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

By Abraham I. Felipe

A. Felipe

After going over your response to my rejoinder, I feel compelled to restate my position so that we might have more productive work on the topic, as you put it.  My points were not as many as you enumerated. Indeed I mentioned all the seven “points” you listed, but only a few were central and primary to my position, while others were only subsidiary, even incidental only.

The two central propositions are: (a) It is not necessary to lengthen the education cycle, and (b) It is not necessary to develop a 12-year curriculum.

I will restate my case using your hypothetical equations on number of topics per year and time per topic. The 12-year curriculum compared to the 10-year curriculum will indeed have better results as the pros have it if the number of topics (numerator) is invariant. As one leading spokesman of K+12 put it, K+12 is a better system because it is not cramming twelve years of studies within ten years of schooling.
That spokesman was wrong because obviously the number of topics (100) is not invariant. The number of topics is a product of choice. And I believe that we can have equally satisfactory results by choosing another number. Within a 10-year curriculum, we can obtain a coverage of 8.33 topics per year and devote 1.2 months per topic as you illustrated by simply reducing the number of topics from 100 to just 83.
Here was where I was coming from when I spoke of junk in the curriculum. I assumed that there were topics we could dispense with. I believe I am not alone in this thinking. Every past secretary of education since the 70’s expressed a similar assessment. The makabayan initiative was justified on a charge of preponderance of junk. In my first reaction to your essay, I just expressed the wise way to handle junk, namely, throw it away which happened to be the thrust during the time BEC was being developed. No sense spending for it in books and materials, teacher training and retraining, constructing infrastructure for teaching it, and burdening the learners with it. By judicious selection, we can then reduce the number of topics from 100 to only 83.

The task of throwing away the junk to streamline the curriculum is not easy. The junks have owners who protect them as assets. Together they constitute a power block. In the case of the Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) project in the 90’s, there were interest groups for teachers who perceived their jobs to be at risk and for textbook publishers and writers who might have thought their interest could be adversely affected. Not counting the others who root on the side on occasion, they already constitute a formidable obstacle. It is to this obstacle that I referred as being enormous and which caused the BEC proponents to cave in and change gears.

I still hold that the makabayan type of approach (if not the actual approach it eventually adopted) to curriculum change will be more economic. It will be more efficient because it assumes that some decision has been made of topics that can be dispensed with. It assumes prior study.  It assumes that the resistance to change has been calculated and inputted in the decision equation. It is therefore more exacting. It does not simply provide more time per topic by just conveniently and arbitrarily lengthening the educational cycle.


For all the criticisms of TIMSS, its data remain as a unique source of information about inter-country comparative performance in basic education. It is especially relevant to ideas about lengthening basic education, like the K+12 proposal.

I invite you to visit the website of the Philippine Education Research Journal ( to see the comparative TIMSS performance as a function of cycle length of various countries. PERJ (Philippine Education Research Journal) is an online peer-reviewed and refereed multi-disciplinary journal in education.

The study to which I referred reports, first, the relation between test scores and “sub-cycle” length. “Sub-cycle” refers to what we Filipinos call “levels” of basic education (namely, pre-schooling including kindergarten, elementary and secondary levels). Then the sub-cycles were consolidated into a “total pre-university” (pre-college level) cycle length whose relation with test scores was also studied. As I mentioned before, after an extensive study of seven 4th grade tests and nine 8th grade tests of more than 40 countries, no convincing evidence was found to justify the K+12 recommendation to lengthen the cycle.  On the other hand, some countries had conspicuously short cycles but high scores while others showed the opposite.

What is the main lesson in this study? The main lesson is that, as a factor in learning in basic education, cycle length is not a main factor. The term “main factor” is used in the experimentalist’s sense to refer to one that works regardless of the circumstances. In the case of TIMMS it seems to work in some circumstances but it does not work in others. The experimenter’s assumption is that some conditions are propitious to it but others are not. When the conditions are propitious, the effect might even be enhanced. When not propitious, the effect might be arrested at a certain point or even depressed. In other words, what is observed is an outcome of an inter-action of several conditions, not of one condition alone.

What might be the inter-acting factors to cycle length in the case of TIMSS? The competence and motivation of implementors, the availability of resources, the clarity of the tasks, the strength of counter-pressures, consensus on the task of reform, among others. Although I have no empirical data, I suspect that these explain why some countries have higher TIMSS scores than other countries with far longer cycles, and vice-versa.

