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)

01 May 2008

Book Review: Kapoor and Villa

The examples come mostly from India and the writing is clearly popular, but serious marketing managers can still learn quite a lot from 24 Brand Mantras: Finding a Place in the Minds and Hearts of Consumers by Jagdeep Kapoor (New Delhi: Response Books, 2001, 111 pages).

Kapoor, who manages a leading strategic marketing consultancy in India, uses his own experience with various brands to put across several traditional, as well as innovative, ideas about handling a brand. He uses the usual marketing jargon, such as segmentation, positioning, advertising, promotion, sales distribution, product portfolio design, pricing, and customer service, but by and large, he is able to describe complex marketing realities in words so simple you can read the book while waiting for websites to download when you are surfing.

He has twelve mantras or sayings for the mind and twelve for the heart, both mind and heart being involved in any marketing strategy.

For the mind, he has mantras such as “To build a big brand, adopt a short brand name,” “Sample to sell ample,” and “Brands must make profit, not only noise.” For the heart, he has mantras such as “Be humble, or you will tumble,” “Don’t sell the right product to the wrong audience,” and “Don’t prejudge your consumers.”

He does have a few examples that are not Indian. To stress that “Brand images are fragile, handle with care,” he discusses the Pepsi multiple winners case. Interestingly, he looks at the case in the context of other countries: “The brand took such a beating that the Philippine government had to step in and diffuse the situation. Naturally, repercussions were felt in the neighboring countries as well. While adept handling of the brand saved the day in countries around, in the Philippine islands the Pepsi brand, that had for so many years been lovingly built, stands tarnished.” This was, of course, before Pepsi added a twist to their product.

Some of Kapoor’s insights may seem too simplistic to the seasoned marketing specialist, but for those just starting out to create a name and a fortune for themselves in the marketing field, it will not hurt to heed the 24 pieces of advice he gives.

In the literary field, a brand that has remained strong through the years is the name Jose Garcia Villa. The brand is so strong that the person was even named a National Artist, despite his living most of his adult life in New York City.

One objection to Villa as a brand is his supposedly meager output as a writer. His collected poems will not fill a respectably-sized library volume, though the quality of his poetry is universally acknowledged. Still, in a consumer-oriented society, even in academic circles, quantity is quality, and the brand needed refurbishing.

Jonathan Chua has added to the appeal of the brand by putting together a sizable volume of Villa’s literary criticism – The Critical Villa: Essays in Literary Criticism by Jose Garcia Villa (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2002, 349 pages).

Villa inspired me to do my own listing of the best poems and short stories published in Philippine magazines, but he was more courageous and more brutal, because he put asterisks to indicate what he thought was the quality, or lack of it, of the poems and short stories.

If the poem or short story was not even deserving of an asterisk, he did not even mention it, or worse, he included it in what he called a “Criminal Record” of “The Worst Compositions.” From 1927 to 1940 he made writers in his Honor Roll feel that they had arrived, and he made writers in his Criminal Record feel that they would never arrive. Curiously, a writer could be in both, being praised one year for having “a mind that has risen to the wisdom of the heart” and being condemned another year for writing a text that was “mediocrity triumphant”!

Here are a couple of quotable quotes from Villa’s prose. Villa was particularly incensed by another annual selector, Cornelio Faigao. Said Villa: “I am harsh against Faigao because I don’t like bad taste.” Villa was merciless about writers he disliked, such as Rafael Zulueta da Costa. He wrote, after Zulueta had won the Commonwealth Prize for poetry, “Mr. Zulueta has no talent whatsoever, not even a trace of it. He has not produced one respectable poem in fifteen years of writing.” Villa was gung-ho in general about Philippine writing, however, proclaiming its virtues to high heaven – heaven at that time being the United States – and insisting that Filipinos were as good, if not better, than American writers.

I am particularly grateful that this book has seen the light of day, because my classes in Philippine literary criticism, which usually start with Jose Rizal and, in the period Villa was prolific as a critic, continue only with Alejandro Abadilla, Clodualdo del Mundo, Salvador P. Lopez, and Buenaventura Rodriguez, will now be comprehensive, with the inclusion of Villa in the canon of Filipino literary criticism. If T. S. Eliot is right that every new text changes all previously existing texts, the publication of The Critical Villa will force us to rethink the history of literary criticism, not just in our country, but in the world.

