K-12: Education reform for whom?

K-12: Education reform for whom?

By Cong. Raymond V. Palatino
June 13th, 2012

Everybody agrees that big reforms are necessary to reverse the decline of Philippine education. This consensus, however, was hijacked by the government to force the implementation of the so-called K-12 program despite the absence of an authoritative study that it will raise the quality of learning in the country.

The short school cycle is blamed for the poor learning skills of students. Admittedly, it is a factor that affects the quality of schooling. But it is wrong to assert that it is the principal reason for the underperformance of schools and students. What about availability of learning resources, adequate teacher preparation, appropriate school facilities and other essential elements in raising the quality of education? In short, lengthening the school cycle or decongesting the curriculum would be rendered meaningless if the school setting is still not conducive to learning.

K-12 proponents argue that it’s the standard in most countries and that the Philippines need it catch up with its neighbors if it wants to be more competitive in the global market. Indeed, K-12 is already the global norm but it doesn’t mean that the Philippines has to blindly copy the model. In fact, its premature and mechanical implementation might even worsen the crisis of education in the country. Based on the experience of developed nations, K-12 succeeded if it’s implemented under an efficient education system. Therefore, what the Philippines should prioritize is the building of modern school facilities throughout the country. Address the basic problems of schools (read: shortages), plug the loopholes in the bureaucracy (read: corruption), and then let’s consider the proposal to adopt K-12.

Our well-meaning education officials are alarmed over the fact that we are alone in this part of the world which is still stuck with a ten-year basic education system. But they should be more indignant over the criminal neglect on the part of the government to provide adequate funds to education. The initial global standard that we must apply, without question and hesitation, is the allocation of 6 percent of the GDP to education.

The embarrassing state of Philippine education today can be rooted to decades of government underspending and underinvestment in the education sector. It’s the crime of the century that caused not only the stagnation of our public schools but also our failure to imagine the worthiness and even possibility of adding more years in the school cycle. K-12 is a solution which we should have tackled several decades ago.

But it seems the Noynoy Aquino administration is determined to implement K-12 without thinking of the present situation of schools, in particular their readiness to absorb the additional tasks of the program. Shouldn’t we first correct the errors of the past by infusing more funds into education? Shouldn’t we first agree to end once and for all the everyday miseries of schools, students, and teachers by fixing the current education set-up?

Some Aquino apologists are all praise for the bold decision of the government to go ahead with K-12 despite the objection of many scholars and citizen groups. They interpret it as a clear display of political will. On the contrary, it’s another manifestation of the recklessness that afflicts the Aquino presidency.

Education reforms can transform lives but they can lead to chaos and permanent confusion as well. It is precisely the reason why programs that require the overhauling of an entire system have to first undergo a trial run in select areas. But Aquino’s K-12 will skip that crucial and critical phase because of the apparent obsession of the government to convert all students into K-12 guinea pigs by 2016.

K-12 will certainly affect millions of innocent lives and what’s at stake here should not be trivialized because it involves the future of an entire generation. But Aquino is ready to risk the future of the youth by agreeing to the launch of the ill-prepared K-12 program this school year. Why conduct an education experiment that may cause harm in the lives of millions? Why the rush? What’s so special with the year 2016? The great potential of education reforms must not be torpedoed by the narrow objectives of electoral politics.

Education is society’s ‘great equalizer’ but it remains a distant goal in the Philippines where more than half of students who entered Grade One are still unable to finish high school. The problem is not only the short number of school years; the bigger problem is the high drop-out rate in all levels of schooling. The challenge then is to mainstream the out-of-school youth into the formal schooling system. But by adding two more years in the school cycle, K-12 will only succeed in producing more school drop-outs and a new underclass of school rejects. K-12 will finally institutionalize the reactionary fantasy of preventing the rise of college ‘educated proletariat’. In other words, K-12 will worsen inequality in society.

Furthermore, K-12 advocates are guilty of giving false hopes to the public every time they claim that the program will address the problem of youth unemployment. Will the teaching of technical/vocational skills increase the job prospects of the young? Maybe. But it doesn’t guarantee employment since job creation is a function of the economy, not schools. In fact, college graduates comprise the highest number of unemployed youth in the country because of the lack of decent job and livelihood opportunities in the local market.

K-12 was designed to enhance the international labor advantage of Filipino graduates. Isn’t this a direct endorsement for the labor export policy? But schooling should be more than just job preparation. Schools should not only develop employable graduates; they should aim for the holistic development of the youth.

The economic value of education should not be limited to matching the manpower needs of local and foreign sunshine industries. Through innovation, research, and systematic planning, education can be a catalyst for sustained economic growth. Research centers can lead to the stimulation of domestic industries. The basic requirement is that we draft an education blueprint that serves the specific objective of building a nationalist economy. If we are to restructure the education system, we should aim for broader economic aspirations instead of the current restrictive goal of transforming students into efficient but docile laborers for the benefit of select industries.

But the power of education should be harnessed not just for its economic value but also because of its strategic role in the nation-building process. Students must be equipped with critical thinking skills that would allow them to perform their duties and responsibilities as citizens of this country and the world.

K-12 serves as a reminder that education must not be left in the hands of technocrats, bureaucrats, and policymakers who are often divorced from the realities of everyday life. K-12 should lead to more public discussion and debate about the establishment of an education system that is truly responsive to the aspirations of the greatest number of Filipinos. Hopefully, it would inspire us to continue the struggle not just for meaningful education reforms but also for political initiatives that would lead to the rise of political leaders and champions who understand the role of a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented type of education in improving the lives of Filipinos.