In the case of K+12, we could add one other factor that could affect its success. This factor is the locus of the source of reforms. At present, the locus is outside DepEd. Very little of K+12 was home-grown. This locus underestimates the importance of involvement in making organizational changes. In the business of making reforms, the necessary capital is the trust and confidence on the driver of reforms. While the sector probably trusts President Aquino, there has been no evidence that the confidence in him has rubbed on his educational team. So far there has been no spontaneous enthusiasm and support of the teachers and staff for this externally driven project. Instead, what has been observed was some resistance.

I want to go back to TIMSS before finally leaving it. I want to correct any impression I might have given that there was absolutely no support in the study for the hypothesis that cycle length affects performance. On the contrary, length of pre-school education was significantly related to test scores in 15 out of 18 multiple regressions. But the explanation has nothing to do with cycle length. Permit me to quote: “…The deeper meaning of lengthening the pre-school sub-cycle refers to a mix of several factors that enable a state to start teaching earlier, better and/or longer….A longer pre-school is just surrogate of a number of these factors. First, these factors include a strong economy, for a strong economy is needed to support a longer government-run pre-school system. A strong economy is pre-requisite to having specially developed teaching materials and facilities. It is pre-requisite even when pre-schooling mainly depends on the private sector only. Second, these factors include a culture that values “lessons” (i.e., the pre-school curriculum) that are first closely studied and tested, in contrast to unsystematic practices of training children such as when they are merely left to yayas. This implies a cadre of teachers who specialize in pre-school education. It implies a certain compensation level that could ensure the maintenance of that cadre….Countries that have the capacity to support their pre-school sub-cycle adequately will also tend to have the capacity to support the other sub-cycles adequately. This is the reason for the dominant role of the pre-school sub-cycle in an inter-country study such as this.”

A strong economy is something we don’t have. On the culture of good teaching, the public school culture does not support good teaching.

The Old Education System

I am not an enthusiast of the old education system. I do not believe it prepares children for our present and the emerging world. I did not and do not maintain that “traditional teaching styles during the 1970s … should still be good enough now”. I never talked of a “golden age” of Philippine education that must be preserved. That is why, like you, I subscribe to the idea of revising the system. It has to be revised because it is not responsive to local employment needs and the needs of the international labor market. Neither is it responsive to those who want to be productive in their own milieu – the farms, the fishing villages, as craftsmen and small entrepreneurs. We must design a curriculum that recognizes that more than 30% of Grade I children do not make it through Grade 6 and less than 40% finish high school. Isn’t that what EFA and BESRA are all about?

You and I have no choice but to help design a system for all Filipinos. That is our constitutional duty. Unfortunately, duty is severe. The old system of education recognizes the duty to provide education to all. As I wrote before, this duty is not something to be taken lightly. That duty is not a charge to have a system to prepare Filipinos for the labor markets only. It is not a charge to adopt the standards of educational quality of other countries. As a matter of fact, it is not even a charge to use quality as the only important dimension for evaluating education. This is why we have been using other indices to document government’s record in the educational sector, such as participation rate, retention rate, drop-out rate, survival rate, etc. To the credit of the old system, there is no question that it has been conscious of this duty. It helps to remember that many of these rates are important to politicians especially as they apply to their constituents. The K+12 stand on this issue is blurred.

My main beef about the K+12 is that it is addressed to the needs of a few (those who want to study or work as professionals abroad) but K+12  is required of everybody because it is being made part of basic education. Making it “basic education” makes the many who have no such aspirations pay to maintain it. These include the poor who cannot even finish elementary school, those who are satisfied with our present high school form, those who aspire to be seafarers who are already valued by foreign employers, the many who aspire to help in households, those who aspire for many local jobs which have no extra schooling requirements. The alternative system proposes additional credits only for those who seek more opportunities for themselves elsewhere and for which local credentials are not enough. Our system may recognize searching for better opportunities as a legitimate want of private individuals, but our system should not recognize it as a need of the entire country. Do we not now criticise our system that trains doctors with support from all the people but who later use their skills for foreign patients only? The K+12 proposals will replicate the case of these medical graduates.

I grant that the issue is complex. It partly addresses our growing unemployment which is, legitimately, a problem. But it is for this reason that we should not rush in with a solution that is expensive, unjust to the many who will not benefit from it but are required to support it nevertheless, and whose likelihood of success is uncertain.

