A losing battle to improve textbooks
(First of two parts)
TORRIJOS, Marinduque—Antonio Calipjo Go’s lament about “sick books” has been instructive for teachers on the frontline of a struggle to improve basic education in public schools—an effort not unlike the Battle of Pulang Lupa during the Philippine-American war.
On a mountain slope in this coastal town overlooking the spectacular Sibuyan Bay on Sept. 13, 1900, Col. Maximo Abad and his ragtag band of Filipinos, armed mainly with bolos and machetes, routed a US force led by Capt. Devereaux Shields.
A concrete mural depicting one of the worst defeats the Americans had suffered in that war stands at a memorial site on the hill.
The little-known battle on Pulang Lupa came at a critical time for US President William McKinley, who was facing the anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan in an upcoming election. McKinley responded with ferocity that quickly ended the Philippine war for independence and cemented the path of America’s manifest destiny, for better or worse.
Eleven months later, the transport vessel USAT Thomas disgorged 530 Americans—later known as the Thomasites—in Manila to train 25,000 English-speaking schoolteachers and establish the Philippine public education system that produced exemplary leaders and captains of industry.
The nation was on the cusp of what analysts in the 1960s said was a second economic miracle in Asia next to Japan, when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Attention shifted from education to overriding security concerns. The education system has never recovered since.
Making a difference
In a sense, the Battle of Pulang Lupa may well serve as a metaphor in the Sisyphean effort to revitalize a system that, according to the late education dean Josefina Cortes, has produced a “nation of fifth graders.”
Like Abad’s troops on Pulang Lupa, the teachers soldiering on in Torrijos, as in other parts of the country, have little of the wherewithal to raise the quality of education and make their pupils competitive in the global village—the avowed objective in the bold shift from the 10-year basic education system to the K-12 program, or kindergarten to 12 years of elementary and high school, that the Aquino administration rolled out in 2011.
They appear to be making a difference, in their own special ways, to reach modest goals.
Because of the failure of the Department of Education (DepEd) to deliver essential needs on time, teachers and pupils xerox learning materials at their own expense. They download subject content from the Internet and have them copied and distributed to their pupils.
They also have to grapple with textbooks that are riddled with errors—a problem that has persisted through the past two decades as student proficiency in English, math and science deteriorated. Public outcries over teaching materials lost in translation sparked public indignation and well-publicized congressional investigations in the past and were soon forgotten after the TV camera lights went out.
On a recent visit to several schools in Torrijos, teachers showed English books for children. Texts in many pages were shadowed with yellow markers on supposed typographical, grammatical, factual and conceptual errors.
One high school teacher was still using the Grade 10 English Learner’s Material, pathetically titled, “Diversity: Celebrating Multiculturism (sic) Through World Literature,” that was critiqued in a June 8 article by the eagle-eyed Go, a self-styled “sick books” crusader, who said he had found 1,300 errors in the material.
“The critique was helpful,” said this teacher. “We are grateful to Mr. Go for having exposed these errors.”
Another teacher showed her copy of a 2014 Grade 9 Science Learner’s Material with the word “draft” stamped across its pages. She pointed out one entry there—among the many errors she had uncovered. In a table on the color of flame of metal salts was listed “boric acid.” This is a “metalloid, or semimetal,” the teacher said. She said that she had pointed out these errors during a teacher’s seminar, but was unaware if these were considered in the final version of the material, which she still has to see.
Five days after the interviews, the teachers and principal of this Torrijos high school called the reporter, who was back in Manila, to say that a new Grade 10 book, titled “Diversity through World Literature,” had arrived and distributed to 42 pupils. “We don’t have any more problem with the books,” the principal said.
In Metro Manila, checks with several high schools confirmed the distribution of the textbook.
But as of the weekend, this purported new version of the Grade 10 book had not been posted on the Learning Resource and Management Development System (LRMDS), the DepEd’s online portal where digitized copies of its publications can be accessed.
Bereft of sensibility
After Go’s commentary was published in the Inquirer a week after the start of the school year, the digital edition of this textbook was pulled out of the LRMDS. It has not been replaced. There has been no announcement, that after Go’s exposé, a final and corrected version of what the DepEd earlier said was a premature disclosure of a “work in progress” is now available.
Some of the more glaring errors that Go had pointed out in the earlier version remained uncorrected in the new book, a check with his list of supposed mistakes showed.
Go has reviewed two more DepEd publications written by a dozen authors, consultants and editors with M.A.s and Ph.D.s and are used in Grades 4 and 2. He said the 432-page Grade 4 textbook contained more than 400 errors; the Grade 2 book, 200 errors.
“Many of the words, phrases, sentences and stories are so bereft of sense and sensibility, so without rhyme and reason, that you can’t help but wonder where the authors got the gumption to call it a ‘learner’s material,’” said Go, a college dropout who is now the academic supervisor of Marian School of Quezon City.
Over the past two decades, Go has mounted a seemingly quixotic campaign against the production of books riddled with errors, pulling out newspaper ads at his own expense to publish his findings. He has been slapped with lawsuits and derided in media.
Publishing houses used to enlist academics to write textbooks for approval by the DepEd’s Instructional Materials Council Secretariat (IMCS), which screens them for publication and adoption in public schools.
Under a new policy, the DepEd now invites publishers, authors and editors to submit manuscripts. After a tender, the chosen publishing houses print the approved materials.
