25 May 2008

Corruption in Philippine Education

The Asian Development Bank, in a report entitled “Philippines: Critical Development Constraints” (December, 2007), says that fighting corruption is one of the two top development concerns for our country.

There is no doubt that there is corruption in our educational system, perhaps not on the scale of the Malacañang scams involving ZTE, railroads, fertilizers, and swine, but enough to derail efforts to achieve “Education for All.” I am not talking only of DepEd (which has, since the time of the crusading Raul Roco, moved down in the list of most corrupt government agencies) nor of TESDA (despite its highly publicized book publication scam) nor of CHED (where corruption is “moderate” since its budget is minuscule), but even of private schools (some known to pay for permits to open new programs).

It is about time we looked at the kind of corruption or evil, no matter how small, that stunts the development of quality education in our country.

We can begin with an anomaly outside the control of schools.

For example, you can go to Recto Avenue and get yourself a diploma and a transcript from any university in the country. Of course, if that university were ever asked if you graduated from it, you would be found out, but meanwhile, since academic and industry bureaucracies are often as bad as government bureaucracies, you can teach or work for quite a bit of time before anyone finds out that you misspent your youth.

How do we help solve this problem? All we need to do is to have a database of graduates from all our schools. Even with a simple laptop, that is very easy to do. All we need is someone to encode the full names of graduates, with their dates of birth and some kind of identification card number (here’s an argument for a national ID number, similar to the American social security number), with the name of the school, the year, and the degree earned. That will enable anyone to just check if you indeed finished from Boracay University even if you have never been on a boat. (Yes, I am alluding to the Thai minister’s case.)

DepEd and CHED should get some funding (very minimal, because we need only one very fast typist and one very patient clerk, the latter to search all school lists of graduates) to get this database done.

Now let us look at anomalies within the control of schools.

There are a few, admittedly very few cases of school registrars being bribed to change the grades of students. Because the excuse can always be made that it was a typing or encoding error, these erring registrars get away with academic murder when a student suddenly passes or gets a grade high enough to get Latin honors. Since not too many teachers bother to double-check posted student grades, registrars or their assistants have a great opportunity to make a little money on the side.

There are a few, admittedly very few cases of secretaries being asked to get paychecks for their academic bosses, finding a way to cash those checks, and defrauding their own bosses of hard-earned income.

I speak here from personal experience not related to schoolwork. I used to write a weekly column for a newspaper (not the Star) and knowing how newspapers tend to be a little late in paying their contributors (again, not the Star), I did not mind it so much when, after about six months, I had not yet been paid anything.

I would ask my secretary periodically to call the newspaper, and she would always answer that there was no check waiting for me at the newspaper’s accounting office. I would loudly curse the newspaper within her earshot.

One day, when my secretary was out of the office, a messenger from the newspaper came with an envelope. It was cash from the newspaper. I asked the messenger how come I had gotten paid only after so long and why the pay was so small. He said that he had come in every week previously with payment for my column.

All the time that I was raging mad against the newspaper, a messenger had brought in, every week, cash from the newspaper. My secretary had signed the receipts, pocketed the money, and left me looking stupid with my ranting and raving.

Of course, I fired that secretary the moment she returned to the office. Well, not immediately, because I had to go through the usual due process.

If you think it is unusual for someone to get paid cash in these days of checks and ATMs, look again. When I was with DepEd in 2001, I got paid my salary in cash, and so did all of my staff. When Roco tried to start the use of bank ATMs for salaries, he got plenty of flak. Can you imagine why? (If not, you should take Corruption 101.)

I know of some cases, again very, very few cases, where teachers complained about not being paid by a school, only to find out that their salaries had been collected by clerks all along.

Corruption in education starts with the teacher.

Since a teacher has absolute power as far as the grade of a student is concerned, the temptation to be corrupt is great. This is a small but significant example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The most blatant of such behavior is, of course, sexual harassment. There are teachers (admittedly, very few) that demand sexual favors in exchange for giving high or even just passing final grades to students. The sexual favors may range from simple tolerance of sexist remarks (“you look sexy today”) to lunch dates to what Philippine English calls “chancing” to actual intercourse. Sexual harassment is a criminal offense, but it takes a young student extraordinary courage to file charges against a teacher that could, with no one else asking for justification, give her or him a failing mark.