Instead of calling that program “basic education”, make it post-baccalaureate but not quite “graduate” or else be accused of diluting academic tradition some more. This alternative will not be as attractive to some schools because it implies a level of tuition income that would be less were it made simply post-secondary and basic. But near the top of the educational pyramid as recommended here, they will already enjoy a new source of incremental income.

The idea in this alternative proposal is for those who want to benefit from the program to be the ones to pay for it. Give it a name that will accurately communicate its purpose, which is to prepare graduates for foreign service. To imbue it with the aura of selectivity, have special entrance and exit requirements for it. Do not be daunted by the fact that foreign employers and universities impose added conditions. This is understandable in order for them to balance the opportunities for their nationals and foreign applicants.

All these do not mean that basic education should not be touched. It definitely needs improvements.  But the aim in improving it should be more focused. It is said that English proficiency has conspicuously deteriorated. Many decades ago, I heard that the mathematics competencies of third year Filipino high school students were at the elementary school level only. Many have heard also of their inadequate science knowledge. The TIMSS findings have documented these inadequacies since the 70’s yet, when the international surveys now called TIMSS was still known by another name. Those are the aspects of our basic education that should be addressed. But those cannot be addressed by adding two more years of or after high school. What TIMSS has shown is that by Grade 4 and 2nd year high school, we are already at the bottom of the heap. The curricular reforms of basic education should address these observations instead of employment prospects. They should begin with position papers that define the problems to be addressed by the reforms.

The Grade 6 Problem: Scaling a Chocolate Hill

I consider the Grade 6 problem (http://iej.cjb. net , vol. 7, 2006) in the same category as the Mathematics, Science and English cases, but of a much lower scale, meaning, simpler. It is focused. To some extent, it is defined. My beef on this case is that if there had been any reaction to it, the reaction had been invisible even when the report did not demand much. Its modest recommendation was for the study to be replicated. Replication was the rational next step to ensure that an observation reported is truly serious to be worth more attention. But after all these years, there is no evidence that the Grade 6 problem is already in the consciousness of the K+12 pros.

In the interest of improving instruction, the MLE workers tweaked the medium of instruction and showed that the vernacular is an important first medium. In teaching physics, the Bernidos (, 2010) tweaked the undergraduate specialization of the teacher and showed it is not crucial. What does K+12 plan to tweak in the other science subjects? In Mathematics?


Unexpected learning competencies of Grades 5 and 6 pupils
in public elementary schools:  A Philippine report

ABSTRACT:  The present study tested the assumption of a positive and linear relation between years of schooling and school learning in the Philippine setting. It replicated a 1976 study that had cast doubt on this assumption in the Philippine public educational system. It tested three competing hypotheses for that finding: common sense, the 1976 arrested development hypothesis, and the alternative accelerated development hypothesis. To test these competing hypotheses, two factors were systematically varied: the grade levels of Ss (subjects) and the levels of the tests used. The competing hypotheses have different predicted outcomes. A total n of 7097 from 96 schools participated in the study. The results showed that on all tests Grade5 showed more competencies than Grades 4 and 6, although Grade 6 continued to perform better than Grade 4. When sub-test level was held constant in multiple comparisons, Grade 5 was learning more Grade 6 competencies, whereas Grade 6 was losing not only Grade 6 but also Grade 5 competencies. It is noted that whereas Grade 6 enjoyed a slight superiority in achievement scores circa 1976, the present study shows that Grade 5 enjoys an impressive superiority over Grade 6 circa 2003. That in Grade 6 one knows more competencies than in Grade 5 seems to be a myth. The common sense hypothesis has been ruled out. The results are consistent with the accelerated development hypothesis.  [From, vol. 7, 2006]


This is why I consider the Grade 6 problem as a qualifying test before assaulting the much larger K+12 problem. If you want to improve Grade 6, what will you tweak? If you want to improve all of basic education, what? The number of years?

If you want to scale Mt. Apo, show us you can scale a chocolate hill.

Lastly, I never said that the K+12 program has zero likelihood of success. I have said that it consists of large and certain costs on one hand and uncertain gains on the other. I have also said that it demands resources which are presently scarce, at a time when there is a prevailing global financial uncertainty. When I spoke of it as a worse gamble, it is with respect to those who elect to stop schooling and forego a probably better future earning potential in favor of a more immediate survival necessity, like some food to eat.


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