education in the Philippines

[OPINION] The Mother Tongue-based education program requires rigorous review

Edilberto De Jesus

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[OPINION] The Mother Tongue-based education program requires rigorous review

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'To order DepEd’s teachers to stop what they have been doing for nearly 20 years, without telling them what they should do instead, involves some risks'

The Lower House has approved a bill suspending the implementation of the MTBMLE (Mother-Tongue Based Multiple Education) program. Private schools will welcome any measure that allows them greater operational flexibility. The situation for DepEd will be more problematic. Its systems have already been aligned to support its understanding of MTBMLE. Learning materials sent to the provincial schools for K3, for instance, come in the prescribed mother tongue medium of instruction.

MTBMLE implementation requires rigorous review. To order DepEd’s teachers to stop what they have been doing for nearly 20 years, without telling them what they should do instead, involves some risks. Without clear, guiding templates to follow, schools left to do their own thing and vulnerable to pressure from assorted authorities, supervision and assessment become even more complicated issues for DepEd management.

In a tightly centralized, top-down bureaucracy, the cardinal virtue is compliance, which DepEd has faithfully cultivated, not the agility to improvise responses to unexpected challenges. Because of the massive scale of its operations and their wide dispersal over the country, both requiring an extended chain of authority, the obedience and bestowed by DepEd personnel at ground level, is not necessarily to the DepEd Secretary. Often it is to the person who exercises immediate control over them – the principals, perhaps, or the town mayors who can directly impact the fate and fortunes of principals and influence their behavior.  

It would also help for the congressmen to explain to DepEd and to the public the reasons that led to MTBMLE suspension. And for DepEd to be more generous in sharing its own assessment of implementation issues and the outcome of plans for addressing them. Confidentiality restrictions on commissioned studies impair the ability of education stakeholders to offer assistance and undermine the rhetoric on a whole-of-nation approach to the education crisis.

To place these studies in context, three points about the MTBMLE bear recalling. First, MTBMLE has a distinguished pedigree as a rigorously-researched policy initiative introduced by Br. Andrew Gonzalez, F.S.C. He had earned his doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He served 17 years as Executive Secretary of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines and 21 years as editor of the Philippine Journal of Linguistics. Colleagues described what he acknowledged as his best work, Language and Nationalism as “the canonical work on the Filipinos’ quest for a national language.” Equally impressive, Br. Andrew served four terms as president of De La Salle University, a cumulative period of 17 years, and received President Emeritus status at DLSU.

Br. Andres had studied and became an early convert of the UNESCO research in the 1970s that validated the use of mother tongue as the most effective medium of instruction in the early schooling of children. Though he stayed as Secretary barely three years (1998-2001), he had the academic and the executive credentials to formulate and launch the MTBMLE policy at DepEd. UNESCO has not wavered on its stand for mother tongue as MOI, which also remains an advocacy of the Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO). 

Second, beyond the solid, supporting international research base, DepEd also tested the MTBMLE through a pilot project conducted in Lubuagan, Kalinga. The participating schools used Kalinga as the medium of instruction From K to Grade3, while also beginning instructions in Filipino and English. By the end of Grade 3, the children could show basic reading and speaking competence in all three languages. The pilot schools also received higher scores than the rest of the province in the DepEd tests in English, Filipino, and Math. 

The pilot project showed that even a “native” language that might be regarded as undeveloped and unrefined, can effectively function, with sufficient support, as a medium of learning. Equally important, its use would not impede the learning of Filipino and English. In scaling up the pilot to other regions, however, the authorities appear to have overlooked a critical success factor in Lubuagan. Kalinga worked as MOI because the children shared it as a common language.   

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Given population movements, DepEd could not simply determine the K3 children’s mother tongue on the basis of the traditional regional/ethnic classification of the country’s geographical areas. It was no longer safe to presume that children in Bulacan or Pangasinan would grow up speaking Tagalog or Pangasinense. Whether the linguistic homogeneity that obtained in Lubuagan also prevailed in the expansion areas of MTBMLE had to be subjected to a test.

Third, given the fact of linguistic diversity, the critical implementation flaw was the mandatory scale-up of MTBMLE to all basic education schools in 2012 without undertaking that prior step of linguistic mapping at school level. Regional consultations undertaken in December by PBEd exposed the problems this failure has raised. In Baguio City, DepEd determined that the appropriate MOI should be Ilokano and deployed the suitable support in learning materials and faculty. But the language used in Baguio was Highland Ilokano language, distinct from the Lowland Ilokano spoken in the Ilocos provinces. In Bikol, DepEd asked K3 children to identify their mother tongue, to which their response was “Bikol.” Was it surprising that K3 children could not properly identify which of some eight varieties of Bikol was their mother tongue?

Clearly, there is still a lot of work still to be done on MTBMLE. Fortunately, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department and the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development (ACERD) has recently announced a partnership to help ensure that the policies Congress will approve and fund had solid evidence to support them. According to Rep. Stella Quimbo, the partnership will form 11 joint research teams to cover the government’s socio-economic agenda.  

We should expect then that the language policy in education, which Congress will support, like the MTBMLE, will be similarly backed by evidence. –

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.

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