It’s Time to Get Serious about K-12

This may be counterintuitive to suggest but now is the best time to get serious about how we discuss, dissect, and debate what is the biggest reform project in Philippine education: K-12, the shift from a 10-year to a 12-year education cycle.

It may be counterintuitive given that the idea first gained currency in 2011. But then and in the years that followed, the program remained in the realm of conjecture. It was all theory, plans, drafts of skeletal frameworks; but it was enough to get schools busy with their SWOT analyses and summer plannings (that resolved to study the proposed changes and then convene to plan against next summer).

2016 seemed so far away then, but it is upon us now: the year when schools nationwide — both public and private — are mandated to offer Senior High School Grade 11 for the first time.

In those five years, I myself moved from classroom teaching to school operations. I first met K-12 with opposition; teaching then in a science high school, I helped my co-faculty draft a statement against the adoption of any changes in our curriculum because of K-12. We argued that our curriculum was sufficiently advanced and that it will continue to give our students an edge despite the absence of an additional two-years. What’s surprising now is that schools outside the operational jurisdiction of the DepEd actually have the liberty to not adhere to the K-12 program. But sadly that point was lost on my school five years ago — I’d say that politics did it in given the government funding it receives — and has become a moot point that sounds almost mythical now.

In the past two years, I’ve become more busy on the back-end of things: building a school, designing a curriculum, hiring and training teachers, and leading a team that does all that. As a provider of private education, we see the DepEd as a regulator — we have autonomy to do things as we’d like, provided we conform to some minimum standards and rules set by the Department. Otherwise, we receive no permits, no accreditation, and run the risk of losing clients because we would be seen as non-compliant to the DepEd. Fair enough.

The K-12 curriculum program is one such regulation.

Though private schools ultimately have the option to not provide it given that we’re outside the operational jurisdiction of DepEd, it has become a matter of survival for schools to do so. Technically, DepEd permits are given out in parcels: Pre-school, Elementary, High School, and Senior High School. Schools may offer only one department — hence some are just pre-schools, some are just high schools. It becomes a matter of survival because private schools lack one advantage public schools have: financial sustainability is a function of balancing a budget between one’s revenues — tuition — and expenses.

To not offer Senior High School is thus to concede your clients to other schools. From a user perspective, why enroll in multiple schools when I can have my child school continuously from Pre-school to Senior High School in one campus? Stability and reliability of place, after all, is a key factor in choosing a school. So as to not be one upped by the competition, there now exists pressure on all private schools to offer K-12 so as to offer value to their clientele.

It is in this competitive, regulatory environment that private school providers are engaged to make up for the slack in public education capacity. DepEd central reports that about 70% of public high schools are being prepared to offer Senior High School; however, stories on the ground from places such as Silay and Panay report that at best, their public schools can accommodate 20% of the incoming Grade 10 cohort. In the Cavite locale where our own schools operate, private providers of Senior High School outnumber public providers at an actual ratio of 21:4.

From where I sit therefore, the stakes are high to get K-12 right. We, as with the thousands of other private school providers, are expected to march lockstep with these grand reforms.

To be fair to our tri-partite education agencies — the Department of Education, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) — there is cognition of the massive scale of this reform and the need to learn and adjust in real-time. What I’d like to know is how serious they are at taking in feedback and iterating their program design and public policy. I am curious to see whether the Leviathan that is Philippine education can be agile enough to respond to the realities and evidence of the actual implementation of K-12.

 

Because as we get into the fine details of implementation — and we know what they say about the devil — the limitations, contradictions, and constraints of the policy become apparent. Moreover, the spirit of private enterprise is its capacity to innovate and respond to market demands; to strictly adhere to the design of DepEd can at times run counter to this, especially when it leads to program decisions that are inefficient or ineffective. Some questions can already be identified when one gets to the core intended features of the program: that it is market-ready and student-centered. The path identified by the programmers of K-12 may not necessarily align with the innovations and services that private education providers have.

For the sections that follow, it would be helpful if the reader has some background on the K-12 program. To keep things official, here’s the DepEd page.

Market-ready

At the heart of the argument for K-12 is that its graduates would be employable upon completion. This raises two questions.

Firstly, is there alignment between the streams to be offered in K-12 and the demands of the job market? For sake of argument let’s say that as of 2016, STEM would lead our students to be scientists and engineers, HUMSS would lead someone to become a novelist, or that ABM would lead all to entrepreneurs. But what about in 2026? 2036?

But even just the present job market is tricky.