Not related to lust but to greed is the more common practice of teachers asking students to pay for a field trip. A typical field trip requires a rental bus, admission tickets, and meal expenses. Too many administrators ignore such field trips, because they involve a lot of tedious accounting, often with non-official receipts, and focus instead on watching their backs by asking parents to sign accident waiver forms.

Individual teachers take advantage of this administrative laziness. I know of many cases where teachers charged students what seemed like reasonable amounts, then either got commissions from bus operators or restaurants, or just pocketed the difference between what was collected and what was spent. The amounts involved are not huge, but relative to what teachers make, they add considerably to take-home pay.

More abstract but just as corrupt is the practice of some teachers, particularly on the university level, to make money from their own textbooks in their classes.

There is a gray area here, however. In the United States, where requiring one’s own textbook is condemned as unethical, there is no justification for using one’s own textbook in one’s classroom, because there are dozens of other textbooks to choose from. In the Philippines, because of the scarcity of textbooks, teachers can often validly claim that theirs is the only textbook available. (To say that theirs is the best textbook available is not a matter of corruption, but a matter of the cardinal sin of pride.)

I hold no brief against teachers using their own textbooks in their own classes in the Philippines. I do it myself when there is no other textbook on the market or, more often, when my textbook is adopted by my school. The corruption enters when teachers make money (outside of the royalties to which they are legally and morally entitled) by doing actual selling or physically bringing the textbooks into the classrooms and collecting the money from students. More often than not, the money paid by students is more than what the teacher paid for the books, because authors get their own books at a discount.

To remove all doubts about making extralegal money off textbooks, author-teachers can simply direct students to campus or commercial bookstores. In the case of field trips, administrators can make students pay to school cashiers or, better, can include the costs of field trips in the miscellaneous fees collected at the start of a schoolyear.

Part of urban legend (okay, maybe it is not always just urban legend) is the image of the public schoolteacher selling food or dry goods inside the classroom. Unlike store customers that can always walk away and not buy anything, students feel forced to buy anything their teacher sells them. Even if the selling is for a good cause (such as a church raffle), a teacher taking money from students is still corrupt.

Even more of an urban legend (it does happen, though very rarely) is the teacher that sleeps her or his way to the top of the campus ladder.

Finally, in private schools, even in the most prestigious ones, there are teachers that, in effect, bribe their students to put high marks on Student Evaluation Forms. The bribery takes many forms. Some teachers give very high grades just before the evaluation period (typically, in the middle of a term). Some threaten students with failing grades should the teacher herself or himself fail in the evaluation. Some actually prepare very well for their lessons before evaluation but just bum off afterwards.

The old adage that it is not what teachers say but what they do that influences young students still holds true today. When they see that some teachers can be bribed by money, sex, or ego massage, students grow up thinking that such exploitative or manipulative behavior is ethical. When they get out of school, these students naturally behave the way their wayward teachers behaved.

Corruption starts at a very young age. Unless teachers stop looking the other way, students will grow up thinking that cheating is normal behavior.

Let us take college students. College students cheat. That sounds like a gross generalization, and it is. There are, indeed, a few college students that do not cheat. There are those that, despite the examples of their classmates, are satisfied with lower grades as long as they have not cheated on exams or assignments.
A huge number of college students, however, would rather get good grades earned dishonestly than bad grades earned honestly.

How do students cheat? The example from the movie The Emperor’s Club is the old-fashioned way, namely, to write down data somewhere within reach for reference during exams. A cursory glance at student desks in our own classrooms should reveal all sorts of data (called “crib notes”) useful to a student, such as formulas, dates, terms, or mnemonic devices.

How can a teacher fight this kind of cheating? Just suddenly rearrange the seating arrangement, so that students do not sit where they think they were going to. Ask all the students to deposit all their bags and notebooks somewhere in the room, thus depriving them of their carefully prepared microscopic memory enhancers. Have test papers that are completely self-contained, so students need only a pencil or ballpen with them as they take the exam. In extreme cases, examine palms and forearms, where notes could be written.

