District and state policy changes can really affect what happens in American classrooms. But these are not as dramatic as some major changes being implemented in the Philippines, as Stacy Gasteiger, a fifth grade teacher at Selinsgrove Intermediate School in Selinsgrove, PA explains.
Over the last few years, I feel like I’ve been bombarded by educational changes. I’ve been moved across grade levels, directed to change my instructional practices, and the biggest beast of all, adopted PACore (Pennsylvania’s version of the Common Core) standards. I admit to feeling a severe case of initiative fatigue. I wasn’t sure how much more I could bend. Then I went to the Philippines this summer, as part of the State Department’s Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) fellowship program and saw what real dedication and flexibility looks like.
The Filipino Education System
Filipino education is different from that of most other Asian countries. It is based on the education system of the United States, thanks to the U.S. colonization of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946. Unlike the Spanish colonists, the United States introduced the concept of universal free education for everyone. While working with educators during our trip, we frequently heard, “The Spanish gave us religion, and the United States gave us education.”
One major difference from the U.S. system is the centralization of education in the Philippines. Everything comes from the central office, called DepEd. We frequently met educators who had some level of frustration with the DepEd regulations that prevented them from doing what they thought best for their students. For example, one teacher managed a very small library at her school. The tiny room was filled with old reference books and textbooks. A local church had offered to donate several trade books and novels for the students, but the reference books and textbooks were required by DepEd. She was concerned that if she removed them to make room for the more enjoyable books, her school would get penalized by a DepEd inspector.
This centralization can be tricky in a country as diverse as the Philippines, which is made up of over 7,000 islands and 180 languages. In the 2012-2013 school year, DepEd decided to address language and cultural diversity directly through their new “Mother Tongue” initiative. Suddenly, schools were required to teach K-3 in the local dialect or mother tongue. They originally selected 12 languages and have since added seven dialects. After grade 4, teachers should change their instruction to Filipino and English.
Common Core may be a big jump, but imagine if someone suddenly told you to teach your classes in another language! Some primary teachers weren’t native speakers of the language where they were based. There weren’t a lot of educational materials in Bikol or Chavacano. But the teachers also believed it was better for the students to begin their education working in the language they knew best. The teachers also understood the importance of preserving the diverse cultural heritage of their country and not letting it be dominated by Manila. Mother Tongue instruction is now the norm throughout the country.
Just a few years after working hard to adopt the Mother Tongue policy, teachers have been whiplashed by another major initiative, and we were lucky to witness its implementation during our visit. Until this school year, the Philippines was one of only three countries that completed school after the 10th grade. (The others are Angola and Djibouti.) The government found that this limited education was hampering their citizens. Those finishing secondary school often didn’t have the skills necessary to begin a vocation or job. Colleges had to do a lot of basic instruction in the first two years. Universities and employers in other countries were often hesitant to enroll or hire Filipinos, because they had two fewer years of school than graduates from other countries.
The government and DepEd decided to change this and passed the K-12 Initiative. According to this new law, students are required to complete 12 years of public education. This year (2016-17) every school district added a grade 11 and next year, they will add grade 12. Not surprisingly with such a giant step, there are a lot of complications.
Most obvious to me is the issue of space. The Philippines is not a wealthy country. Schools can’t easily build new classrooms to accommodate an entire new grade. The schools I visited were already overpopulated. Classes hold 38 to 40 students. Many schools operated in shifts. For example, my host school had grades 7 and 10 come from 6:00am to 12:15pm and grades 8 and 9 from 12:45pm to 7:00pm. Many of the schools that we visited had a similar shifting schedule. My host school is building classrooms for the new 11th grade, but they are renting some rooms in an old building several blocks away in the meantime.
The second issue is teachers. No one has taught 11th grade before. The curriculum is entirely new. There are several tracks—academic, sports and arts, and technical-vocational-livelihood, but some tracks are not available at all the schools. We were there during the first week of school and the principals and teachers were doing an amazing job trying to make sure every classroom had a teacher, but things were being switched around everywhere. Because education is completely centralized, schools must wait until DepEd transfers a new teacher or principal to a school. If the school is short-staffed, the principal has to figure it out without being able to hire a new teacher.
The third issue is college. Colleges and universities will have virtually no incoming classes for the next two years. Every college is suddenly losing two years of students and their tuition. The government doesn’t want the K-12 initiative to jeopardize the jobs of thousands of college teachers, so they have developed plans to help them. Some school districts have partnered with the colleges, so the college teachers will be teaching in grades 11 and 12. This has caused some interesting funding issues, as colleges are not free in the Philippines. The government is also offering scholarships to college teachers to obtain graduate degrees. Only 50 percent of higher education faculty have a graduate degree, and the government’s goal is to have 70 percent with degrees by 2020.
Experiencing education in the Philippines taught me how important teachers are during the implementation of change. Teachers in the Philippines work in difficult environments with very few resources. They have lots of students and almost no technology. However, the good teachers have unlimited belief in the possibilities of their students. They give a lot of love and attention to the students and believe it’s important to teach character, as well as content.
When DepEd makes changes, teachers find the good in the change and do the best they can to support their students. They work hard to understand the rationale for the modifications and then make them work within their environment. They don’t rigidly follow rules but adapt them for their circumstances. If their students don’t understand their instruction in the “proper” language, they’ll change to help them through. They get to work at 5:30am or stay until 7:00pm to make sure every student has a class. If there aren’t enough teachers, they teach two classes simultaneously, so the students aren’t losing out on their education.
In many ways, teachers in the U.S. and the Philippines are facing similar challenges, although struggles in the Philippines are much more dramatic. The U.S. has been making a big policy transition to Common Core. Schools throughout the U.S. struggle with limited funds and materials. Many parts of the U.S. are dealing with teacher shortages, much as the principals I met in the Philippines. If teachers in the Philippines can do such excellent work when there is so much against them, I should be able to face this year with the same attitude. Take the changes being thrown at me and make the best of them. Find the good and make it work. The students are the center, and how I act will make the difference.
Photos courtesy of the author.
The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.