Human-resource practitioners these days swear that jobs, whether abroad or within the country’s borders, are being created fast but employers are finding a hard time finding the people “with the right package.”

Main drivers of growth (like electronics and cyber services) these days require more flexible-knowledge workers that are not being provided by the country’s school system in greater numbers despite the rising number of students entering and leaving the school system. It’s not only that we are running short of skilled welders and pipe fitters; we are also running short of call-center agents, accountants, mining engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, information-technology professionals, among many skills that require four or five-year college degrees or training.

The country will increasingly feel this problem as the Philippine economy goes up the value chain toward the “five-star outsourcing,” which includes analytics, market research, valuation research, investment research, online teaching, patent filing and media content supply.

And why this new trend? It’s because globalization has significantly transformed the workplace. Employers these days are increasingly dealing with global clients in a business environment that is changing fast and has become so diverse. Customers, most of them well-informed, are demanding. Organizational structures are flat, meaning that employees are expected to engage or get involved in decision making as corporate organizations compete and innovate.
That is why—according to the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP)—the standards by which employers make hiring decisions have increased significantly. At the very least, they need three core competencies including excellent and written English, analytical and conceptual thinking, and initiative.

Employers, according to PMAP, need people who can write and speak excellent English with confidence, employees who can make presentations, and can understand foreign accents. They need people who can break down problems systematically, process large amounts of information, see consequences and implications, connect the dots, and make logical conclusions. In a highly competitive and fast-changing world, they need staff who persist in problem solving—people who do more than what are expected of them, and address problems before they are asked to.

In short, employers these days increasingly need dynamic-knowledge workers which the country’s school system is not providing in adequate numbers. For long, this country has suffered underinvestment in education. That’s the reason why we can’t seem to address unemployment amid economic expansion.

It is within this context that the Sogod experiment in Leyte is very important. Certainly, we need more schools with sophisticated facilities and highly trained teachers. But that takes a lot of resources and time. But we could still fast track the upgrading of the country’s educational system by learning what the people of Southern Leyte have done and take them to heart the way they did.

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