Reforming basic education: Some sobering thoughts

Published by rudy Date posted on April 26, 2010

A WELL-ATTENDED forum on “The Promise of Redemption: BESRA and the Need for Higher Education Reform” was held recently on the UP Diliman campus. At that conference, four eminent scholars took turns in discussing various aspects of the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA), DepEd’s major initiative at reforming the country’s decrepit educational system. While aware of the obvious difficulties in implementing such a massive and ambitious program, all speakers voiced optimism that it will succeed in meeting its objectives.

I have a somewhat different view on the matter.

Flawed change strategy

To be sure, BESRA is a well-conceived, well-articulated and logically coherent set of proposals for moving the country’s failed system of basic education from its present dismal state to an idealized one. This is probably the reason why it has widespread support. On paper, it is impeccable. What lies on the ground is a totally different picture. Our system of basic education has degenerated through the years into one which is, by all acceptable measures, totally dysfunctional and maladaptive. Re-engineering such a system into an effective and efficient organization is a quixotic undertaking.

To begin with, there is something fundamentally remiss with what management gurus call “Planned Organizational Change,” which exactly what BESRA is.

What the DepEd is today is the outcome of its history. Looking back in time, we can identify the dots that eventually led to where it is today. However, as in all evolving systems, it is impossible to connect the dots looking forward. Introducing change as cataclysmic as the one envisioned by BESRA makes its future even less certain. Yet, those behind BESRA implicitly assume that the planned change will proceed along a predictable path. At the end of the time frame set by the strategic planners—too short to begin with—I can almost be sure that our educational system will still be far off the mark. For no sooner than the first implementing steps are taken that the system meanders erratically from one unintended and untenable position to another. This is because uncontrollable and innumerable forces within and outside the system are set in motion that will invariably shift it from its intended course. This, unfortunately, is how complex, self-adapting systems work!

Continuous organizational adaptation in complex, dynamic settings requires organizational flexibility and a culture of innovation, which is glaringly absent at DepEd. Such a culture of change cannot be fast-tracked as BESRA aims to do.

Incentive problem

A change of such seismic magnitude as envisaged by BESRA is bound to throw the entire system out of kilter. Deeply entrenched turfs and sinecures will be put at risk. Elements both within and outside the system whose interests are intimately tied to the status quo will feel terribly threatened and are bound to vigorously resist such a change. For all the vocal outpouring of support for BESRA from all sectors, it is doubtful that the noble objectives of BESRA will prevail over self-interests.

To minimize conflicts of interest, BESRA must prescribe governance mechanisms, control procedures and incentive systems that effectively co-align conflicting individual and group interest with those of the institution. In this way, the pursuit of higher-level organizational and national goals will be seen by all stakeholders as the best way to attain their own interest. However, even with such mechanisms in place, meeting BESRA’s goals will require a level of enlightenment and a sense of mission among all concerned —of which there are legions—that can only be described as a will-o-th’-wisp.

Downside of empowerment

A key ingredient of BESRA is its stress on “School-Based” initiatives by which the onus of carrying out the reform agenda is placed squarely on the schools and the communities which they directly serve. This strategy of empowerment is in keeping with current thinking in organizational dynamics, and its advantages are known to all students of organizations. In the context of educational reform, a school-based strategy has the added advantage of schools benefiting from the use of locally available resources, and of putting new knowledge in the context of local culture. Involving school officials and the local community will also provide motivational fillip by creating a sense of ownership in the endeavor.

The major downside of a school-based strategy is that the implementers will tend to be too focused on local issues and concerns. My own thinking on the matter is that a program for human development and investment in human capital such as BESRA requires a national—even global—outlook. Being too focused on strictly local outcomes may result in a failure to capture external effects that are relevant to national development.

Another disadvantage of this approach is the over-reliance on local resources and capabilities which vary widely in both quantity and quality from community to community. As a result, our system of basic education will tend to be of fractured quality, with most of the country being at a disadvantage compared to the more affluent urban areas. Social value created at the margins are not equalized—a clear case of sub-optimization in resource allocation.

If these observations are valid, it behooves BESRA to incorporate in its implementation a set of guidelines for setting up an extensive, nationwide network for sharing information and resources in order to capture value from the significant spillover effects arising from the individual community initiatives. –Niceto Poblador, Philippine Daily Inquirer

[For a more extended critique of BESRA, please go to this page of my website: joomla/index.php?option=com_docman&task =cat_view&gid=21&dir=DESC&order=name&Itemid= 37.]

(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is an active academic and a knowledge management consultant. Feedback at

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