Education challenges

At a roadside stall where I bought vegetables late Monday night, the teenage vendor looked at the two bunches of native pechay in my hand and told me they cost P10 each.

Next I picked out sweet potatoes, which he weighed. The price for four large pieces: P60.

He then told his fellow vendor who looked slightly older and was busy with a cell phone: 20 and 60. The other guy looked up from the phone and said, 80. I handed the first vendor P100. He paused, looking at me, so I told him to give me P20. He stole a glance at the other guy, who nodded, and I got my change.

What future awaits a young man who can’t add beyond 10 plus 10, or subtract 80 from 100?

I’ve written about cooks who have trouble adapting recipes to smaller or larger versions because, even at age 40, they are unable to grasp the concept of fractions.

The problem extends to key government programs. Recently, as President Duterte himself pushed for greater uptake of the COVID booster program, I found out why several blue-collar workers I know took a long time to get their primary vaccines, why they resisted registering for the national ID, and why they are putting off getting their boosters: they can barely read, and they are embarrassed to ask for help in filling out official forms from more literate co-workers.

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This is the challenge facing our education system, which will soon be headed by lawyer-turned-politician Sara Duterte-Carpio.

Inday Sara’s spokesperson has defended her qualifications for the job, even as another staunch supporter, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, suggested that she take the social welfare portfolio instead.

But the incoming vice president clearly relishes challenges. As I have written, this is a period for giving the new administration breathing space to show what its officials intend to do and to hit the ground running. Maybe a non-educator can think out of the box and bring fresh ideas to the challenging task of improving the quality of Philippine education.

The long string of professional educators before Inday Sara introduced numerous reforms in the system. Among the most notable were the addition of two more years in basic education and making kindergarten mandatory, or K to 12, and the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the first years of grade school.

So far, the incoming secretary of education has said little about her plans for her new office, except that she wants to inculcate discipline and patriotism among the youth.

No one knows what she means exactly. Emerging from a campaign flooded with disinformation and revisionism, there are concerns that these would be carried over to childhood education, for institutionalized brainwashing. The Church might have to expand its subsidized basic education program as a counterfoil.

Again, giving a new team the benefit of the doubt, the incoming VP could very well be thinking of discipline and patriotism in their most benign form, similar to what we see in Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

The need for this kind of patriotism underpins the push of President Duterte for the return of the compulsory Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program.

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Duterte-Carpio’s proposal is for mandatory military service for all 18-year-old men and women, similar to those in Israel and South Korea. But Israel is in armed conflict with its neighbors, while South Korea is still technically at war with the north, whose volatile leader could decide to nuke Seoul during one bad hair day.

In our case, the only threat of invasion can come from China, but the incoming president has said he would pursue closer ties with Beijing. Also, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, apart from pointing out that we are not on war footing, has stressed that there are no funds for mandatory military training for youths.

What’s more likely under the new administration is the return of compulsory ROTC, and perhaps Citizen Military Training for all high school students.

For military reserve officers’ training, Bongbong Marcos might want to expand membership in the University of the Philippines’ Vanguard Fraternity, which sprang from the ROTC program and counts his father plus martial law enforcer Fabian Ver as members.

Tertiary education and ROTC will not be under Inday Sara and the Department of Education; it is under the Commission on Higher Education. Considering her clout in the new administration, however, will she also call the shots in CHED?

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The problems plaguing the basic education system are daunting enough; having higher education outside her jurisdiction would be one less headache for Duterte-Carpio. Higher learning institutions are traditional hotbeds of activism, among students and educators alike. Protest movements often start in schools, and a politician as education secretary would be a prime target.

Under Ferdinand Marcos 2.0, the militant activism is guaranteed to intensify. To promote calm in universities and colleges early in the new administration, it might be good to pick a person deemed to be politically neutral and who is respected as a professional educator to head CHED.

The deeply divisive election campaign seems to have also energized youths across political colors. Already, there are spirited debates among youths on whether inculcating discipline and patriotism will mean curbing the free exchange of ideas.

Patriotism is a concept that is not easily grasped. This is a major hurdle especially since international competency tests have shown that Filipino students have dismal reading comprehension skills.

Maybe Inday Sara can start by ensuring, since universal free education is mandated by law, that every Filipino, even before reaching the teenage years, knows the sum of 20 plus 60, and how much is 100 minus 80.

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