The Problem of Rural Education in the Philippines

In this journal, I have discussed the relationship between education, poverty alleviation, and economic development. The link is critical and the three are self-reinforcing.  Education creates greater opportunities for the youth, who go on to work decent jobs in cities like Bacolod, Manila, and Cebu.  The children remit money back to the parents, who spend on home improvements and the tuition fees for the younger siblings.  College-educated individuals are much less likely to end up impoverished (about 1 in 44).  Trade schools also create opportunities, with only one in 10 people with post-secondary degrees living below the poverty line.  Unfortunately, the ratios drop precipitously after that.  One in three high school graduates and half of elementary school grads are impoverished.  Here are the sobering education statistics:

The long-term outlook for poverty reduction doesn’t look good either, unfortunately. We all know that there is a very strong link between education (or lack of education) and poverty—two-thirds of our poor families have household heads whose highest educational attainment is at most Grade 6. Well, the education statistics (all from the NSCB ) tell a very sad tale: elementary school net participation rates (NPR)—the proportion of the number of enrollees 7-12 years old to population 7-12 years old—have plummeted from 95 percent in school year (SY) 1997-98 to 74 percent in 2005-2006, as have high school NPRs.

Cohort survival rates (CSR) have also dropped: Out of every 100 children who enter Grade 1, only 63 will reach Grade 6, down from 69 children in 1997-1998. In high school, CSR have dropped even more: from 71 to 55. Which means, of course, that school dropout rates have increased. Which is one of the reasons why, in 2005-2006, for the first time in 35 years, total enrollment decreased in both elementary and high school: although private school enrollment increased, public school enrollment went down more.

The correlation is not difficult to see, but fixing the problem presents a challenge for several reasons.  According to some observers, the Department of Education Culture and Sports (DECS) in the Philippines is one of the most corrupt government entities in the country.  It has a budget equal to 12% of spending, but is riddled with graft from procurement (buying textbooks and other supplies), grease money, and bribes for just about any sort of movement within the bureaucracy.  The impact on the education system is detrimental:

Embezzlement, nepotism, influence peddling, fraud and other types of corruption also flourish. Corruption has become so institutionalized that payoffs have become the lubricant that makes the education bureaucracy run smoothly. The result: an entire generation of Filipino students robbed of their right to a good education.

This corruption leads to poor allocation of resources.  Teachers are underpaid and treated poorly.  In 2005, the Philippine government spent just $138 per student, compared to $852 in Thailand, another developing country in Southeast Asia.  But graft and corruption are not the only issues.  Poverty is a vicious cycle that leads traps generations of families.

Lunchtime at "The Environment-Friendly School"

About 80% of the Filipino poor live in the rural areas of the country.  These are towns located deep in the mountains and the rice fields.  The population density in the rural parts of the country is low, and there is a corresponding deficiency in schools and classrooms.  Public school is free, but families still cannot afford to send their children for a complicated network of reasons.  In this editorial for the Pinoy Press, one author delineates the key issue:

With around 65 million Filipinos or about 80 percent of the population trying to survive on P96 ($2) or less per day, how can a family afford the school uniforms, the transportation to and from school, the expenses for school supplies and projects, the miscellaneous expenses, and the food for the studying sibling? More than this, with the worsening unemployment problem and poverty situation, each member of the family is being expected to contribute to the family income. Most, if not all, out-of-school children are on the streets begging, selling cigarettes, candies, garlands, and assorted foodstuffs or things, or doing odd jobs.

Beyond the selling goods on the street, children in farming families are expected to work in the fields during harvest time.  In agriculture-based communities where farming is the primary livelihood, having children around to help with the work means more income for the family.  In a recent trip to Valladolid, someone told me that children are paid 15 pesos for a day’s work in the blistering heat.  They are pulled from school for two or three months at a time and are irreparably disadvantaged compared with their classmates.  So, they may have to repeat the grade, only to be pulled out of school again next year.

Transportation is another big problem.  Kids walk 2-3 kilometers or more to and from school every day.  They have to cross rivers and climb hills with their bookbags.  The ones that can afford it take a tricycle, but that is a luxury.  Schools are sometimes too far for the most remote communities to practically access.  So the families can’t afford to pay and the children are pulled from school.

The walk to school.

It seems like an intractable problem.  Corruption in the education bureaucracy and a lack of resources make delivering a high-quality education to all Filipinos a challenge.  Microfinance is one way to help.  With the assistance of microcredit loans, women can pay for the education of their children – to purchase uniforms, textbooks, lunches, and rides to school.  Also, by creating another source of income other than farming, the children do not have to come help the family work the fields.  When I talk to NWTF clients about their dreams, they unfailingly say they hope for their children to “finish their studies.” History has shown that it is an achievable goal.  But real systemic change needs to come from above.  As long as corruption and bureaucracy paralyzes the system, the goal of delivering a decent education to children – which pays dividends to the country in the long run – will remain out of reach.

