Most if not all Filipinos when asked will say that they value education because it assures the employability of their children. Education is for them either a way out of want and poverty, a means of continuing to live in the middle-class manner to which they have been accustomed, or, if they are among the very rich, merely something that would go well with the credentials of their sons as the future CEOs of their company.
Its role in the making of a democratic, humane and just society does not usually figure in their calculations, and neither does its being equally crucial to each individual’s development and productivity as a citizen and as a human being. But there is also the widespread and quite disturbing view that education has its limits — that one can be “too learned” and therefore deserving of the dismissive “masyadong marunong” epithet, which is usually reserved for the critical and questioning, such as, say, student activists.
However, whatever their views on education may be and whatever their class differences, most Filipinos, if not all, do their utmost to start their children young. The wealthy and even some middle-class families enroll them in the most expensive and presumably best schools. Their poorer counterparts put them in public schools, which in the more remote areas of the country can mean the children’s walking for kilometers in sun and rain, sometimes across rivers, hilly terrain, and along mountain trails.
They all know that education begins with such fundamentals as reading and writing, and adding, dividing and multiplying sums. But already in crisis for decades — haunted by shortfalls in classrooms and teachers as well as books and equipment — the basic education system of the Philippines fell even further behind that of other countries during the two-year-long pandemic lockdown.
Learners, parents, and teachers struggled with a host of problems in the 2021 “new normal” Department of Education (DepEd) policy of limited face-to-face classes in November that year. Schools re-opened in 2022, but the system continued to lag behind that of most countries for a number of reasons, one of them the Duterte policy of keeping schools closed until a vaccine became available.
In the first year of the lockdown, the basic education system (K-12) failed to develop effective programs for remote learning, mixed, or blended teaching. Because of the economic downturn, more than 25 percent of pre-school to high school students also failed to enroll, and nearly 2,000 public and private schools were forced to close.
The Economic Policy Institute identified in September 2020 as a “critical opportunity gap” in online learning the uneven access to computers and the Internet. That “digital divide” affected not only learners but also their parents and teachers who had problems in adjusting to the different teaching methods the pandemic had forced on teachers. It also further marginalized students with special needs.
But the ills of the educational system are even more disturbing than those caused by government ineptitude during the pandemic. The World Bank (WB) July 2021 assessment of the state of the country’s education mentioned a host of problems that have been plaguing the educational system even before COVID-19. It found that more than 80 percent of Filipino students could not meet minimum levels of proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics even before the pandemic lockdown.
The most that then Education Secretary Leonor Briones could do in 2021 was to demand an apology from the WB for not alerting DepEd on the release of the study: she did not dispute its findings. The Duterte administration itself showed little to no interest in education. While DepEd continued to receive the biggest share of the national budget, its allocations were still insufficient in addressing such problems as the classroom and teacher shortages.
The same administration pointedly raised police and military salaries while ignoring the long-standing need for similar increases in teacher wages. It instead militarized the bureaucracy while increasing its own 2022 confidential, intelligence and contingency funds.
If there is anything that demands a comprehensive, “whole-of -nation” approach to its problems, it is education. What is needed is to identify the priority issues in it that demand solutions, and to craft the relevant policies. But no sense of urgency drove the past regime to address the perennial problems of the educational system. Neither was it even remotely interested in looking into how other countries remedied or mitigated the negative impact of the pandemic on their own educational systems.
The crisis in education demands urgent solutions. But Briones’ successor at DepEd has so far done little to address the above issues. Vice-President Sara Duterte’s Basic Education Report (BER) showcased her supposed commitment to solving the problems of the system which she had earlier crowed she could solve within six years.
During a public forum in which she presented the BER last January, VP-cum-DepEd Secretary Duterte described herself as “a mother of four learners” who is at the same time responsible for 28 million others, making her “interest in the future of Philippine education…very personal.” She admitted that Filipino students are not “academically proficient.” But her BER, though long in rhetoric, was far short in the specifics of how exactly she would address it.
She provided information that has long been conventional knowledge, such as the shortage in classrooms and resources, which she described as the “most pressing issue” in education; the low literacy and numeracy levels of learners that the 2018 report of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found; the cluttered… K-12 program’s failure to assure the employability of graduates; and the lack of training and support systems for teachers.
She did mention plans to address these problems, such as revising the K-12 curriculum and providing more training programs for teachers and school administrators. Duterte’s statements on these deficiencies were welcomed by education experts, but her report neither presented data nor described what steps DepEd would take to solve the many other problems she admitted have hounded the educational system for decades.
Among them, certainly, is the need to address the salary and staffing problems that have long been a factor in the dismal state of Philippine education. But she did not mention anything about raising teachers’ salaries or increasing the number of the guidance counselors and teaching assistants that are needed to reduce the burdens on teachers.
Neither did her report reveal the progress of DepEd’s K-12 review, in which, incidentally, the involvement of such stakeholders as teachers’ and parents’ groups has been minimal, if at all. There is as well the need to assure language proficiency as a fundamental requirement for better learning, to achieve which a number of strategies are available. But the Duterte BER had nothing to say about it. Improving teacher training should similarly be in the agenda. It should ideally consist of improving access to research facilities, books and competent instructors at the formal schooling stage, and providing continuing teacher education after. But the Duterte BER provided little detail about it.
Unless the real problems of Philippine basic education are addressed with real solutions, it will continue to be the less than reliable foundation for the making of the employable citizens millions of parents hope their children will be. Least of all will it be the sound basis for their contributing to the development of the society of progress, peace, justice, humaneness and freedom that has long eluded these troubled isles.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Mayor Vico Sotto’s Twitter account.