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

By Abraham I. Felipe

A Wrong Fact

One reason why Nikki Tenazas strongly recommended lengthening the curriculum was her impression that Filipino test takers have been one or two years younger than their foreign counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage in terms of exposure to intellectual and educational tasks. This impression was wrong. In TIMSS, the number of years in school of the participants was properly equated. Filipino 4th graders were not compared with 6th graders of other countries but with their 4th grade counterparts, no matter the length of their elementary education. The reported difference in the performance of Filipinos was not a matter of age. It was due to plain and simple bad education. There is no basis to blame the length of schooling.  There is therefore no logic in expecting lengthening the cycle to improve the situation.

Gamblers’ Stakes

The more important concerns of the K+12 proposals start at the senior high school level. The things to be done at the elementary and secondary levels are unclear until now. More attention is given to the higher levels because of K+12’s growth orientation and the priority to developing globally competitive manpower. This is not to say this is bad. The point only is that real basic education does not seem to be the main concern of K+12.

The emphasis of the present K+12 plans on making Filipino manpower productive rests on the expectations of what the country stands to gain if the plans succeed and how grave the outcome if the plans fail. The pros and cons will readily agree that this is not the issue. There is more than the significance-gravity issue here. Equally important is the likelihood issue – the likelihood of success or failure – the core of gambling. Even if the reward will be heaven but the probability of success is zero, why spend time on it? Even though it will be outright disaster if the skies suddenly fall on us but its likelihood is zero, why worry?  Worry is appropriate only for adverse events with some likelihood of occurring. And effort is reasonable only if it might succeed.

No doubt, the desired pay-offs of K+12 are important to the nation and to individuals. Calling for sacrifice is reasonable. But how should it be called?

In the present case, on what does success depend? To quote from the paper, “The DepED’s proposed implementation scheme for the program is a workable plan simply because it …  buys time for essential resources to be put in place. It all hinges on economic growth and fiscal capacity: if the current government lays the right foundation, economic growth can be expected to accelerate; this in turn would mean more financial flexibility for the government”.  But even Nikki Tenazas was not confident that the necessary conditions for K+12 to succeed would be satisfied. She spoke of the current government conditionally “miraculously finding a way to solve resource shortages”. And if the plan fails? We continue the quote. “… if the government does as expected and fails to provide adequate resources to meet acceptable resource ratios, the rationale of the K+12 program remains intact.” In other words, in the event of failure we should still be happy for we would at least have the K+12 curriculum.

Is this curriculum enough for a gain? The K+12 approach might be clever for starting early but if it is consciously adopted knowing its required growth and fiscal assumptions are not on hand, it is a risky plan. If it fails in its mission, it could not be of any value, as claimed. Instead, it should be disposed.

Nikki Tenazas laments that many present-day parents are gambling away, nay, surrendering future earning potentials by letting their children forego schooling in exchange for low earning work. But for most of the poor parents, the choice is not schooling with a good future earning potential versus stopping school now and working. The choice is between schooling with good earning potential in the future versus present food on the table, some clothing on the back, meeting basic health and other human needs, as they try to cope with survival problems. Those parents might be gambling their children’s future earnings but they are trying to secure life in the present. To demand that they forego present needs in exchange for future capacity is impractical. If the children are not presently protected legally because of age, just make sixteen the legal age for employment. Anyway, that rule is not cast in stone.

K+12 is not a clean no-gambling option. There is gambling in it too. It is betting on an optimistic expectation of growth. It is a national gamble, unlike the gambling of present parents which they do at the individual level. The stakes in K+12 are higher. As a national gamble, K+12 is courting considerable discouragement of national scale and substantial loss of opportunities for countless youth, if it miscalculates. It is risking too much social dissatisfaction. Many are asked to forego a lot for an uncertain future. It is not a calculated move, with managed risks, toward a desired future.

K+12 might be clever in fixing a reckoning time (after 2016) when those responsible for it would no longer be around. But it is irresponsible for assuming the availability of resources that are not presently available. It is cruel for zeroing in on the poor for them to forego their needs for a nest-egg that might only be a mirage.

Testimony of Older Professionals

The de-valued Filipino medical professional (doctor, nurse, technologist) is of recent vintage.  The scene of a desperate housewife asking to see first the diploma of a Filipino physician she was advised to see was unknown before. Filipino doctors did not work as nurses. Nurses were not caregivers. A study of the careers and fortunes of medical professionals in the United States will show this. And their basic education was the old basic education. It had been good enough.

If there has been a change in the value of medical professionals, it could be for other reasons. For example, it could be because of over-supply that their value had shrunk. Competition from other countries (specially in the case of ICT) must be recognized as another factor but it is not accurate to say that only competition mattered.

The Reaction of the Poor: Never disregard

It is recognized that the K+12 plan places more burden on the poor, even as it was supposed to be designed for them. The longer curriculum postpones the time one would be ready for work, and demands more expenses. It stresses the importance for everyone of staying in school at least until the age of 18 and of tightening the belt. It exerts a special burden on those who could stay in school only until age 16 but not up to age 18, two years more.

