Monday, June 30, 2014

Find the missing

THIS is my last chance to get a son adopted by the state.

The thought flashed throughout an afternoon search for the two-volume set of simulated college admission tests I finally found in one of the boxes of books.

I bought the reviewers more than five years ago for the older son, then in senior high school. He took the University of the Philippines College Admissions Test (UPCAT), the Ateneo College Entrance Test (ACET), the University of San Carlos Entrance Test, and the De La Salle College Entrance Test.

He chose the tests, curious how he would fare. Privately, I hoped he would pass the UPCAT and study at my alma matter.

But after passing the UPCAT, he decided to enroll in a private university.

Now it’s my second and last chance to relaunch a campaign to get the younger son to take the UPCAT, pass it, and enroll in the state university. For his choosing, there is a wide variety of degree and non-degree programs in ten UP campuses around the nation.

But to be accepted in a degree program, an applicant must first pass the UPCAT in August.

“Universal access to education” is embodied in Education for All (EFA) and Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). It is a beautiful phrase but a fraught one.

Access to education is far from universal. What is enshrined as a right is a privilege bought at a price. Every “aspirational” parent knows this.

Preparation to pass an entrance test so a student can compete with thousands for limited slots in a state university (82,000 UPCAT examinees last year) requires investing in quality primary and secondary education for 13 years, assuming he or she starts as early as 3 years of age and this before the K to 12 program was in place.

But this alone does not paint a true picture of education as an economic choice in this country, as well as other “settings of fragility” where EFA and MDGs are endangered. When a student drops out of class to sell candles or harvest forage for livestock, he or she becomes one of the “missing.”

Talisay City has 744 school-age children that have not completed any grade level, reported Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil last June 19. Citing data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) – Central Visayas, the same report traced other students “missing” due to retention, transfer or dropping out: more than 4,000 children in Cebu, Lapu-Lapu and Toledo Cities.

What the system regards as a statistical loss is a human tragedy muted by clashing realities. It’s inevitable that of the millions swarming beyond the capacity of limited public school classrooms, considerably fewer will persevere through the year levels to try to qualify for college, let alone choose a course or a campus.

For those privileged to be on the track for a degree course, there is still a thicket of tuition and other fees to go through after hurdling reviews, entrance exams, and their attendant costs. To be in UP, P100,000 is needed annually for every student, at P3,000 per unit, Rappler reported in July 13, 2013.

But due to a state subsidy of nearly 50 percent, full-paying students or those classified under bracket A of the socialized tuition and financial assistance program (STFAP) pay only P1,500 per unit in UP Diliman, Los Baños and Manila, and P1,000 per unit in UP Cebu and other campuses.

Whether one is in bracket A, the so-called millionaires’ class for those who can afford to pay in full UP tuition and other fees, or bracket D, all UP students pay in full school fees upon enrolment. That’s just the start of their Calvary.

In April 2013, three weeks after UP Manila student Kristel Tejada drank silver cleaner because she was refused readmission over an unsettled tuition of P10,000, college students Daveson Beron and Don Benedict Pamintuan shot themselves.

Beron, a mechanical engineering senior at the Batangas State University, had failing grades that prevented him from graduating with his batch. Pamintuan, a physical therapy freshman at the De La Salle-Dasmariñas, failed in four subjects and learned he was to be transferred to the Batangas State University the following year.

If “universal access to education” spurs human aspiration, what can we do about the doors closing on missing youth?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 29, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, June 23, 2014

Script for life

NOTEBOOKS punctuate our learning more than we expect.

When a school year begins, we weigh down our shopping basket with this classroom staple: 90 or 100 leaves, sewn or spiral, iconic white-as-a-blank-tablet or politically correct recycled sepia.

At the end of the year, I see the notebooks again to weed out the used from the unused pages. When the boys were in the lower years, I recycled the remaining clean sheets to jot down grocery lists or mathematical exercises.

But as they grew older, the boys seemed to use fewer pages until it seemed, at the end of the school year, the notebooks looked as mint as they were when the year was about to start.

