MANILA, Philippines – Six years ago, President Benigno Aquino III envisioned that education would be an investment in Filipinos, and not another problem that needs fixing.
To prove his commitment in seeing this happen, Aquino proposed 10 ways to fix basic education in the country during his presidential campaign:
Department of Education Assistant Secretary Elvin Uy told Rappler that Aquino's 10-point education agenda was DepEd's guiding document in the last 6 years.
But there were backlogs from Aquino's predecessor that had to be addressed first. When Aquino assumed office in 2010, schools sorely lacked thousands of teachers and classrooms, as well as millions of textbooks and classroom seats.
In his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2015, Aquino assured the next administration that education backlogs will be the least of its worries.
In the same speech, he admitted that more education inputs will be needed since enrollment is expected to go up in the coming years.
But for Benjie Valbuena, the national chair of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers-Philippines, the country's education system did not improve and only deteriorated in the last 6 years.
"You can see that not only in the National Achievement Test, but also in the international achievement test, and the performance of Filipino graduates compared to the graduates of other nations," he told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.
A 12-year basic education cycle, which Valbuena's group is strongly opposed to, is actually the recognized standard for students and professionals globally, according to the DepEd.
Asked why they are opposed to the K to 12 program if they want Filipino graduates to be at par with their counterparts abroad, Valbuena said the resistance mainly comes from their belief that the country lacks the budget, preparation, and readiness for the reform.
"If the country prepared for and studied this well, and if this was experimental or if it went through pilot, maybe we won't have apprehensions, and we'd immediately see its effect. But as early as now, the dropout rate increased, professors and instructors lost their jobs, and the children are confused. There won't be problems like these if we prepared for and studied this, and if you started it with the students in Kinder. It could've been great," he said.
But Nelson Cainghog, a political analyst from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, said the K to 12 – one of the "game changer" reforms in basic education – not only brings the Philippines at par with most countries in the world, but also prepares students for their preferred careers.
In 2015, critics challenged the law before the Supreme Court (SC) and filed at least 6 petitions seeking its suspension. The SC has yet to give its final ruling on the matter. (READ: 2015: Protest against K to 12 at its loudest, reaches the Supreme Court)
"We started this in 2011, even in the absence of all the factors that could've made it possible. Brother Armin decided to push through with universal kindergarten in 2011 even though we had no budget for it, even though there were no actual teachers, that's why we hired volunteer teachers," Uy explained.
For Uy, it was probably one of the least controversial legislation in education since "it sailed through Congress, no one really opposed the measure."
The implementation of universal kindergarten is now on its 6th year. Education Secretary Armin Luistro considers kindergarten as one of the most important elements in K to 12.
"That policy alone brought in 1.8 million new learners for DepEd. So the classrooms backlog we had, at 66,800 when we came in, just ballooned because we opened a new program for Kinder in 38,000 elementary schools," he said during a June 20 Rappler Talk interview.
"Our enrollment is at around 1.8 million but that's a happy problem. I'm happy to keep pace with enrollment that's going up for a program as critical as Kinder."
One of the many criticisms against the K to 12 is how the new technical-vocational-livelihood (TVL) track under its senior high school program supposedly creates cheap labor and promotes an export labor policy in the country.
"Biro mo 'yung mga kurso, caregiving, housekeeping, wellness massage, frontdesk reception – 'yun talagang palabas ng bansa….E kung ganun, paano tayo talaga makakaahon sa hirap? (Imagine, the courses are caregiving, housekeeping, wellness massage, front desk reception – jobs available outside the country.... If that is the case, how can we really recover from poverty?)" Valbuena asked.
"Kung magdadagdag ka ng dalawang taon, dapat naka-angkla ito sa pangangailangan mismo na problema nung bansa natin. Halimbawa, problema sa agraryo, sa industriyalisasyon, at mag-create ng trabaho sa bansa, hindi sa labas."
(If you're going to add two years, it should be anchored on the needs and problems of our own country. For example, agrarian problems, problems in industrialization, and let's create jobs here in the country, not outside.)
But DepEd Assistant Secretary Jesus Mateo denied that labor export is the purpose of senior high school. The offerings under the program, according to him, actually address the needs in the country.
In addition, he thinks K to 12 is changing the perception that those who finish a TVL course is a "second class citizen."