More complex ways of cheating, however, are now available to students. The cellphone is a marvelous tool. Students may claim that they need the calculator function in their cellphones, but they can easily store crib notes on their phones, text friends, and even access the Web. How to fight such newfangled ways of cheating? Just ask students to deposit their cellphones somewhere in the room for the duration of the exam. For exams that require calculators, you could have students exchange calculators, in case these calculators have the capacity to store crib notes.

Harder to check is cheating by looking at the exam papers of classmates. It is really unfair to penalize a student whose eyes wander around the room. Such eye movement may be completely innocent or involuntary. Such students may even be so near-sighted that they cannot actually see the answers of the students sitting next to them. How can teachers prevent this kind of cheating? The most difficult but most effective way is to have several sets of exams. In a multiple-choice exam, the answers could be coded differently (one set has A as the correct answer, the next B, the next C, and so on). Fortunately, with computers, such tedious work has been made easier for teachers.

The simplest thing a teacher can do is to ask students to cover their answer sheets with other pages of the test. This will not work, however, with students bent on broadcasting their answers to their seatmates. Walking around the room or standing behind students is supposed to discourage this kind of cheating, but who are we kidding?

An easy way to avoid this kind of cheating is to chop up an exam into parts. The teacher can collect the first part after ten minutes (or whatever time it takes to answer the questions) and the rest in irregular intervals. If the teacher makes sure that the questions are so difficult that it would take a genius to answer all of them in the time allotted, students will not have time to broadcast their answers or to look at other people’s papers. When grading the exam, all that the teacher needs to do is to reduce the denominator (instead of saying that a student got 5 out of 10 questions, say that the student got 5 out of 8). This takes into account the lack of time to answer all the questions, but allows geniuses to get extra points (getting 10 out of 8).

The most blatant way of cheating in an exam is to have someone else take it. There are infamous cases like these in the United States, written up in education journals. The example of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) taking the bar in Catch Me If You Can is not farfetched. There are actually people that take exams for other people or that take exams in subjects they know little about.

To avoid this type of cheating, the teacher should check identification cards before giving out exam sheets. The teacher should not rely on signatures. Signatures are unreliable; students forge each other’s signatures. Students that seldom attend class may have perfect attendance, courtesy of classmates that sign attendance sheets for them.

I used to be naïve about students taking tests for other students. I used to (and still do) give daily quizzes in my undergraduate classes (for better monitoring of student progress). Since my quizzes consisted of mini-essays, I thought they were cheat-proof. One conscience-stricken student, however, eventually snitched: some of my brighter students would do the quizzes of their intellectually-challenged classmates. Now, I check handwriting as well as content.

Under the administration of the late Raul S. Roco, the Department of Education rose from being regarded as the most corrupt government bureaucracy to one of its least corrupt. Succeeding DepEd Secretaries continued some of his reforms and were largely successful in reducing corruption, despite the publicized attempts by Malacañang to use the Department to launder election funds. Were it not for the general corruption that now characterizes the government and therefore makes all government institutions suspect, DepEd would be a model of good governance.

What were (I use the past tense advisedly) the most common ways of being corrupt in DepEd?

The worst, as documented by various news agencies, had to do with textbooks. Because the contracts were in the billions of pesos, crooked publishers and printers had no qualms about offering several million pesos to those in DepEd that had something to do with approving purchases.

As USEC in 2001, I was in charge of evaluating the content of textbooks before they got purchased. The highest bribe I was personally offered (which I, of course, refused) was fifty million pesos. Since I knew that the offers would not stop coming in, I did a very simple thing to stop temptation. I simply announced that I thought no textbook was good enough for me. Since all the textbooks offered had factual or grammatical errors anyway, I had a good excuse not to approve any textbook. When the word spread that I would not approve any textbook, no more bribes were offered to me.

To stop ghost deliveries of textbooks ordered by previous administrations, I formed ad hoc teams to conduct surprise visits to printing presses and warehouses to physically count stocks. Moreover, I reassigned staff that used to be connected to textbook evaluation and purchasing.

I set a date when parents and community leaders would wait for scheduled deliveries to schools. I called the day D-Day, for Delivery Day. Succeeding undersecretaries continued the practice and even improved on it by getting civic organizations and NGOs to serve as watchdogs.