It’s not a surprise. Homework, readings, news, chitchat, photos, research, music, videos—from the Web unwinds the spool of their wired lives.

Computers, PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones: the young will sooner be parted from the womb than from the electronic extensions of their identity.

Will the digital age banish the notebooks of old to the trash-crammed pockets of last year’s knapsack?

I hope not. Notebooks, with their leaves of paper, are the spaces where we learn how to write. Recent research has psychiatrists and neuroscientists asserting that writing by hand lets children read more quickly and communicate more expressively.

In a June 2, 2014 article, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” Maria Konnikova of The New York Times reported that a University of Washington study of children in grades two through five showed that those who composed text by hand produced more words and ideas than those typing on a keyboard.

In brain imaging, those with better handwriting showed greater activation of neural activity in areas associated with reading, writing and memory.

Other studies showed that, over tracing and printing letters, cursive writing has an edge, such as training self-control. This is food for thought for parents whose five- or six-year-olds are quicker than their elders to swipe and activate their personal tablets as soon as they are seated.

At the very least, it’s an argument favoring eateries with paper placemats that challenge adults to unscramble letters and their children to doodle while waiting for pizza.

The scientific link between penmanship and communication is even more significant for public school students. Reportage about the first day of classes this week has generally been dismal and frustrating: cramped classrooms, “alternative” classes where learning is dubious, even chairless classrooms.

In one TV report, primary students were sprawled on their sides or tummies, writing in notebooks. Chairs had yet to be delivered.

While the situation sorely tests the students’ endurance, not to mention legibility, the exercise with paper and pencil prepares them for a principle proven in laboratories and classrooms: writing by hand helps a person process a lecture and reframe it in his or her words.

According to The New York Times article, perfecting the art of penmanship in childhood benefits the adult’s skills in comprehension, encoding, reflection and memory. A Yale psychologist who is unconvinced by the link between handwriting and learning did admit that “(handwriting) maybe… helps you think better”.

I remember comparing research skills then and now with a college librarian. She said the Internet may have helped students come up with more pages in their theses. Yet, she observed that teachers have to work harder to review manuscripts for plagiarism.

I said the copy-and-paste garden variety of plagiarism must save a lot of library books from losing their pages. She retorted: still doesn’t mean there’s a lot of reading going on. Aye, that’s the rub.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 8, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Swapping teachers

CAN a college lecturer switch to high school?

That’s a possibility facing hundreds of college teachers when senior high school begins in 2016. The implementation of the K to 12 enhanced basic education curriculum will keep junior high school students from graduating and entering college.

From 2016 to 2017, the first batch of senior high school students will still be in grades 11 and 12. Given the expected drop in college enrolment starting 2016, teachers in higher education institutions and technical-vocational institutions are prioritized by law for hiring in secondary schools.

Under Republic Act (RA) 7836 implemented in 1994, those qualified to teach in elementary and high school are only education graduates who passed the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET).

The creation of the additional two years of senior high school imposes a higher demand for LET passers. To enable high schools to have their needed teachers, there is a relaxation of the RA 7836 rule. Non-LET passers are required to pass the LET within five years after their hiring so they can continue to teach full-time.

These are the transitions envisioned for 2016, reported the Philippine Daily Inquirer last Feb. 3, 2013.

Seen in this light, the shifting around of teachers seems as elementary as changing classrooms. Upon reexamination, though, things don’t seem to be as simple.

To be qualified for the primary grades, a generalist education degree is needed. To teach high school, the degree must be specific to the subject one is teaching.

In addition, there are two different approaches to teaching. Pedagogy is child-centered while andragogy is focused on the adult learner.

Given the complexity of molding young minds, pedagogy is also focused on teaching the teachers. It lays down the techniques for mentoring even as it structures the content comprising the foundation of learning.

Many of those who instruct college undergraduates are not even required to have a formal background in andragogy. The basic requirement to teach in college is an academic and professional background, preferably specialization, in the area one is teaching.