"Siguro that's society's perception, na if you have a diploma, sikat ka. Pero oo nga, may diploma ka, may trabaho ka naman ba? Kaya nga ang daming mga graduate ng 4-year degree, eventually nag-aaral pa ulit sa tech-voc para lang ma-update ang kanilang skills doon sa trabaho na present," he explained.
(Maybe that's society's perception, that if you have a diploma, you're better. Sure, you may have a diploma, but do you have a job? We have a lot of graduates from a 4-year degree who eventually study tech-voc again just so they can update their skills for the job that is present.)
As of June 23, out of more than 1.2 million senior high school enrollees, 475,540 Grade 11 students chose the TVL track. Majority or 340,653 of them enrolled in public schools.
"Regarding questions like, 'Why are there many students in tech-voc tracks?' It's because that is the child's choice," Mateo said in a mix of English and Filipino.
To prepare students for the TVL track in senior high school, DepEd has modified its Technology and Livelihood Education (TLE) curriculum for junior high school. In Grades 7 and 8, students learn exploratory TLE, while they choose a particular specialization in Grades 9 and 10.
"It wouldn't make sense to have it in senior high school without laying the groundwork in junior high," Uy explained.
"[But] if the student does not pursue tech-voc in senior high school, that's fine, you got specialized training for two years."
When it comes to making every child a reader by Grade 1, Uy said students now are at least readers in their mother tongue.
"But the difficult part for us is making them also a reader in English in Grade 1. Most of the time, by the end of Grade 1, they would have the listening skills for English. But for mother tongue and Filipino, they should be readers," he added.
Local and international studies have shown that early learners' use of mother tongue inside the classroom produce better and faster learners. It makes them adept at learning a second (Filipino) and third language (English) too.
This is the wisdom behind DepEd's mother tongue-based multi-lingual education program for students in kindergarten to Grade 3.
Luistro said this shift to mother tongue during the early years is perhaps his department's "most complicated" policy, especially since they had to develop dictionaries and learning materials in 19 languages.
"We now have at least 3 or 4 years of experience and we are beginning to assess the language efficiency and the impact of that on language and numeracy of our students, and we're seeing very, very good results," Luistro explained.
"They are able to understand major concepts. Once they are able to grasp major concepts in their first language, it is so much easier to teach the second language, and then a third."
Under the K to 12 program, the science and math curriculum for junior high school follows the spiral progression approach instead of the K to 10's discipline-based approach.
"There was really no basis for [discipline-based approach in high school]," Uy said.
Using the science subject as an example, he explained: "Why is Biology for 14-year-olds, and why is Chemistry for 15-year-olds, and why is Physics for 16-year-olds? There are concepts in Biology which are easy, there are concepts in Biology which are very difficult."
With the spiral progression approach, students learn General Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics on a per-quarter basis. Basic competencies are taught in Grade 7, and the lessons get more complicated in Grades 8, 9, and 10. This approach also applies for the math subject.
"It follows the cognitive development and maturity of our learners," Uy added.
But this same curriculum meant to improve the science and math proficiency of Filipino students also allegedly "diluted" the special science curriculum of Manila Science High School (MSHS) – or so the critics of the K to 12 program say.
"Because of K to 12, the curriculum at Manila Science is no longer considered special science. Now it's just like an ordinary high school," Valbuena said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Severo Brillantes, counsel for parents and teachers from MSHS, earlier told Rappler that K to 12 is actually a "huge step backward in so far as the development of science and technology is concerned."
In 2015, DepEd also admitted delays in buying science and math kits worth billions for thousands of schools in the country, despite two years of budgetary allocations.
Financial support for private schools increased under the Aquino administration, Uy said, but he admitted "not all people are happy with it."
Consider this year's budget for DepEd's Education Service Contracting (ESC) under the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education (GASTPE).
Uy said ESC this year is a P9-billion program that can support up to 1 million public school students who will enroll in private junior high schools. He said this budget, which has increased over the years, is this administration's most significant assistance to private schools.
In addition to the ESC, the government this year introduced the senior high school voucher program meant to support Grade 10 completers from public schools who want to pursue Grade 11 in private schools or local and state universities and colleges.
The program has a budget of P12 billion, P11 billion of which is for private senior high schools.
"Some of the criticisms…say, 'Why are we spending on private schools when we should be spending on our own schools and students?' The simple answer there is, government has been spending on both," Uy explained.
He said the clearest proof of this is the department's budget, which has ballooned to P433 billion in 2016 from P175 billion in 2010. The country is now spending close to P20,000 per student, from about P8,000 in 2010.
