The Long View: Suffer the little children

The Long View : Suffer the little children

By Manuel L. Quezon III

ON REGULAR CLASS DAYS, ALONG NUEVE DE Febrero Street, you can see swarms of small children making their way home from school. They skip and laugh, and chase each other and trundle along, heavily laden with book bags. You get to notice immediately how small they are as they weave through the adults bustling about. Then it strikes you how late the night is—for children, anyway. You see, it is the hour that most people consider dinner-time.

Our traditional idea of school time pictures sleepy children going to school in the morning, and coming home in the afternoon—to study and play. That is not the way it is for too many children today. For them, what began as an emergency measure has now become a constant reality. Some go to school during “normal” hours; but there’s a second shift of children who attend classes from the afternoon to the evening. Simply because there are very many students but very few classrooms.

It would be good—though probably depressing—to know the kind of life that these children of the second shift live. One wonders how it affects them—their going home when darkness has fallen; walking along streets whose sidewalks have been given up to market stalls and tricycle parking; seeing adults focused on horse-races shown on the sari-sari store’s TV set and starting their evening drinking. Do they go to bed and sleep at regular hours, and then study the next morning, when the lessons of the previous day have begun to fade from memory? And if they play, as children do, who do they play with? Or do they simply study late into the night, and sleep when most other people are awake during the day?

In the “Analects of Confucius,” there is this passage: “When the Master went to Wei, Jan Yu drove his carriage. The Master said: “What an abundant population!”

“Jan Yu said: “Now that the people are so abundant, what is the next thing to be done?”

“Enrich them,” said Confucius.

“And having enriched them, what then?”

“Teach them,” was the reply.”

In a recent conference in Cebu, the following horrifying data were presented. The average government spending on a Filipino child’s education is about $120 per annum, 50 percent of which never reaches the student because it is swallowed up by administrative costs. Contrast this amount with what some of our neighbors spend: $700 for the Thai child; $1,800 for the Malaysian child.

For every 10 Filipino children who enter the first grade, only seven make it to Grade 6; and only five get to enter high school.

The child in school encounters too few teachers, has to live with too few classrooms, and too many classmates. All these things we already know. The stopgap—and now seemingly permanent—solution has been to double the sizes of classes, and “double-shifting.” As the President proved last week, this eradicates, at least on paper, the shortage of classrooms in our public school system.

The reality on the ground, as one person told me, is far different: a classroom meant for, say, 75 students is divided into two, each to accommodate 75—meaning, a classroom actually serves 150 kids. What the conditions are like for so many kids and their too few teachers are best left unimagined.

And what of the teachers? In the same conference, we were told that the average age of a public school teacher is 54. Like the ranks of our armed forces, which has 44 as the average age, our public school teachers are graying. From my interaction with public school teachers, I learned that an increasing number of colleagues are transferees from private schools; the salaries of public school teachers have at least become competitive, but that’s not saying much. It only suggests that private schools pay too little, and public schools pay marginally better than private schools. But it says nothing about the training they receive, the materials at hand, or the environment in which they must operate. Add to this the observation made by many of the teachers: more and more, they have to assume responsibilities for guidance that normally belong to parents, and one can only guess at the pressure—social, physical, even spiritual—they have to deal with every day.

Of these public school teachers, tests conducted by the Department of Education show, two-thirds have the reading skills of a sixth grader or even lower. More shocking, 11 percent read at preschool levels. This is what we get for spending only one-eighth of the national budget for education.

Thus, while many school teachers may have big hearts, their capacity to teach is, to say the least, limited. But there is hope. Throughout the country, individual schools are breaking out of the cycle of making do without, by reaching out to their communities for assistance. In one public school in Manila, parents come in on weekends before classes open, to paint and patch up classrooms. Wealthier private schools conduct training in ethics and values formation for their colleagues in public schools. The DepEd itself is working on establishing an academy for the professionalization and continuing education of public school principals.

Winston Churchill once said that there’s no better investment than putting milk into babies. That kind of investment is not enough. What about other investments, such as putting useful knowledge into the heads of students? Exciting developments are taking place, such as the $100 laptop designed for use by students in developing countries (with a hand-crank to provide power). This would put technology in the hands of young people, and allow countless savings by making it possible to have textbooks in computer files instead of the expensive printed ones. Can the country summon the political will to attend to our crisis in education?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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