For the rural poor, non-profits exist to help in the mission of education.  While looking up pictures for this post, I came across a Filipino organization called the Gamot Cogon (“Grass Roots”) Institute:

The Gamot Cogon Institute (a non-stock, non-profit organization) is an Iloilo-based cultural institution working to transform society through human development approaches including education and training. GCI also prototypes or demonstrates alternative approaches to education, agriculture, health, and full human development.

Very cool stuff.

6 thoughts on “The Problem of Rural Education in the Philippines

  1. Chris Prottas

    Hey Josh, I’m a friend of Adam Pearse, who recommended I check out your blog. I enjoy your perspective, and I am actually volunteering (from afar) to help an education NGO in India that attempts to tackle this same problem, albeit primarily in more densely inhabited slums. Gyan Shala provides primary education at a fraction of the cost of public/private counterparts by spending more on creating detailed curricula, learning plans/worksheets, teaching aids, etc. and less on teachers, devolving primary teaching responsibilities to high school passouts in the local community under the mentorship of more senior teachers. The educational outcomes are strong (superior to their counterparts, except for the very expensive private schools), and the majority of students served come from families living on less than $2 a day. The cost of education a child per month works out to about $4-$5, thanks to the low cost of high school passout labor, and using space in the local community (reducing transit time as well) rather than central schooling facilities.

    Out of curiosity, what is the average wage for a high school passout in these areas in the Philippines and what is the typical class size?

  2. Hugh Akston

    Fascinating post. It would be interested to see the percentages of dropouts within other Asian developing countries as well as those in other regions such as South America and central Asia. It would also be interesting to see the breakdown in numbers from rural to urban. In China, some of the cities have an 80-90% high school graduation rate with equally high percentages going to colleges while in the rural areas the numbers are much worse.

    Clearly education is the only way out of the poverty cycle which is why China is so quickly advancing. Interestingly, in some of the inner cities of the US, there are similarly striking dropout rates (not in elementary school but in middle school and high school) with similar end results in terms of poverty, unemployment and inability to get out of a cycle of poverty, poor child-rearing etc.

  3. Josh Weinstein

    Hey Chris. I’ve been meaning to respond to you about this for a while. First, thanks for checking out the blog. It’s always good to hear from other people doing development about the work theyre doing. I’m not sure I know what a high school passout is. Is that a dropout? If so, its likely very low. There is an abundance of labor in the Philippines and not enough jobs. Unemployment among unskilled labor, in particular, is high. The class sizes are a major issue. A couple months ago there was an article in the new york times about the classroom shortage in the philippines. it is a fast growing country – 70 million to 95 million in a few decades – and the department of education, due to a mixture of funding deficiency and corruption, is not keeping up. there might be 100 kids in an elementary school classroom that seats 80. in the philippines, it is written nto the constitution that education must be the #1 priority of the country, and this is what every politician promises. And without fail, every politician fails to keep that promise. Solutions in the urban slums are probably different than in the rural farmland, but it sounds like you are doing some pretty innovative and effective, given the constraints.

  4. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for sharing your article. It is very informative. Most of all for giving yourself to this noble endeavor

  5. torn

    A sobering post. Its underlying assumption, that investment in education will raise people out of poverty, seems so self-evident as to be hardly worth questioning, but William Easterly’s book “The Elusive Quest for Growth”, does question it. He points out that a number of studies have looked at the rapid growth in education expenditure in African countries in the period 1960¬¬–1985, including Angola, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Senegal and Sudan, and have found very little correlation with GDP growth per capita, although there does seem to be a correlation between initial rates of schooling and subsequent productivity growth.

    Having said that, no country has become rich with a universally unskilled working population, so there has to be investment in education. However, there also have to be economic incentives beyond nursing jobs overseas to make sure that there is a pay-off from the investment. This is what China has done, as you point out in another of your recent posts.

    As with so many social and economic issues any gains in education are inevitably wiped out by rapid and unsustainable population growth. Take physical infrastructure. There has been little investment in new schools in the last 30 years, which means that schools that were built to educate the young of a national population of 48 million (1980) now have to accommodate the children of population of 93 million (2010). Is it any wonder then that class sizes are 100 or more?

    Finally, I completely agree that it is the ancillary costs of schooling that deter many parents, which is why richer local governments, such as that in Makati, offer help with uniforms, books, etc. Helping poorer families meet these costs has to be part of a national education policy.

  6. Josh Weinstein

    Hi Torn – thanks for responding to my post. I will look into more of William Easterly’s writings this week. It doesn’t surprise me that education spending does not correlate to development. The United States has some of the highest per capita spending on public education, yet it is in the bottom third of developed countries in terms of student performance. Like anything in education and development, it is not how many dollars you throw at a problem, but how those dollars are used that counts. A start would be to raise teacher pay, introduce more accountability in education spending, and invest in infrastructure, like you say. Even though public school is supposed to be free, students in many parts of the country still have to pay to attend. It is a difficult problem, since it is difficult to quantify impact and the payoff is long-term. We still haven’t figured out the right education policy in the U.S., so it isn’t just a developing world issue.

    Also, I read your response to my post about China as well, and I think you offer some good rebuttals of my argument. You are much more knowledgeable than I about the history of politics in the Philippines, so I look forward to reading your blog.

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