Education is for all – specially the youth including those out of school, the adults, the illiterate and the handicapped. Many parents have started to call the K+12 plan anti-poor. Even if the plan’s intention may be opposite, planners should not ignore the perceived anti-poor effect. More youth would be led to drop out.  Questions could be raised about the State’s constitutional duty to provide education to the people. This is no light matter.

As a means for government to monitor how well it provides schooling opportunities to children of school age, it uses indices such as the proportion of children of various ages who are in school, who drop out, and who survive and graduate. These are legitimate ways for monitoring schooling opportunities and measuring government’s record in providing them. They will be the rallying point of the poor. And of politicians. K+12 planners should not think quality is the only legitimate dimension for evaluating education.

Skepticism

For some time now, I have grown skeptical about our determination to improve our basic education. This skepticism has a history which I had told and retold on different occasions.

Thirty-four years ago (1976), the Department of Education of that period  reported that Grade 6 pupils knew just a little bit more than grade 5 pupils as measured by achievement tests. When that was discovered, the Secretary of Education then expressed the official reaction of the government in the Foreword of the report with a statement that the finding was “disturbing and causes us no reason to rejoice”.

The significance of this report was obvious. The finding became one empirical indicator addressed by a 10-year development program to improve elementary education which included among other things, a revision of the curriculum.

After 10 years of PRODED (that is, by 1986), the Department of Education reported that Grade 6 pupils were once more predictably better than Grade 5 pupils in achievement tests. However, just 2 years later, the situation was back to the 1976 level with Grade 5 pupils again performing better. Apparently, Grade 6 had been difficult to tame.

In 2004, or 28 years after it was first reported, a study involving 96 schools in Metro Manila and Region 4, reported that grade 6 pupils had less competencies than grade 5 pupils, a worse situation than in 1976.

This finding was reported to the personalities concerned – at the school, division, regional and national levels for appropriate action. Replication was suggested, among other things. Up to now, there have been no reports of actions taken or intentions of future actions to be taken. The significance of the 1976 report that the Secretary then recognized, had been lost.

This personal experience has colored my thinking about the seriousness of the K+12 plan. If the pro advocates have not noted so obviously dissonant a finding which the then Secretary had to describe as “disturbing and causes us no reason to rejoice”, then what type of matters will be worthy of their attention?

The Grade 6 problem is just a mini problem compared to the problems the K+12 pros want to tackle until 2016.  Yet the Grade 6 problem is now 34 years old. It had worsened in the meantime. When first observed in 1976, Grade 6 schoolers were still better than grade 5 pupils, albeit only slightly. The last time it was observed in 2004, grade 6 schoolers were significantly lower in mathematics, science and English test performance. Worse, now it is not even recognized as a problem. I am not sure the pros have been aware of that. I am certain they had not done anything about it. I had not heard them factor in that problem in their curriculum plans, even as the Secretary of Education at the time when it was first noted,  was “disturbed” by it and found “no reason to rejoice” because of it. These make me wonder how responsive will be the plans of the pros to educational problems on the ground. As for me, only when they would have competently addressed the mini problem that is Grade 6, would they have earned their spurs to tackle bigger problems.

My Position on the Issue of Revising the Curriculum

  • I agree with the pro advocates that the basic education curriculum should be revised.
  • I agree that it is now best to start the revision in 2011. It should have been started yesterday.
  • The revision must give priority to the lower levels, not Grades 11 and 12.

I agree to the proposal to have the Kindergarten component right away because the Kindergarten period is a crucial period in a child’s development. I agree that the government has the duty to shoulder it.

Kindergarten’s purpose is not to prepare the child for the “rigors of schooling” but to initiate the child into the “culture of schooling’ with its special practices on how to relate with others and how to search and recognize information with them. Do not just stick in a Kindergarten level and think you are done with it.

Seriously take the role of nutrition in producing a productive citizenry. Have a more extensive school feeding program. Use CCTs for this purpose. Co-opt PTAs to provide nutritional programs in schools. Encourage the search for local sources of nutritional supplements.

Revision should emphasize reducing the congestion of subjects and topics. At each level, the curriculum must focus on basic subjects – mathematics, science, subjects to develop love of country, and language. The medium of instruction will be according to the multi-lingual specialists, beginning with the vernacular, and progressing to the teaching of Filipino as a second language and to English later as a third language in preparation for higher education. As a guideline, the number of school subjects will be three, with a maximum of four and five at the elementary and high school levels, respectively.

Have a special emphasis to improve instruction for Grade 6. Treat Grade 6 as a bridge to the high school that does not operate optimally at present. Give priority to repairing this bridge.

Do not venture into Grades 11 and 12 until we are certain we will have the resources those grades will need without relinquishing the prior duty for the lower grade levels. Do not gamble the future.

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