What will happen when a college instructor handles high school students? Can a teacher used to working with adults be effective in connecting with and motivating children, preteens and teens, the last categorized as young adults in theory but infinitely more complex in reality?

One who has been preparing undergraduates to join the job market brings some advantages in senior high school. Under the K to 12 system, senior high school students are supposed to have the skill sets that will get them hired if they don’t choose to proceed to college after graduation.

When I was studying and then teaching in college, a common complaint was the number of General Education subjects required before an undergraduate could proceed to the majors that taught specific theories and skills needed to get a job.

For many students and the families that depend on them, a college degree is one’s insurance to security. The Arts, Sciences and Humanities viewed by educators as essential for providing a well-rounded send-off to a life of learning that should continue after graduation are viewed as a burden and added expense by those who see education only as a prerequisite for work.

Can a college instructor bridge the expectations of humanizing and retooling middle school students? They should.

This requires changing the teaching mindset, a maneuver more intricate than switching classrooms. Teaching high school, a college instructor needs to acquire pedagogical and andragogical tools. In the junior high school years, pedagogy may still be relevant since the students are young enough to be guided by their teacher.

However, teacher-directed instruction will have less relevance in senior high school. The students will start flexing their independence and along with it, the desire to direct what they learn and the way to handle their problems and challenges.

If a teacher commits to accompanying the intellectual and personal journey of his or her students, he or she must see teaching as being more than a job between jobs. Many college instructors are part-timers. Some await the results of licensure exams or a better job offer. Others fit in teaching as a second or third means to pay bills.

For the K to 12 scheme to work, schools need to recruit more than LET passers or instructors for retooling. People with a vocation are prerequisites for 2016.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 22, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Midlife crisis

DOUGHNUTS make odd markers for life’s watersheds.

As his Sunday homecoming, a godson brought back a box of doughnuts. These were as colorful as jellybeans but less guileless.

Not usually drawn to sweets, I gave in to temptation, dressed up in green glaze and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Regret came as I was halfway through the doughnut.

The heartburn that followed lasted for more than five hours even after several antacids.

As someone who goes through bouts of acid reflux, I’ve learned to avoid foods that trigger heartburn. Indulgences like hot sauce and green mangoes are likely culprits for causing the regurgitation of acid and the searing pain in the abdomen.

The doughnuts, though, were a surprise. If I had not talked with a friend, who ate two doughnuts for late lunch and had a horrific time staying on his feet while suffering the classic symptoms of a heart attack, I would never have seen the doughnut as the usual suspect.

Compared to the merienda staples of my childhood, which had only a dusting of sugar for visual appeal, today’s doughnuts are packaged as spectacles and “experiences”.

They’re encountered first as beyond-mortal-reach superstars by the sip-and-chat crowd. When I encounter snarls in the flow of foot traffic in a mall, it’s usually caused by a long queue of aspirants for designer doughnuts dressed up not to look like one.

Perhaps doughnuts are a generational thing. Teenagers can go through them and walk away without sugar angst or the slightest hint of their inner plumbing undergoing a meltdown. Give a box of assorted doughnuts to my teenagers and they address each fellow by its name. What’s poison for me is cool and chill for them.

But I remember a time when I liked doughnuts and the feeling was returned. To keep us out of mischief while adults were having siesta, we were allowed in the kitchen, hand-rolling dough into pasty long snakes whose heads and tails we joined to form a ring.

We watched as the rings slid into a pan of spitting oil and popped into fat and brown inflatables. As privilege for helping make merienda, we got to roll our chosen pieces over and over in a plate of sugar.

The minutes spent licking away the fine white granules that melted on our sticky faces was the edge homemade doughnuts kept over the ones hawked on the streets. Because, truth be told, the ones we bought were always better.

It wasn’t only that they were chewy. Or that these doughnuts were also sold with “syakoy,” large sugar-coated pretzels that pulled like rubber bands and tasted like sugarcane-sweetened taffy.

