Trolls, instantly activated as if on cue the day she resigned, gaslighted the appointing power as the one who was incompetent. Unluckily for trolls, Sara Duterte was serially messing up the Department of Education (DepEd) with one blunder after another.

The verifiable facts are there for the whole world to see.

Sara appointed two former military generals as undersecretaries. Say that again? Yes, military generals in a civilian agency with non-security functions.

Major General Nicolas Mempin was the commander of the Philippine Army’s 10th Infantry Division before he retired. The 10th ID had responsibility over the Davao region. That’s not all, however. He was also a former commander of Task Force Davao when Sara was city mayor. The TFD is the unit that mans all entrances and exits to and from the city and is a creation of the militarist Dutertes.

Before his appointment, Mempin was hired as DepEd’s “technical consultant” with a monthly salary of P80,000. His responsibilities were to provide high-level policy advice described as “confidential in nature.” He was then appointed as undersecretary.

Brigadier General Noel Baluyan was assistant division commander of the 3rd Infantry Division prior to his retirement. Sara appointed him as assistant secretary.  Both generals were tasked to supervise DepEd’s administration strand.

Education occupied the back seat of her mind. While she could not get what she had wanted from the Marcos Jr. administration – the position of secretary of national defense – she militarized the DepEd. She acted like a ghost employee of DepEd.

Sara also filled top-level positions with political appointees. She named her spokesperson in the Office of the Vice President, Reynold Munsayac, as assistant secretary. Who was Munsayac? He was a Rodrigo Duterte appointee in the Presidential Commission on Good Government. What was he doing in an agency addressing education, notwithstanding the crises it faced?

And then there was the controversial Kristian Ablan, formerly with the father Duterte’s Presidential Communications Operations Office where he held various posts as undersecretary, assistant secretary, and deputy presidential spokesperson.

Ablan was associated with the controversy on the fire sale of DepEd laptops for public school teachers. The contract for the purchase of the laptops was done in the previous DepEd administration of Leonor Briones. Its implementation, however, extended to the succeeding Sara Duterte administration. DepEd was unable to pay the logistics firm assigned to do the deliveries. The laptops ended up in retail stores at fire sale prices. It was Ablan who was in charge of that under Sara. Where did the allocated money for it go? The project cost P671 million and was to benefit some 11,495 public schools all over the country. Only a fraction reached public school teachers.

Money and mystery

As is always associated with the Dutertes, how public money was spent always ends up as a mystery.

And then the bad news came on the PISA 2022 results – the Programme for International Student Assessment. PISA does a triennial assessment of 15-year old students in reading, mathematics and science across the globe, engaging more than 90 countries and some 3 million students worldwide. These assessments are important: they “offer insights on the quality and equity of learning outcomes, and allow educators and policymakers to examine trends in performance against international benchmarks, and develop effective policies and practice to improve their education systems.” It is an indicator of the quality of our basic education.

In 2018, among students of 79 countries assessed, the Philippines ranked at the bottom, 79th place, under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. Under Overall Reading Literacy, only 1 out of 5 students (19.4%) reached the minimum proficiency level. Indonesia fared better at 31%.

DepEd resolved the severely dismal result by vowing to (1) Review and update the K-12 curriculum; (2) Improve the learning environment; (3) Upskill and reskill teachers through a transformed professional development program; and (4) Engage stakeholders for support and collaboration.

Yet in the 2022 PISA, the Philippines still showed no significant change. The report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA’s creator, summarized the Philippines: “Compared to 2018 the proportion of students scoring below a baseline level of proficiency did not change significantly in mathematics, reading and science.” That hurt still.

And then the DepEd transitioned to Sara Duterte on the helm. Now in office for almost two years, the DepEd had sufficient time to accomplish the goals of reaching a PISA proficiency level. From the 2022 results, PISA launched a global benchmarking test on creative thinking skills. The Philippines ranked at the bottom four among 64 countries. And this was the news that greeted the Philippines on the same day Sara Duterte tendered her resignation as DepEd secretary.

What was the culprit? Education experts and analysts in the DepEd will need to pinpoint the exact cause, and the DepEd is not wanting in curriculum and teacher quality experts. However, the government’s policy research think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies offered a critical view.

In August 2023, the advocacy group Tanggol Wika  criticized DepEd’s removal of the mother tongue subject in the revised K-10 curriculum a “recipe for disaster.” Published by PIDS, the critical view said that, “DepEd removed mother tongue as a separate subject in the new curriculum to make way for Kinder to Grade 3 students to focus on foundational skills such as oracy and numeracy. The department, however, kept the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction in grades 1 to 3, after which teachers will use English as the medium of instruction for all subjects except Filipino and Araling Panlipunan.”

Back in 2019, PIDS made a study on DepEd’s Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) program, the primary rationale of which is to begin where the children are, which means building up on what children already know. Hence, it is designed to enhance the cognitive skills of school children right from the beginning of the education ladder. Creative thinking comes from the development of cognitive skills.

PIDS contended that key stakeholders such as parents and teachers had not fully understood the rationale of the program. Many teachers had the inability to communicate its benefits to parents. Naturally there was resistance. Teacher competence was also not fully assured before program rollout. There was also a dearth of textbooks and learning resources.

Given these serious concerns, the DepEd under Sara struck a further blow: removing the mother tongue subject in Grade 1 that was meant to introduce and explain to learners the significance of mother tongue use in 1-3.

Classroom crisis

Finally we come to one of the most essential stimuli to education: a conducive learning environment. DepEd has long failed that with a severe classroom shortage. But under Sara, the problem was even magnified. When she started her term, the classroom shortage was 91,000 classrooms.

After only a year in office, the crisis took a turn for the worse. It ballooned to 159,000 classrooms. The increase was opposite to the deficit that her agency predicted a year before when her undersecretary, Epimaco Densing, told the House committee on education that under Sara the deficit would be reduced to only 40,000 classrooms. Imagine the scenario: classrooms are congested and overcrowded.

With her penchant for hefty confidential funds, addressing the classroom crisis did not seem to be her priority. She was only able to address the shortage by 3,673 classrooms in 2023. She was nowhere in meeting the target. For this year 2024’s budget, she was given P17 billion to construct new classrooms. DepEd will be able to build only about 6,806 classrooms.

Lest we forget, there was her unilateral directive to strip all classroom walls of visual aids. She certainly missed the context of those wall graphics. In fact, they stimulate cognitive thinking for learners. The practice is done as well in other countries. Now that she is gone, teachers should resume the practice of having visual aids on classroom walls. And oh yes – remove her official portrait from classrooms. Netizens particularly suggest putting back the time-honored maxim on the wall – honesty is the best policy.

Plainly, simply and palpably, Sara Duterte was not fit for the job.


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