In a column I wrote about a month ago (News That Makes People Nervous, May 18), I took pains to highlight a rare positive step by the Aquino administration, the signing of the K-to-12 (K-12) bill that adds mandatory Kindergarten as well as two additional years of high school to the Philippines’ thoroughly inadequate school curriculum. At the time, I offered the argument that the positives of the initiative vastly outweigh the two main criticisms against it: Although the fears that the extended curriculum will pose a financial burden on families, and present significant challenges to the government in adequately funding and staffing the al system are valid concerns, they are manageable problems, and should not be a reason not to proceed with a program that will help to raise Philippine to something much closer to competitive international standards, and provide a better-prepared, more mature stock of fresh human capital to the country’s tertiary system and its workforce, both of which lag behind the rest of the world precisely because of the poor level of development provided by the truncated basic program.
The K-12 concept is still a good idea, but some perspectives offered last week might well increase our concerns about whether or not the intentions behind the program and its management are correct or productive. In a statement released on June 10, the overseas workers’ group Migrante International slammed the Aquino administration, and in particular Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, for making “claims [that]are baseless, if not utterly false and deliberately deceiving,” in reference to Baldoz’ statement—which to be fair to Migrante, was indeed completely ridiculous—that more overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are returning to the Philippines “because of the GDP [gross domestic product]growth resulting in more jobs and opportunities available at home.” According to Migrante chairman Garry Martinez, the claims of increasing job opportunities at home are belied by the rising unemployment rate and the implementation of the K-12 program, which is designed for “the intensification of labor export, this time systematically targeting the country’s young labor force.”
In follow-up comments later in the week, Rep. Luz Ilagan of Gabriela party-list criticized the government for “only adding quantity, not quality” with the implementation of the K-12 program, in reaction to a recent ranking that placed only five (down from 14 a year ago) Philippine universities among the top 300 universities in Asia. Ilagan’s contention is that the quality of Philippine higher has declined because of the poor preparation of incoming freshmen students and a fixation “on getting many students to graduate from popular courses that markets demand”; not nearly enough attention has been paid to improving the quality of the primary and secondary curriculum, in Ilagan’s view, therefore the K-12 program as it has been presented will have no real positive effect in improving the Philippines’ al reputation.
Ordinarily I regard the viewpoints of acknowledged leftists with a high degree of skepticism, particularly those expressed by the Migrante group, which has the seemingly incompatible objectives of promoting the interests of overseas workers while working towards eventually ending the labor export phenomenon. Over the weekend, however, I attended the annual parents’ orientation meeting at the private school where my three children are enrolled, and I was surprised, to say the least, at the “official” point of view towards the K-12 program. The academic director of our school—which already had a robust academic and extra-curricular program, as well as a good reputation for producing college entrants—in addressing the K-12 program offered the opinion that it “would better prepare students to find work overseas because of its focus on vocational training, and the fact that the students will be 18 [years old][and thus legally employable]when they graduate high school.”
Knowing how diligently our school’s administration coordinates its management with Department of (DepEd) policy, it would now appear as though the complaints of Migrante’s Martinez and Ilagan have considerable substance. And if, in fact, the enhancement of the Philippines’ human export resource is a priority of the K-12 program, then the fears of many that the extended curriculum was implemented for all the wrong reasons are completely valid.
The main feature of the K-12 program is that in the last two years of high school, students may choose one of three “tracks”: Academic, which is analogous to what we in the United States used to call “college prep”; Vocational, which focuses on trade and skill training; and Entrepreneurship, a hazy area for which little in the way of actual subject matter has been offered so far by the DepEd. With the possible exception of the latter, the choice of “tracks” is a fairly conventional framework which has been used with good results in al systems in other countries, and yes, it can effectively prepare students to enter the workforce, or to pursue college studies and enter the workforce on a different level later.
The problem is “workforce development” appears to be the limit of the government’s compartmentalized thinking when it comes to defining an ultimate goal for the K-12 program. Within as little as two years, the program will begin producing an enhanced resource in the form of students with skills training, but complementary plans to encourage and incentivize enterprise development to absorb what will become a large and constant supply of job-seekers are completely lacking at this point. And that leaves the impression, just as Migrante and Gabriela’s Ilagan have charged, that the government is banking on the long-institutionalized export of OFWs as the main source of return on investment in the K-12 program. We can only hope that policymakers will recognize the shortcomings in the government’s strategy soon enough to correct them, before the K-12 program becomes just another sound idea rendered completely useless by short-sightedness and abuse.