Street doughnuts always made grownups upset. They were arranged on native baskets, barely protected by a flapping piece of stained Manila paper that probably collected much of the street dust and germs that adults saw and terribly minded.

We kids didn’t see a thing. We only unerringly knew what tasted good—all from the great dirty kitchen that was the streets: “pinasugbo” (candied banana) strung on coconut midrib, slightly salty boiled peanuts, cheap “chicharon (cracklings)” from the boiled hoofs of horses (or so the helpers said), “syakoy” and “donot”.

The latter was how one of the young country-raised girls minding us spelled doughnuts bought from the street. She said that whenever an adult cautioned her “do not buy this” and “do not eat this,” she said, with a wink, it was a sure signal to hail one of the doughnut-hawkers.

From the forbidden to the forsaken, doughnuts make lifetime companions. Or not.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 15, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The heirs

FEWER will be in thrall of June this year.

I, for one, study and will later return to teaching at the University of the Philippines (UP), which has shifted its school year to August-May from June-March.

Other colleges are also dovetailing this year or next with the international academic calendar. According to GMA News, the Philippines was the last to make this shift among member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Like most students, I welcome any change that postpones a return to classrooms, papers and deadlines.

But as a teacher, it niggles that I understand very little of the so-called ASEAN integration, the impetus behind these tectonic shifts, not just in in our educational system but also in the economy, politics and security, and the rest of the socio-culture sphere.

Opportunities and risks lurk behind the realization of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. This was stressed during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia, which was hosted by the country last week.

Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima cautioned the country from expecting a “big bang” when it joins nine other nations in comprising “One Asean” next year, reported the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The AEC will be a force to contend with: the third most populous region, with a combined community of 600 million; and the seventh largest economy, with a pooled gross domestic product of about $2 trillion.

Joining a bigger pond means pressure to stop thinking small. Purisima and other specialists said that the most important WEF takeaway was to plan how the Philippines can maximize the benefits of integration.

Investing in people, said Purisima, is the key. He emphasized the importance of education in helping Filipinos reap One Asean’s windfall in employment, trade, electronic commerce and overall growth.

Putting Filipinos at the center of education is the light glimpsed at the end of a long, dark tunnel. When UP Diliman delayed its concurrence with the shift of the academic calendar that the rest of the UP system had committed to, dissenters questioned the true beneficiaries of academic integration with One Asean: are we prioritizing foreigners or our own?

Proponents of internationalization pointed out that synchronizing globally means making the flow of benefits two-way: Filipino students and academics can take part in international summer trainings, which are in June and July; and foreign students need not enroll only in the second semester because their overseas graduation makes it too late for them to catch up with enrolment in June.

These arguments have a point while missing 99 percent of the whole picture. How will internationalization affect the primary grades and high school? When May ushered Brigada Eskwela this year, the communal practice of repairing, cleaning and preparing classrooms for the start of the school year underscored the perennial lack of useful classrooms.

This year, though, the problem is worsened by the ravages left by last year’s October earthquake and super typhoon Yolanda. Classrooms will still be a top concern in 2016, when the K-12 system will create the first batch of grade 11 senior high school students, who, under the old system, should be entering their first year of college.

Mixing the old (lack of classrooms) and new (ghost colleges, financial losses of private tertiary institutions, college faculty unemployment, problems of college loading and teacher retraining for high school) complicates the overall picture of education, even without the frame of internationalization.

Under the Asean Socio-cultural Community Blueprint, “advancing and prioritizing education” is the first strategy for human development. Most academic institutions have yet to review and modify curricula to integrate the Asean message of sensitivity to Asian diversity and solidarity.

Formal education may be tardy in catching up with One Asean. Yet, a walk around the neighborhood on a weekday will yield this casual observation: almost an entire village tuned into Koreanovelas, Japanese animés and online games from the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. Peopled by stereotypes, fantasies and clichés, pop culture creates our first impressions and perpetuates our lasting impressions of fellow Asians.

Unless education fills in the slack, we will be heirs to this splintered worldview of Pop Asia.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 1, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”