(First published in BizNews Asia, 24-31 March 2003)

Book Review: Sanchez & Mojares

The grammar is atrocious, the relationship between texts and visuals unclear, and the printing amateurish, but some of the pieces of advice in Marlo Sanchez’s Best Advice for Your Own Business (Muntinlupa: Pinoybisnes Resource Center, 2002, 245 pages) should be useful to the office employee who wants to make it big in the world of entrepreneurs.

Sanchez comes from a rare breed – the breed of Filipino bestselling authors. Appropriately enough, publishing his own books is his own business, and he unselfishly shares with his readers the secrets of his success as an entrepreneur and an independent publisher. The nuggets of practical wisdom in his books are enough to start off anyone seriously thinking of becoming rich.

Unlike his previous Be Smart! Start & Manage Your Own Business and A Smart & Practical Guide for New Entrepreneurs, this latest Sanchez product features cartoons by another well-known figure, Washington “Tonton” Young, creator of Pupung. Young is himself another entrepreneur, managing a small eatery very much like the one featured in his cartoons.

The book is highly recommended for those dreaming, but still afraid, of starting their own business, as well as for Pupung fans.

Much better written and printed is Resil B. Mojares’s Waiting for Mariang Makiling: Essays in Philippine Cultural History (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2002, 324 pages). Mojares has set out to find out how Filipinos in the past imagined their world. Or, if we want to be even more precise, how we Filipinos today imagine our world.

Mojares is the major structuralist or poststructuralist or postmodern critic in this part of the world, yet you will find it hard to spot a structuralist buzzword or a reference to a poststructuralist demigod in his work. Mojares has not indigenized contemporary Western critical theory; instead, he has universalized traditional Filipino critical theory. In his footnotes, you will see a lot of names and texts that are the result of his digging in libraries. But in his text, you will be dazzled by a lot of gold ore that comes not from other people’s books, but only from his sharp and fertile mind.

Imagine an essay that succeeds in tying together Maria Makiling, Bernardo Carpio, Rizal, Ferdinand Marcos, Macario Pineda, Jose F. Lacaba, and our desire to steer our own course as a nation. (The word “nation,” by the way, has a very bad press in Mojares’s book.) Or an essay that finds Pigafetta circumnavigating not the globe but the writing process. Imagine doing with Italian texts on the Philippines what Edward Said thought he did with French texts on the Middle East in Orientalism, and subverting or deconstructing (we should say for the sake of those, who, like Mojares, dislike jargon, debunking) Said’s findings. Imagine reading a history or a biography and concentrating on what is not being said, on the unsaid, the unsaid being the real history or biography, whatever the word “real” means. Imagine treating the process of being hailed as a saint – beatification and canonization – as a text. Imagine following the journey of a physical statue and coming up not with a physical map, but with a map of the mind of the Cebuano. Imagine constructing a genealogy of manners, or even a catechism of the body. Or taking an 1891 menu and forming a portrait of the late 19th century in Cebu.

We could say that all this was done before by Jacques Derrida when he wrote a thick book based only on a postcard he bought on a visit to Oxford or by Roland Barthes when he wrote about women after looking only at printed photographs of women’s dresses. We could say this, but we would be wrong. Mojares has done postmodern readings of various texts much better than Derrida or Barthes, at least for Filipino readers, because we know all the references and do not have to research on who exactly the people and what exactly the texts are being used in a Derrida or Barthes essay.

In fact, in my classes on literary criticism, I hardly ever ask my students to read Derrida or Barthes anymore; I just ask them to read Mojares. They get the theories and the methods and the insights accurately anyway, and they get them much faster and much easier than in wading through often unreliable English translations of often badly-written French texts. True, Mojares shifts from Spanish to English to Tagalog to Cebuano sources with equal facility, and expects readers to share this facility. But frankly, what business do we have doing literary theory, not to mention Philippine history, if we do not know Spanish, English, Tagalog, and yes, Cebuano?

Like Rizal, Mojares never seeks knowledge for its own sake, but always, in his own words, “knowledge at his country’s service.” One way we could read his latest book is to wonder why nothing has changed since the old days, why the Philippines is still as invisible as it was when Rizal vainly looked for Philippine weapons in the otherwise complete Museum of Artillery in Paris, why we insist on betraying our imagination by adopting, or even adapting, foreign signs, significations, and sins.

(First published in BizNews Asia, 7-14 April 2003.)