On the education front, the Aquino administration has put its stake on a bold and major policy initiative that will have, arguably, long-lasting and far-reaching impacts for the millions of Filipino youth finding their place in the world. The Kindergarten plus 12 initiative or K+12 seeks to add two more years to the basic education curriculum. The central rationale to this thrust is to ensure that Filipino graduates become “globally-competitive and acceptable,” considering the fact that the Philippines remains one of the last two countries in the world that have a ten-year education cycle. The present system is said to have resulted in poor performance by the students, compounded by the poor quality and lack of teachers, classrooms, textbooks, and other facilities. International scores in science and mathematics put the Philippines at the bottom of the heap, exposing the sad state of basic comprehension and analytical skills amongst the great majority of our students in the public school system.
The rationale for this centerpiece program of the Department of Education seems therefore earnest and straightforward. Who could be possibly against setting higher standards for basic education, and for our graduates to stand a better chance at having gainful employment and greater opportunities for professional advancement by being better-equipped with more learning and life-skills after 12 years of study?
The problem, however, is that the K+12 initiative has become a source of acrimonious debate, eliciting some downright accusations of this being patently elitist and biased for big-business requirements for a more qualified and skilled labor force. Many teachers groups, parents and various education advocacy organizations claim that K+12 is “anti-poor” because it supposedly forces upon the poor the additional burdens of spending for two more years of schooling. And the largely impoverished state of public education—with the perennial problem of inadequate or ever-constricting annual budgets in real terms—makes the additional two years seem like too ambitious a pipedream.
“Where will government get the money for two more years of educating at least 20 million students at the basic education level, when it can hardly meet the most basic needs and minimum conditions for quality education in a 10-year period?” some organizations like the Alliance of Concerned Teachers ask. The estimated cost of a five-year period to transition to a 12-year system is around P150 billion, or P30 billion a year. The question nags: If there is already great difficulty in hiring 10,000 new teachers a year, how could we possibly hire the required 100,000 new teachers for better student-teacher ratios in a 12-year cycle? Or—if we cannot even bridge the 40,000 classrooms-a-year shortage, how can we accommodate the burgeoning population of pre and post-high school students in a 12-year system in the medium term?
The reality of a high drop-out rate also exacerbates the very issue of K+12. If out of every 100 students who enter first grade, only 43 complete high school, the pressing challenge then, many will say, relates to how we can first keep students learning in school in 10 years—rather than making it even more difficult for them to finish a longer basic education cycle. The drop-out rate will arguably, as a matter of concern by such groups, increase because of the extra two years.
Both sides of the debate have sound and fairly reasoned arguments, but the contention boils down to the tension between short-term needs of affordability and employment, and the longer-term imperative for quality education and global competitiveness with better skills and enhanced training and productivity. All told, the debate should rage; we must refer to or increase the number of research and pedagogical studies on the issue, the better to make us understand what the best policy paths to education reform are.
The strength of a country, after all, lies in the capacity of a vast majority of its people to think critically and creatively—and contribute significantly to its commerce and wealth-creating possibilities. A society is only as strong as its citizens who are able to innovatively tap into their potentials because of a liberating, equitable, forward-looking, rigor-driven and technology-anchored education system.
In a world of dizzying change and breakneck technological advancements, it is not enough that future generations of Filipinos have the requisite skills for functional literacy. They need the more critical faculties of comprehension, analysis and conceptual thinking—not simply to be part of a pool of competitive job-seekers in the domestic or global labor market, but to be a part of a much-needed and much-wider field of talent, knowledge and skill from whence our own scientists, engineers, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, technicians and artists, will arise to rebuild and redefine larger national aspirations for greatness.
It is the state’s mandate to provide basic education and ensure that parents are enabled to help all children finish school. As it is the duty of the state—and every Filipino parent—to be unflinching in the pursuit not just of “employable, competitive skills” but of the inherent value of human excellence, ingenuity and merit. That, in the end, should be the ultimate measure of country’s educational system. A real, lifelong learning process—far more than an arbitrary period of 10 or 12 years.