Poverty and DepEd's K to 12

"Inarguably, the system of basic education in the country is in dire need of resuscitation. The main question though is whether increasing the number of years of schooling as proposed by the K to 12 program could lead to improvements in quality or just exacerbate the present situation." A Senate policy brief back in June 2011, K to 12: The Key to QualityEducation?, started its conclusion section with these two sentences. To understand the major challenges basic education in the Philippines, it is necessary to reflect on one factor that heavily influences learning outcomes. That factor is poverty. With eyes on poverty, one is in a much better position to answer the question of whether DepEd's K to 12 is the key to quality education or simply a big waste of the country's limited resources.

To most people, it is obvious that poverty becomes an important factor considering the costs associated with education. The Senate policy brief also cites the following as a major argument raised by opponents of K to 12:
"Critics have raised a real and valid concern that adding two more years of senior high would not only strain the government’s resources but also contribute additional burden to households. With the increasing cost of living, and the budget, particularly of the poor, already stretched to the limit, K to 12 is a rather ambitious and expensive program, especially when it does not guarantee favorable results." 
To this argument, proponents claim that the additional two years at the end of high school provide a cheaper alternative to poor households who cannot afford to send their children to college. Unfortunately, such view of how poverty affects education is very limited and is in fact erroneous. I managed to finish a college degree at one of the elite universities in the Philippines because of free tuition yet I could easily return to those years and recall more than just a handful of instances at which I could have easily failed. Not having money is really a very narrow definition of poverty.

Going beyond my personal experience and considering a larger picture, one may look at how poverty affects education in a developed country like the United States to understand better what challenges children from poor families really face inside schools. Public schools in the US are very different from schools in the Philippines. In most schools, there is free lunch. Learning materials are available and are provided at no cost. Most classrooms are equipped with technology. The pupil to teacher ratio is so much lower than in the Philippines. There are school buses that help transport kids between their homes and school. In this scenario where basic resources are met, it is then enlightening to see that the students from poor households are still not doing well. Eric Jensen talks about the lack of engagement as one difference arising from socio-economic status in an article published in Educational Leadership. Jensen enumerates seven differences between poor and middle-class students through which poverty negatively impacts education:
  1. Health and Nutrition: Overall, poor people are less likely to exercise, get proper diagnoses, receive appropriate and prompt medical attention, or be prescribed appropriate medications or interventions.
  2. Vocabulary: Children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller vocabulary than middle-class children do, which raises the risk for academic failure.
  3. Effort: Low socioeconomic status and the accompanying financial hardships are correlated with depressive symptoms.
  4. Hope and the Growth Mind-Set: Being poor is associated with lowered expectations about future outcomes.
  5. Cognition: Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often perform below those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement.
  6. Relationships: In homes of those from poverty, children commonly get twice as many reprimands as positive comments, compared with a 3:1 ratio of positives to negatives in middle-class homes.
  7. Distress: Low-income parents' chronic stress affects their kids through chronic activation of their children's immune systems, which taxes available resources and has long-reaching effects.
Addressing the above differences can indeed mitigate the negative effects of poverty. However, even with high achieving poor students, significant challenges remain. The following figure presented by Roy at the Economic Policy Institute in 2005 shows that socio-economic status even trumps abilities:
Above copied from the Economic Policy Institute
This graph shows that high scoring pupils from poor families are only as likely to finish college as low scoring pupils from rich families. And things have essentially remained the same. The graph below shows the more recent data from a paper published in 2014:

Above copied from the National Center for Education Statistics
Only 41 percent of pupils from poor households who perform at the highest quartile in mathematics are able to finish college. On the other hand, a pupil who is below average in mathematics is as likely to graduate from college if his or her parents are rich. This is the reality. To gauge whether DepEd's K to 12 provides solutions to the challenges imposed by poverty on education, one simply has to examine if the new curriculum addresses the factors enumerated above that allow poverty to wreak havoc in schools. The answer is obviously a "no" since K to 12 simply adds two years to high school. The support poor children need to thrive in schools cannot come from a curriculum, but from only those who have a mind and a heart, the teacher. For this reason, successful education reforms across the globe are only those that focus first on the training of teachers and supporting them throughout their career. Basic education reform must begin at higher education with the teachers at the highest priority. What teachers need to help struggling poor students cannot be learned in a week-long mass training. Teachers who are likewise burdened with the same conditions poor children suffer from cannot be effective. It is indeed perplexing that the Philippine Senate incorrectly responded to the question they themselves posed. The reason perhaps is the oversimplified picture of how poverty affects education. Thinking that simply providing more free education can solve the problem is obviously wrong. K to 12 would only exacerbate the situation.

Finding how to mitigate the negative influences of poverty on education requires us to focus on what works. Mr. Booth, a principal at a high-performing high-poverty school in a desolate part of Texas offers an answer:
"If you don't lose sleep because of the kids you aren't reaching, you're not in the right job,"
Mr. Booth is correct. I can personally attest. I had those kind of teachers..., the ones who lost sleep.