But the voucher program is exactly why critics are calling the K to 12 a "privatization" in education. Valbuena said this privatization "is a violation of our Constitution, because in the Constitution, education is free in elementary and high school."
But as of June 23, most Grade 11 students are still in public schools (753,249) compared to those in private schools (485,111). There are 46,000 elementary and high schools in the country – still outnumbering the 12,072 private schools nationwide.
Support for private Madrasah schools was also scaled up under the Aquino administration. Uy said a similar ESC-type program provided funding to private Madrasah schools in the Philippines.
The goal of DepEd's Madrasah Education Program is to enhance the educational development of Filipino muslims. The Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education program for public school students has been in place even before the Aquino administration.
With or without K to 12, the quality of textbooks in the country has been the subject of complaints year in and year out. There were complaints on grammar errors, factual errors, and textbooks that are "no longer responsive" to the new K to 12 curriculum.
Uy admitted some of the criticisms "are valid and level-headed," but the quality of textbooks "is also something we're continuously hammering."
With the help of external partners, DepEd developed its own learning materials for Grades 1-4 and Grades 7-10 under the K to 12 curriculum. DepEd procures the printing and delivery for the hard copies of these materials.
For Grades 5-6 and Grades 11-12, meanwhile, the learning materials are a mix of those developed by DepEd and those developed by private publishers.
But Uy lamented that some criticisms on textbooks are "unfortunately...based on early and supposedly confidential drafts of the materials, but for whatever reason, leaked out."
"So what is difficult for the department is when we are criticized but we don't know the basis of the criticism – meaning, we don't know if the comments are based on the final materials or on the draft," he added.
Regardless, he said that since 2013, DepEd has internally asked people to give their feedback on the new learning materials, and this in turn has "improved the process of how we develop the materials".
Still, UP's Cainghog said the department could have started developing K to 12's learning materials sooner.
"If the reform did not push through, the same materials could be used for introductory college. Some of the materials are still being developed and has not been thoroughly tested. These could have been tested in 1st year college," he added.
Uy said under the Aquino administration, DepEd has engaged LGUs to maximize their SEF and go beyond classroom construction.
"So we do want local governments to champion basic education regardless of color, regardless of political strife, and I think we've done that to a large extent," he explained.
"That's why I think, for example, during the campaign this year, you don't see a groundswell of opposition against the K to 12 program, because I think for the most part, a lot of the local chief executives agreed to the merits of the program."
DepEd superintendents are members of local school boards, but the local school board as a collegial body has the final say on how the SEF will be spent.
"It's very important for them to direct those funds or those resources to something that's truly useful and beneficial to the student communities in their area," Uy said,
"They all go to basic education, a lot of them still go to construction or repair [of classrooms], some of them might go to [Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses], payment of utlities, or other small items. Some of it would be used for benchmarking studies, some of it is to support [activities] like Palarong Pambansa."
For Uy, the Aquino administration fulfilled its 10-point education agenda "but in varying degrees of success."
Luistro, meanwhile, believes the biggest changes in education happened under this administration, although his critics would likely disagree.
"[The changes are] not very well appreciated, but I think history will bear [Aquino] out. He has contributed so much in that change," he added.
Aquino and his Cabinet have less than a week left in office. As this government transitions to the Duterte administration, outgoing education officials are relieved that incoming Education Secretary Leonor Briones is taking the helm of the education department.
Even critics think it won't be difficult to dialogue with Briones when it comes to improving the country's education system.
Valbuena even urged President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to listen to the same pleas they've had all these years: Stop K to 12, increase budgets for education, increase the salary of teachers and government employees, and give schools in indigenous communities permits to operate.
But the outgoing education secretary is confident that K to 12 will continue under Briones. Now that the program is in place, he said the next revolution in education would be in technology.
"Technology will change the face of education. We need to bring in the hardware but we need to do that for every single school....We'll have to start with the farthest school," Luistro said.
But beyond providing schools with their basic information and communications technology (ICT) packages, Uy noted that the next administration now "has the luxury" to look at how ICT will affect or improve teachers' pedagogy, since the Aquino administration has already "accounted for the fundamental [education] inputs."
Luistro agreed: "We have to make sure that teacher see themselves as facilitators of learning. At this day and age, education will have to be owned by the students themselves, and the learner must be trained towards independent learning." – Rappler.com
Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.