Rethinking Basic Education: A series of Essays on Basic Education by Juan Miguel Luz

Philippine Basic Education is not in good shape.  While more Filipino kids are entering Grade 1 these days, too many are dropping out before completion of the entire K-12 cycle.  Worse, of those completing the cycle, the levels of learning as revealed in large-scale international assessments are low – at one to two or more standard deviations below proficiency.

For years, the definition of success in education was measured as (a) Access to education and (b) the provision of education materials and infrastructure in basic education.  It was a numbers-crunching exercise of indicators.  Little attention was paid to Learning as argued in the World Bank’s World Development Report on the topic of Learning in 2018 (Learning to Realize Education’s Promise).  To be fair to the Philippines and the Department of Education (DepED), other countries around the world fell into the same trap.

In 2018, the Philippines, through DepED, participated in PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment) for the first time to abysmal results.  A year later, the country participated in TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Survey) with similar results.  A third large-scale international assessment, SEA-PLM (Southeast Asia Program Learning Metrics), confirmed the same conclusions.

Different groups in the country, particularly those participating in the DepED-organized Education Forum, have recognized the gravity of the situation and have raised alarm bells.  The call for a second Education Commission 30 years after the first EDCOM has been even as educators lament the fact that a number of issues today mirror the issues back then.  Did we not, as an education system and as a country, not learn anything from the first EDCOM?

In discussing the Philippine Education system, critical questions are asked.  How is the system  organized?  Why is it under-performing?  Why is overall learning low?  How can this state of low performance be remedied? 

The essays written in this series looks at the education system as a series of education levels a child goes through in the course of their journey to becoming an educated, fully functioning member of society.  Each level adds more value to what a child learns, each level having different learning objectives. 

An education system is necessarily complex with multiple layers, countless moving parts, human emotion, and multiple stakeholders with their different interests.  Having seen the insides of the Department of Education and the different interests and tensions therein, it is best to take the system apart in easily discerned pieces before putting them back into a single whole.

The entire system, I think, is best looked at in parts corresponding with the Learning age of a child.

  • From age 0 to 5 years old:  Very early and Early Childhood Development; day care and pre-school.  The learning objective is early socialization and communication skills development.  Learning about the Self.
  • Kindergarten (5 years old):  The learning objective is socialization, social habit formation, and early language and communication skills.  Learning about themselves and others – the concept of community.
  • Lower Primary (Grades 1 – 3):  Learning to read, write and do the four operations of arithmetic (3Rs).  Learning to ask insightful and meaningful questions.  Learning how to report what a child observes through their five senses.  Learning about community and the country.
  • Upper Primary (Grades 4 – 6):  Learning higher order thinking skills (critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration).  Learning about the larger community.
  • Junior High School (Grades 7 – 10):  Learning to think by subject discipline.  How to do open field/scoping research.  How to write essays and thought pieces.  Thinking about the country and the world.
  • Senior High School (Grades 11 – 12):  Looking at career, work options.  Longer term planning.  Thinking about society and civilization.

Within such a complex system, there will be other sectors or publics that may be underserved or unserved.  These sectors include the very poor, those without access to formal schooling, those in difficult situations such as GIDA (Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas) as well as historically left out sectors – cultural minorities and Muslim Filipinos.  What should be done to make Philippine basic education more inclusive and equitable?

In the course of the research, the author will highlight innovative teachers, schools, and education leaders at different levels who are doing things that produce results no matter how unorthodox.  The important thing is that effort translates into one of three types of results: (1) Improved learning outcomes by students, (2) improved system indicators in schools, and (3) system improvements measured through efficiency and effectiveness measures. 

The organization of topics will focus on the different levels of basic education on what we need to focus on to re-do basic education so that it supports the future growth of society and the economy.  Using education as a lever, how can we help turn a weak state (the Philippines) into a moderately strong state [i.e. a performing] state?

Planned topics include to be released and disseminated in weekly essays every Friday are organized as follows:

Early Childhood Education

Key Message:  Infants and toddlers must be healthy to have a chance at learning well.

  • Essay 1:  Are Filipino infants getting enough nutrition to ensure proper development of their brains? 
  • Essay 2:  What are the standards for Early Childhood Development?    

Lower Primary (Kindergarten to Grade 3)

Key Message:  Every child a reader by Grade 3 (or better, Grade 2).

  • Essay 3:  Are parents bringing children to Kindergarten and at the right age?  Are Filipino children prepared for such formal schooling?
  • Essay 4:  Are Filipino children learning to read by Grade 3?

Upper Primary

Key Message:  Every child functionally literate by Grade 6.

  • Essay 5:  What does early testing tell us about student learning?
  • Essay 6:  What is/are the reading/functional literacy levels of upper primary students?

Junior High School

Key Questions:  By junior high, are students proficient in science and math learning (if not masterful)?  Are they picking up 21st Century Skills?

  • Essay 7:  How prepared are students for Math and Science learning?
  • Essay 8:  What is the level of reading and comprehension of junior high school students?

Senior High School

Key Questions:  By the end of SHS, students are Future Ready – either ready for university or ready for the workforce?

  • Essay 9:  What tracks are SHS students signing up for?
  • Essay 10:  How are SHS students doing in exit exams?

Special Topic:  COVID-19 and School Opening

Key Question:  Why Hasn’t the Philippines Opened Basic Education Schools to face-to-face learning?

Alternative Learning

Key Message:  ALS can pick up those who dropout or leave formal education and provide a way to an alternative education (i.e. literacy and skills-building).  Not everyone is a good student; but everyone can be a good learner at something.

  • Essay 11:  What is the extent of participation in ALS?  What is the level of participation and performance in equivalency exams?
  • Essay 12:  Why is ALS underserved?  What can be done to provide more ALS for individuals who have dropped out of the formal system?

Underserved segments

Key Message:  Society must do more for unserved, underserved segments, re formal education.  No one should fall through the cracks.

  • Essay 13:  A quick overview/picture of underserved sectors
  • Essay 14: Last Mile Schools


Key Message:  No one should be left behind.

  • Essay 15:  Who are dropping out of school? 
  • Essay 16:  What dropout prevention measures are there and how successful are these?

Boys versus Girls

Key Message:  Society needs gender parity to be a successful nation.

  • Essay 17:  The Big picture – Participation, completion, achievement, transition to university (comparison of Boys versus Girls)
  • Essay 18:  Why are Boys underperforming viz Girls? The impact on society?

Teacher Quality

Key Message:  Quality education needs quality teachers.

  • Essay 19:  How prepared are teachers to teach? 
  • Essay 20:  What do teachers know and understand as 21st Century Skills?  Are they prepared to teach/develop these skills?

Policy Questions

  • Essay 21:  Is the Mother Tongue policy working?  (The intention of the MTBLE versus actual results.  What are the pros and cons of MTBLE?)
  • Essay 22:  Should DepED do end-of-year standardized exams per year level or let teachers/schools do their own exams?

System Performance

  • Essay 23:  Does the Cohort Survival Rate tell us something about the future of the country?  What performance indicators matter?
  • Essay 24:  Is DepED/the education system doing too much of what is not producing results?  Or should the System be doing something else?

Twenty-six essays that will hopefully help teachers think through how to help students at their level learn to Learn.   

The series invites feedback in what will hopefully be a continuing discussion on ways to improve the Philippine education system.

Juan Miguel Luz is a Fellow of the FEU Public Policy Center, Member, Board of Advisors, Philippine Business for Education (PBEd).  Former Undersecretary, Department of Education.