Many graduates of the Philippine Science High School — even when they move on to science, math, and engineering degrees in college — remain underemployed. The intent of the PSHS program to supply a class of natural scientists is at best half-met but not to any fault of the program itself, but because of the dearth of actual careers in research and the hard sciences in the country. The PSHS is a good prototype of the job mismatch that graduates of the STEM strand would encounter. What is the point of being market-ready if there is no market?

Another case — Part of the allure of K-12 is its emphasis on technical vocational education. At the policy level, the TVET strand is where the DepEd could claim victory in the market alignment debate. Part of the strategy is to engage industry leaders and associations in designing the curricula of skills and competencies that would make SHS graduates outright employable.

That’s all good, provided the industry survives. A recently published article in the Economist cites that call centers, a growth driver in the developing nations such as ours, is now under threat by newer technology. A strategic alliance with the IT and Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) could mean little in 2026 or even 2036 once the industry is obliterated by artificial intelligence. When that time comes, let’s see how relevant the Contact Center Services Curriculum Guide will be.

This leads to the second question in relation to K-12’s objective of market-readiness: Are we overeducating our kids? Overeducation occurs when the skills and competencies taught are well beyond what the market can provide. Job mismatch occurs not just when supply side (schools, DepEd) are not aligned with the demand side (jobs, industries). Job mismatch occurs also when there is a failure to calibrate between the skills being provided (high-order thinking skills) and the opportunities that await (low- to medium-skilled jobs).

This results in inefficiencies on both ends. The sentiment “I don’t really learn in school what I need in life” may sound playful and quixotic, but it is also symptomatic of poor education quality especially when that same person goes through intensive on-the-job training or capacity-building prior to starting work — an expense that is necessary but could be minimized given proper calibration.

We do have to concede some reality: it is impossible to predict what jobs and industries will drive economic growth decades from now — unless government pushes for industrial policies that aggressively shape and incentivize the emergence of particular sectors. Investments in education may be seen as one way to do that — which it is! — but similar investments should be made on the demand side as well.

Here’s a simple illustration of how this duality can work: in all the intended progressiveness of K-12, I don’t see any strand or subject that focuses on the development of Green Energy. Likewise, the energy sector as a whole is not conducive to the development of these alternative and renewable energy resources. Solar energy providers remain the cowboys of our generation, wind farms remain props for selfies, and our power rates remain among the highest in Asia as urban dwellers buy more cars that clog our cities in this current period of cheap crude. A Green Energy curriculum on its own wouldn’t work; incentives for private investment in Green Energy will take years to scale. Innovation can be spurred and shaped, but it requires action beyond the competence and domain of just the Department of Education. It will require coordination across government and between industries to spur innovation and birth a profitable, promising sector.

Student-centered

 

But given that industry can be unpredictable and uncertain, and that through the curriculum we do our best to work with what we know now to prepare our students for tomorrow, then what should our students learn? What should the curriculum emphasize and how is it operationalized in school?

In a recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), A Smarter Future: Skills, Education, and Growth in Asia (2015), they find that noncognitive skills matter just as much as technical skills in preparing students for the uncertain future. (Note: This ADB report, in large part, fuels this entire piece.) By noncognitive skills they pertain to character, those ethereal set of skills that include grit, resourcefulness, creativity, and all those qualities championed by the likes of Sir Ken Robinson.

These skills are either unmentioned or understated in the DepEd’s K-12 program.

Moreover, there seems to be an undue emphasis on education as a mere means to an end — employment and work. At this juncture I agree with some analysis from our country’s political Left: that the education system is but a means to fuel the capitalist machine.

 

What the DepEd is short of is a vision of what the Filipino citizen must be. Sure, the K-12 can lead more to be scientists; but what kind? We can have more entrepreneurs; but what kind? We can have more plumbers, electricians, and artisans; but what kind?

It is in answering that question — what kind? — that we can somehow differentiate an Iskolar ng Bayan from an Atenista. It is in answering that question that HRM graduates from UST find jobs more easily than HRM graduates from La Salle; that you find more start-ups in Quezon City but more small businesses in the University Belt.

It is in answering that question that schools find a vision to anchor their curriculum and operations, to focus the efforts of their faculty and staff, and to direct student formation and development. But behind all the efforts of these schools to imbibe a certain quality and character in their kids is a drive to help them be successful.

Of course, we all have varying metrics for success. And insofar as the standard K-12 curriculum is concerned, the goal does seem to be employment. However, here’s the rub about the value that an emphasis on noncognitive skills brings: students who are grittier, more resourceful, more creative, more collaborative — and so on — learn faster, adapt better, and achieve more.