Legally, the publishers have no responsibility for the errors, but critics of the system say that because of the huge money involved, the printers have a moral obligation to ensure product quality.
For example, the notice for bidding by the DepEd on Feb. 9 for the publication of 16 sets of learner’s materials (LMs) and teacher’s guides (TGs) was worth P1.2 billion. It had a 100-day delivery period to the DepEd’s central office, public schools districts and public high schools nationwide.
The 1,413,900 Grade 10 English LM and 13,900 TG package was worth P63 million. The Grade 4 English package—2,518,900 LMs and 68,900 TGs—cost P109 million.
In Torrijos, the delivery period obviously had not been met. Only two copies of the Grade I0 learner’s material—the one that had since been ditched because of Go’s critique—reached one school here.
Random checks by Inquirer reporters in Metro Manila revealed that in some schools, the books had not arrived by the opening of the new school year in June.
Benjie Valbuena, national chair of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), blames a conspiracy of silence in the screening and publishing process for the problem of textbooks through the years.
“There is no consultation. Decisions come from the high DepEd officials—the supervisors and regional directors. There is no transparency in their meetings. That is why you have that quality and the errors go on and on. The teachers are pointing out the errors in these textbooks, criticizing them, but these are not being rectified,” he said.
“It has become a big business for high DepEd officials,” said Valbuena, 62, a public high school teacher with 33 years’ experience.
“Among the subordinates, there is a culture of fear,” he said, especially among those nurturing careers in the bureaucracy.
Valbuena said he had heard instances of authors, editors and consultants gathered, secluded in resorts and hotels and given a deadline to write the textbooks. “It has been difficult to confirm because the job is an internal matter,” he said.
The ACT issued a statement at the beginning of the current school year listing a number of problems besetting the DepEd:
— A shortage of 57,167 teachers (there were 4,019 items unfilled for 2014).
— 112,942 classrooms are needed, 59,671 budgeted classrooms were not built by DepEd in 2014.
— 4,281 schools have no water supply and 16,920 water supply projects were not implemented in 2014.
— 10,514 schools have no electric service.
— At least 23,928,335 textbooks and modules are needed, 12,775,823 of these were supposed to be delivered last school year.
— 34,935 complete science and mathematics equipment were not delivered in 2014.
— 10,383 ICT packages were not delivered in 2014.
395 Internet connectivity packages were not implemented.
In spite of the perennial shortages, a total of P4.7 billion in maintenance and operating expenses and capital outlay on the DepEd budget from 2011 to 2013 was impounded in the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), supposedly to pump-prime the economy, according to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) website. The juggling of funds in the DAP was later declared illegal by the Supreme Court.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, the DAP architect, in an interview with this reporter in 2007, likened the education situation in the country to a frog thrown in a kettle of water that was then put to a boil. The frog would not know that it was dying until it was too late, he said.
Abad, an education secretary in the Arroyo administration, described the situation then as “dismal,” citing a national test on reading to Grade 6 students in 2003. He said that 99.4 percent of those who took the examination were unprepared to enter high school.
The situation has not improved any.
In the P3-trillion national budget proposed by the Aquino administration for 2016, the DepEd’s allocation is P435.9 billion, up 15.4 percent from the previous year. The increase, according to the DBM, would support the implementation of the K-12 program.
A hearing on the education budget is scheduled today in the House of Representatives.
Spending and literacy
A presentation by Education Secretary Armin Luistro in March showed a determined effort by the Aquino administration to improve the quality of education. Luistro said the DepEd’s spending for each public school student in 2015 was P17,282—a steady increase from P8,815 in 2010.
The amount is way below what members of the Organization of for Economic Cooperation and Development, composed of 19 European countries, plus the United States and Canada, spend: $8,296 per primary student and $9,280 per secondary student.
The local spending speaks volumes about the literacy of Filipinos.
According to a 2003 National Statistics Office survey, out of an estimated 58 million Filipinos aged 10 to 64 years old, around 9 million are functionally illiterate or unable to compute and lacked certain numeracy skills.
Results of the National Career Assessment Examination in 2014 showed that the general scholastic ability of Filipino high school students was a sorry 44.48 percent.
The Philippines ranked near the bottom in the 1999 and 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests. The Philippines did not participate in the 2007 and 2011 TIMSS. There was no TIMSS in 2008.
Driving around the concrete coastal highways of Marinduque shows well-maintained schools, including those in Torrijos. They are clean, have water and electrical services. There is no unsightly garbage in the streets in the towns and cities of this heart-shaped island named after two star-crossed lovers. The people are green conscious, a result of the environmental disaster caused by the discharge of toxic waste to rivers and streams from a mining company in 1996.
“We give priority to our schools,” said Mayor Gil Briones, dapper in a black shirt and white pants who moved around the town on a motorcycle without escorts. Marinduque is one of the few places in the country with a low crime rate.
The problem is what’s going on inside the classrooms.
Teachers in Torrijos expressed reluctance in talking about their dire situation. Several of them who did later telephoned and backtracked or played down criticism about their situation.
They may not have the courage of their forebears at Pulang Lupa, but they plod on relentlessly with the little of what they have and talk proudly of their accomplishments—the graduates who have gone on to vocational schools and have become skilled workers overseas.
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