Why teachers want the next DepEd secretary to stay above politics

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Why teachers want the next DepEd secretary to stay above politics
Pupils line up as they wait for their face-to-face classroom assignments at Malanday Elementary School in Marikina.
The STAR / Walter Bollozos

MANILA, Philippines — Teachers have rallied behind the call for the next Department of Education secretary to be capable of rising above the political fray to make education reforms work — which one political science professor said has been difficult under the “divisive” term of outgoing education secretary Sara Duterte. 

After nearly two years of wrestling with years-long problems in the basic education sector with the resources of the government’s biggest bureaucracy, Duterte on Wednesday announced that she is stepping down as DepEd secretary, a job given to her by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in 2022 despite her reported request for the defense portfolio.

Duterte refused to provide clear reasons for her exit from Marcos’ Cabinet, but she said in a press conference that her resignation was not “out of weakness” but “compassion for teachers and students.”

The vice president has openly and repeatedly admitted to not having an educational background, which required her to tap her DepEd undersecretaries and education experts to review the newly launched Matatag curriculum in 2023.

Next DepEd chief should have ‘heart of a teacher’

Teachers group Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) said in a statement on Thursday that DepEd must be led by a non-politician or an individual not actively involved in partisan politics so the department can be “spared from political bickering” and “divisive political fighting.”

TDC Chairperson Benjo Basas said he hopes the next DepEd secretary will have actual classroom experience and “whose heart is truly a teacher's.”

“Aside from this, the next secretary should be an excellent manager since that person will be managing the largest bureaucracy in the country, with the most personnel, the most geographically dispersed, and the greatest resources,” Basas added.

As a result of her non-education background, some of Duterte's policies, such as removing educational posters in classrooms, have not been "educationally sound," said Mercedes Arzadon, faculty member of the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Education, in a message to Philstar.com.

Besides Duterte’s no-decoration policy, DepEd under her leadership implemented the weekly “Catch Up Fridays” program. Teachers' groups called to suspend the program after reports of students skipping school on Fridays due to a lack of engagement with the program and schools’ limited reading materials.

RELATED: DepEd urged to stop Catch Up Fridays after teachers flag drop in student attendance 

DepEd defended the reading intervention program and instead vowed to address reports of its uneven implementation in schools.

“The new one should know how learning happens, and at the same time, how to make the bureaucracy work. [They should be someone] who can make drastic moves to address the negative information about education,” Arzadon said.

Similarly, Marlon Nombrado, educator and co-founder of media literacy organization Out of the Box Media Literacy Initiative, said that the next DepEd secretary should only focus on solving the issues plaguing the education sector.

“[They should be] someone who can focus full time in running DepEd and addressing the country’s education crisis,” he added. 

Political science professor Cleve Arguelles told Philstar.com that the next DepEd secretary should have the “extraordinary ability to build public will and mobilize the entire society towards resolving the education crisis.”

“For all the qualities our people like about VP Sara, she is just the wrong person to have been given the leadership of DepEd. Her background is not appropriate and she is too divisive to mobilize broad public support for education reforms,” Arguelles added.

Critics of Duterte have called her out for having “misplaced priorities,” such as her unprecedented push for millions worth of confidential funds and her public red-tagging of teacher group the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT).

The teachers’ union publicly traded barbs with Duterte in 2023 after the group criticized the department’s efforts to address classroom shortages — a legitimate concern that has been the problem of nearly every DepEd secretary.

In 2023, DepEd fell short of its target for classroom construction, building only around 3,600 new classrooms out of the planned 6,300, based on figures shared by Duterte during her second Basic Education Report in January.

Duterte was also not present at the department’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) forum in December 2023, where education officials discussed both Filipino students’ low scores and its possible solutions.

Sara’s exit from DepEd opens doors for teacher unions

Vladimir Quetua, ACT chairperson, said that the next DepEd secretary should be principled and capable of building consensus among teachers and students. 

The country “needs a DepEd Secretary who listens well, values democratic consultation and practices democratic leadership,” Quetua added. 

“We have had enough of officials who have no respect to our unions and organizations, treat us like subjects, and rules the agency in a top-down approach,” he added.

Arzadon said that DepEd needs a leader that will support, not red-tag, teacher unions.

“Countries like South Korea with strong teacher organizations have well-functioning education systems because teachers are involved in pushing reforms. They are not just treated as recipients or implementers of reforms made by higher authorities,” she added.

‘Swift’ selection of next DepEd secretary

Meanwhile, private sector group Philippine Business for Education emphasized the need for continuity as the president searches for the next DepEd secretary, nearly a month before the new school year opens on July 29.

DepEd has yet to clarify how Duterte's resignation may or may not affect the phased implementation of the Matatag curriculum. 

“The reforms under the MATATAG Agenda, which PBEd has welcomed, must be pursued without interruption. These plans are vital in addressing the critical issues hounding our basic education system,” the group said.

“We strongly urge for the swift selection and appointment of a new Secretary of Education to ensure seamless transition and prevent any disruption in the education of our children,” it added.

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