DepEd often says that they would like their curriculum to be more student-centric. When there is evidence to suggest that K-12 students will remain overeducated and underemployed and that the skills they need to succeed are not really emphasized in the curriculum, it becomes challenging to support the position that K-12 is student centered. It still can be, of course, but not at the moment.

Roll-out

K-12 is a work in progress; even the DepEd themselves readily admit to that.

In a forum at the ADB today, Asec. Jess Mateo concedes that the remaining challenge in the implementation of K-12 is the curriculum itself. Subject guides have yet to be written and resources have yet to be identified. I hope that there is a second layer to what he said: that the curriculum will undertake a constant process of study, review, and revision. And in the previous sections, I focused on the two key features of the K-12 curriculum that I take exception to; its market-readiness and student-centrism are really two sides of the same coin.

Working at the level of designing and operating schools however, there are critical questions that remain in implementing the program whole sale.

One, it is not yet clear what happens when a student decides to change strands. Senior High School essentially takes over the first two years of college — the typical period when potential shifts are mulled over and students decide to jump courses. Moreover, what happens when a student who finishes STEM decides to go into the Humanities at the University? Will the strand impede the student or not? This remains unclear.

At the level of whole divisions and provinces, we’d like to know how the fact that most Senior High Schools can be found at urban areas will impact the policy. There is a wide enough gap between the availability of schools, particularly secondary schools, between rural and urban areas that contribute to high drop off rates between elementary and high school. To complicate this is the fact that most Senior High Schools will be privately provided; while the government will provide a voucher of some sort, schools may not be ready to accept the entire cost and require public school students to pay the balance between the government voucher and the published school fees.

This can present a medium-term problem where we have a cohort of youth who are neither Senior High School students nor college students — a Lost Generation who will be denied of schooling because of a failure to access education.

And a third, incredibly frustrating aspect of this roll-out has been the vision-setting process itself from the Department of Education. While the DepEd and CHED seem to be working together now to seize the opportunity to recreate our education system as we know it, what remains to be seen is how Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) will fare once the losses start coming in this June to August of 2016. To date, private HEIs are struggling with the trade-offs required by Senior High School; whole departments are in danger due to a truncated curriculum and the inability of CHED to effectively realign resources between them and the basic education sector.

Is it time to revisit our country’s split between basic and higher education? Key to change management is putting the proper structures in place to monitor, steer, and direct change. In light of the inefficiencies that exist in having two bodies with different mandates overseeing what is essentially a single supply chain of human development, the time has come to assess the feasibility of collapsing CHED into the Department of Education. As CHED Commissioner Bautista herself says, there will be losses. At the top of my mind would be the loss of the separation between these two entities so that they may be consolidated into one strategic group.

The spirit of public education

Education, as guaranteed by the Consitution, is premised on its importance to national development. At a minimum, the Department of Education’s mission is to provide access to quality education. The Constitution provides for the possibility of the Department to both directly provide (meaning to have the competency to deliver) and to indirectly finance the education of its people (through vouchers, subsidies, grants to private entities with the competence to deliver).

What would be tragic in the shift to K-12 is if this basic mandate is lost.

There will always be debates about what our students should learn, how they learn, and why they learn. The curriculum will always be evolving as that is the nature of human knowledge itself.

What there shouldn’t be a debate about is that every student should be given a fair shot to have the education he or she needs to aspire to have a better lot in life. Above, we alluded to the danger of a Lost Generation — students who won’t be pursuing Grade 11 and who won’t be eligible for Higher Education either. This danger arises from the fact that the requirement for Basic Education has been raised by two years without accounting for the capacity of our students and families to meet those two years — especially if they will be shunted off to expensive and far-off private schools after 10 years of free public education. The barrier to access to Higher Education has also been raised, if not impossibly so. Would it be harsh to hold the reform accountable by this one metric?

Hence, my original exhortation: It’s time to get serious about K-12.

Over the coming months and years, there are boundless opportunities for everyone across the education sector — government, private providers, NGOs, start-ups, parents, students — to undertake not just a massive reform program, but an exercise in whole-system learning. In an era where there is a hunger for data and evidence, the actual implementation of K-12 will have much to offer in terms of studies, reviews, and impact assessments. We’ve heard a lot from DepEd and CHED over the past years; one last signal I’m looking for is that they’re ready to learn, pivot, and iterate.

Then will I be convinced that they are serious, too.

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