Although I had nothing to do with the bidding process, I got television stations to film the process. During one particular bidding, I saw the usual fixers fixed to their seats, because they saw TV cameras recording any attempt by them to whisper to the bidding committee members. Roco loved to call this the Sunshine Principle: if you let sunshine (in this case, media) in, all the germs will die.

All purchases of goods and services were occasions for corruption. Even a small thing such as reserving a hotel function room for a DepEd meeting would mean a few extra pesos for whoever actually went to the hotel to conduct, in a notorious Philippine English euphemism, an “ocular inspection.” I used to wonder why there needed to be an ocular inspection of a hotel that was used regularly anyway by DepEd, until I realized that there was something to be gained for those doing the so-called inspecting.

The practice that Roco tried very hard to stop through the use of bank ATMs was that of accounting clerks deliberately withholding salary checks from teachers until a little coffee money changed hands. That little money was big money, since even a ten-peso tip twice a month from one teacher meant, since there were half a million teachers, ten million pesos a month. Of course, you can’t buy coffee with ten pesos, so you can imagine how many more millions of pesos went into private hands just because they held other people’s checks.

One of the reasons I left DepEd so quickly was the lack of compensation. At the time I was invited by Roco to help him at DepEd, I was the highest-paid academic in the country (since De La Salle University had the highest salaries and I held the highest rank there). In contrast, in DepEd, I got less than what my own secretary at my university earned. I could have made extra money by writing, but then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. personally advised me not to continue this column because, as he put it, I should do only DepEd work. I then had absolutely no other income but the peanuts I got from DepEd.

When a new trimester was about to start at De La Salle University, I took it as my cue to leave government service. I contented myself with being an unpaid volunteer for CHED, which I have been since then. At least, as one of the technical experts used by CHED to evaluate schools, I still do my share for education in the country.

Now, I am happy working in four universities and writing a column. I get paid amounts commensurate to what I do. In government, it is all financial sacrifice, unless you are corrupt or independently wealthy. It could even be said that the biggest cause of corruption in government is the low salary scale. Fifty million to someone earning less than thirty thousand a month is a lot, but it is not much for someone earning what a Vice President earns in Makati. (First published in The Philippine Star, 10, 17, 24 April and 8 May 2008)


Anonymous said...

I wish your article also discussed how terrible Philippine Education in terms of "content". Aside from the fact some things are so elaborately explained(that it would take a rocket scientist to converse with another rocket scientist), their value is akin to a food product's expiration date. Sometimes I wonder if people understand that what they teach in schools isn't up to the times, that it lags so hellishly behind.

People should diss "Philippine Education" for being "pathetically low". If the purpose of Education is empowerment, well then it does a good job, right? Because we have generations after generations of fools.

The Philippines will never progress, ever!


Anonymous said...

Just want to share w. Sir isagani how grateful I am until vnw to be with assumption antipolo an exclusive school or girls,the school is corrupt-free.in my 22 yrs of teaching,ive never heard of any student who cheated.you know why?the spiritual formation and the regular. Seminars being given to us by the assumption coordinators and the religious makes each one of us be true on our mission as educators of d young.

Snake Eyes said...

Another example of corruption in Philippine education:


Anonymous said...

Does anyone have anything to say about compulsory field trips by private schools?

From what research I've done online and from my own common sense, I don't see how it is legal for anybody- whether school, business, or individual, to force someone to pay for something they did not sign up for.

The school my children attend has refused to sign their clearance slip because we did not attend a field trip that cost 3,000 per child (a total of 9,000 pesos for me as I have 3 children) and this trip was 4 days long (province to Manila)... they insisted that we had to pay the amount regardless of whether we availed of the trip or not.
When I refused, after a couple of months, they have come up with something they call "special projects"... apparently this "project" has to cost at least 2,000 pesos. I have no idea if this is a cash donation to the school or if I have to buy something for the school or if I simply have to spend 2,000 on a project per child. (that's a lot of cartolina and glitter!)
I said apparently because we never received any note regarding this and teacher specified that she did not want to discuss this with me because she was sure I would be confrontational.

This is insanity to me and like I said, could not possibly be legal.