‘Victory over COVID-19’
Let us first acknowledge that the pandemic confronted the Department of Education (DepEd) with the most formidable problems any post-war administration had to face. To its credit, DepEd managed to open on Oct. 5 the 2020-21 academic year that COVID-19 had delayed. Secretary Leonor Briones then declared “victory is assured for education.” Whoever prepared the draft of her remarks did her a disservice.
The achievement was critical and commendable, but the claim is premature, like celebrating the D-Day landing in Normandy as the triumph over Nazi Germany. It also risks the loss of focus on the critical goal: not just meeting the schedule for school opening, but also ensuring that the students achieve the prescribed learning objectives.
DepEd thus deserves commendation also for undertaking the strategic step of reviewing and revising the competencies students should master and against which they would be evaluated. Briones noted that this process had started even before the pandemic because of persistent complaints about the congested basic education curriculum. COVID-19 accelerated and expanded the scope of the decongestion process. The curriculum of senior high school (SHS), the new and more complex program, bore the main brunt of the criticism. But it was elementary education that suffered the biggest reduction in the Most Essential Learning Competencies (MELC).
Filipino (70 percent) and English (93 percent) took the biggest cuts in MELC. Math and Science, where the Philippines placed second to last in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment tests, lost 27 percent and 34 percent of their original MELC. Educators are now wondering whether the reduction might have been too severe and whether the graduates of the “streamlined” system will learn the competencies needed for SHS and college. We will not have enough evidence to reassure these educators, or to confirm their fears, until we see how the students are learning the new MELC.
After streamlining the MELC, DepEd had to provide students the appropriate learning materials. It had two choices. It could instruct teachers to continue using their textbooks and simply omit coverage of the MELC that had been discarded. This was the easier, safer, and less costly option. The materials, perhaps, were not ideal but they were immediately available to students and already familiar to teachers. With less content to cover, teachers would have more time to review the texts for errors and, perhaps, prepare their own supplemental notes, since the ban on face-to-face classroom sessions would limit their ability to help students directly.
DepEd chose instead to require teachers to prepare new learning modules matching the new sets of MELC for their subjects, a more costly option that has apparently raised questions about the adequacy of the budget appropriated for the purpose. It also required more work for the production of the materials, and their review to ensure their quality. Media reports of errors in the materials delivered to the students underlined some quality control failures.
Given the rush to meet the deadline for the start of classes, errors were understandable and almost inevitable. DepEd teachers and staff were also coping with their own COVID-19 concerns. There was also the potential waste of committing resources to support a streamlined set of MELC that should undergo continuing evaluation. Math, Science, and Language (Filipino and English) were foundation disciplines essential for building the students’ capacity for lifelong learning. How do we know that the drastic DepEd reduction of their MELC trimmed away only the less essential fat but spared muscle and bone? Would the streamlining leave a foundation strong enough to support the progress of the students from elementary and junior high school to SHS and college?
The question cannot be answered without further research, as a first step. Even with expert confirmation that mastering the 7 percent of the pre-pandemic DepEd MELC for English would adequately prepare students for higher education, educators would still have to worry about the effectiveness of the system for enabling students to gain this mastery.
But research to assure us that we have identified the necessary and sufficient MELC would allow us to move with greater confidence on the task of producing the appropriate learning modules and planning for their effective delivery.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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