Keeping a Close Watch on Education Reform

Education reform requires research for its direction. Oftentimes, changes in education are purely sparked by an advocacy that is considered good in itself. Take, for example, "education for all". No one would really argue against that. When education reform takes the objective of "better learning", then guidance from research as well as proper assessment are both required. Various education reforms come and go, boldly promising dramatic improvements in learning, but in the end, yielding very little in uplifting basic education. These reforms are not free, some are very costly. Thus, in the end, only enterprises correctly positioned to help implement these reforms gain financially. Having a public school system try products regularly can be quite lucrative.

Research, unfortunately, is also expensive and time-consuming. When a proposed change seems promising, why should one wait for more rigorous and well-designed studies? Each year of waiting translates to a class of school children being deprived of a new method, perhaps a more promising new curriculum. The classroom, after all, is not like a laboratory filled with mice. These classrooms are filled with children whose future depends on the learning that is now taking place. But we do this in health care. Drugs need to pass through extremely stringent trials.

An elementary classroom in the Philippines
There is an amount of pragmatism required to tackle education reforms. Public school education requires money. There are clearly resources that are fundamentally required: teachers, classrooms, chairs, toilets, and learning materials (textbooks and supplies). It should be obvious that without these, no education reform is worth the experiment. Thus, it may seem that research on education reform is already a luxury for a country that cannot even meet the basic requirements of public schooling. However, not having the backup of good studies maybe more expensive than doing nothing especially when the reforms do harm to the current system.

Various interventions or education reforms have been implemented in developed countries like the United States with varying degrees of success or failure. A huge difference between a country like the US and a developing country like the Philippines is money although wasting public funds even in the US is really not a good idea. What a country could afford still makes a difference. For this reason, it is even more imperative for a country with limited resources to exercise greater caution in embracing or implementing education reforms. If a new program has not been vetted, there is a greater need for a regular assessment to check along the way if the desired outcomes are being achieved or not.

California is one of the largest economies in the world. Its 2012-13 budget on K-12 education alone is $38 billion (that is more than a trillion pesos). If one adds federal as well as private funds, this number rises to $68 billion (which is already significantly bigger than the annual budget of the Philippine government). California also faces challenges in public education and has instituted various reforms to improve basic education. One of its reforms is "algebra for all", in which all grade 8 students are encouraged to take algebra with the hope of improving performance in mathematics as well as learning higher-level disciplines. This is quite an interesting reform especially in the light of the Philippines' DepEd's K to 12 spiral curriculum in the mathematics. One important consideration in math learning is the sequential nature of the discipline. The question of how important prerequisites are comes into mind.

The "algebra for all" movement in California started in 2003 so there is ample data now to assess the impact of the program in math education. Jian-Hua Liang, Paul E. Heckman, and Jamal Abedi recently evaluated the program:

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Their findings are summarized as follows:
  • Encouraging students to take algebra earlier does not lead to more students taking higher level mathematics subjects
  • Enrolling more students in algebra has little or no impact on student's learning success
  • Without sufficient preparation, taking algebra early does not benefit students
And I would like to highlight the following excerpt:
Changing classroom practice involves learning, especially among the educators who support students’ learning. Teachers will not change their practices as a result of only being given directions and information about required changes (Richardson, 1996). For example, motivation is critical to undertaking learning (Ryan & Deci, 2000), especially complex thinking and behavior. That is the learner, either student or teacher, has to desire to change and learn, especially if these changes require more than routine alterations in their thoughts and actions. With regard to classroom changes to encourage algebra learning, this means the teachers have to be involved, for example, in the creation of their classroom actions and the ways they think about those actions they are changing to encourage student learning, if policies like algebra for all are to be realized in classrooms....
There are obviously salient points drawn from this study that apply generally to education reform, points that should be reflected upon as DepEd's K to 12 is implemented in Philippine schools....