COMMENT: A Reaction to ‘The Economics of K+12’, Part I

By Abraham I. Felipe

A. Felipe

The K+12 proposals are presently one center of very significant discussions on socio-economic reforms for the country. The discussions have generated many intelligent and creative arguments and called attention to interesting facts on the pro and con sides of the discussions. One excellent source of pro arguments is the paper of Nikki Tenazas, The Economics of K+12. Since it is obvious that it was not just scribbled on a tissue paper, it deserves a respectful response.

The Nikki Tenazas paper, judging from many reactions, has a great pull. It is easy to concede its intelligent use of many data in constructing arguments for the pro side. The methodical use of economics in giving meaning to data and political intentions added system in her discussion of why and how the K+12 proposals would be beneficial to individuals and the nation.

However, Nikki Tenazas had oversights in her assumptions that seriously biased her discussion. To restore balance, I intend to bring them to the fore. I also plan to correct some of her facts.

Akin to a Millennial Movement

But let me first make some brief remarks about some sub-conscious non-rational sources of appeal of the Nikki Tenazas thesis. Nikki Tenazas presents the K+12 proposals like a case of a millennial type of movements which have always enjoyed universal appeal. These movements call for change as the means to be delivered from suffering. In the case of K+12, it promises a period of order and progress in the field of education and training as reward at the end of the road. But it first stresses that the K+12 trip will not be a simple walk in a garden, that it could instead mean years of wandering in the wilderness that will impose sacrifices, draw out doubts and demand reliability and perseverance from all. It employs a credible figure that will rally the people about the promised land of milk and honey. It is the theme of reformers. One should not scoff at its effectiveness. On the other hand, she should watch out that it does not diminish reason.

Oversights in Nikki Tenazas’ Assumptions: The First Oversight

Nikki Tenazas forgot to first ask two questions (a) “Is it necessary to lengthen the education cycle up to K+12?” and its corollary, (b) “Is it necessary to construct a 12-year curriculum?”

“Oversight” is the correct word. She overlooked to ask those questions because of the manner she had planned to discuss the K+12 proposals. This oversight was what led her to a one-sided discussion of the issues.

Her game plan was to roll out the “gist” of the K+12 proposals which consisted of (a) what is proposed to be done in SY 2011-2012, (b) what is proposed to be done in SY2012-2013 and so on until the student cohort gradually entered the proposed senior high school in 2016.  Her plan was to show that the proposals had good bases, were cautious enough, reasonable, obvious or unavoidable. Hence, she did not feel a need to first ask “Is it necessary to lengthen the education cycle up to K+12?” and neither the question, “Must the curriculum be revised for that cycle length?” Raising those questions would only sidetrack her from her plan. That was what led Nikki Tenazas to be partial.

But isn’t the need obvious, many would ask. Isn’t the Philippines the only country in the region with a 10-year basic education system? Isn’t the Philippines one of the very few countries in the world with that length of basic education? Granting these to be both true, it does not follow that length of the cycle is a factor in learning. On the other hand, any relation that exists may be deceptive. For example, we do not know how many countries just patterned their system on others, just as the Philippines is now considering adopting a K+12 pattern. It is important to first know whether long cycles were associated with quality education and short cycles with poor quality. But so far, the argumentation has been social in character – our system is different from those of others, therefore we should change. Meanwhile, we have also been told that the tastes and practices of the Joneses should not be the norm for their neighbors.

The mistake of the pro advocates is in their failure to look at what are already empirically known about the relation between length of formal schooling and “quality” of education. They appeared to be unaware that that point had been studied in the case of TIMSS, which study had already been published. There have been no signs that they have been aware of these things. Thus, they cannot be faulted for not knowing that “no convincing evidence was found to justify the recommendation to lengthen the cycle”, as the study concluded.

To give one example, South Korea has the same length of pre-schooling as the Philippines but is a top performer in TIMSS. At the same time, other countries had longer pre-schooling (e.g., Ghana, Morocco, 2 years; Botswana, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, 3 years) but much lower TIMSS scores.

The case of the Philippines is a good illustration that long cycles per se do not contribute to higher achievement. The Philippines with its 6-year elementary cycle has lower scores than all 13 countries with shorter elementary cycles (Russia, Armenia, Latvia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Italy, Egypt and Iran).

The case of the Philippines which ended up at or near the bottom in almost all tests, needs more comments. This performance and the fact that her educational cycle was one of the shortest, were often quoted as reasons for the proposal to lengthen its educational cycle. After studying the performance of more than 40 countries in seven 4th grade tests and nine 8th grade  tests, the study concluded: “Considering the findings …. attributing the (inferior Philippine) results to the length of the Philippine cycle is neither objective nor correct. The evidence is clear and irrefutable:  some countries have short sub-cycles but have high scores; other countries have long sub-cycles but have low scores.”

The Second Oversight of Nikki Tenazas

The second question Nikki Tenazas forgot to ask was the question “Is it necessary to design a 12-year program?”

Obviously if the cycle will be 12 years long, all 12 years must be filled up with content. But “improving” or “modernizing” the curriculum does not necessarily mean designing a 12-year program.

We have had improvement programs that were not based on 12-year cycles. The Program for a Decentralized Elementary Education (PRODED) in the 70’s was based on only 6 years of elementary school. The Secondary Education Development Program (SEDP) of the 80’s was based on only 4 years of secondary school. The Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) in the 90’s was also based on 6 years of elementary school. I am not aware of anyone who is ready to say that the experts who presided over those earlier curricular revisions did not know their business, unlike the experts being organized at present.

This is not to say that the earlier curricular initiatives were free of errors. I am aware that many had pointed to the main culprit in the school curriculum that was never satisfactorily handled. This culprit is the congestion of subjects and topics that lengthens the class day, causes parents to buy many books and materials, increases tuition and other fees, physically burdens young children, compels the hiring of more teachers and the construction of more classrooms, fills up teachers’ time, calls for a lot of re-training, obscures from the pupil the “essentials” in learning, and many things that every parent knows. At its heart, the call for a 12-year curriculum is a call for more study time, the clearing of the curriculum of junk and debris. It is not a call for more materials to study. It is a call that can be heeded by designing an efficient curriculum, freeing it of the debris that clog the hours and divert the focus of learners and teachers, without having to hold down a child for 12 years in school.

At a certain point in our education history, it looked like this culprit was finally going to be reduced. This was during a time when many school subjects were said to be in for “clustering” under the makabayan theme. That thinking was bold. But the audacity evaporated. (In fairness to PRODED, there was a similar intention to streamline the curriculum, but the intention was not as well publicized as during the makabayan initiative).

The makabayan type of venture is all that is needed to create learning time and efficient schooling. Education officials involved in that venture are still around for reference if need be. K+12 is not bold. It is really a timid response. It will be expensive. It is not prudent. It is risky. It started by confronting the educational problems, and after recognizing their enormity, caved in right away.

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