He has a lot to do

By James Jimenez

Who doesn’t know Sonny Angara? An alumnus of both the University of the Philippines College of Law and Harvard Law School, a sitting Senator, and son of the late, great Edgardo Angara – Sonny Angara is a name we all know. Just as we also know that his time as a legislator has been spent advocating healthcare improvements, economic development, and – most relevant to this article – educational reforms. Relevant because, as you must also know, he has recently been appointed Secretary of Education.

As a part of the legislative branch of the government, Sonny Angara had a hand in crafting legislation – particularly the Free College Law and the Free Kindergarten Law – that helped make education more accessible to students from low-income families. He also pushed for the

institutionalization of the school feeding program through the passage of the National School Feeding Program Act, which seeks to address malnutrition and improve the health and academic performance of young students.

Now, as a part of the executive branch, Secretary Angara will have the opportunity to directly ensure that the goals of these education policies and laws are actually met – and that is a whole different kettle of fish. And with any luck, he will not only use his position to implement laws, but also to shine the spotlight on various problem areas plaguing education, and to propose new laws and policies that are informed by actual time spent in the trenches.

Stopping the freefall

By far the most pressing issue Secretary Angara will have to confront is the alarming decline in reading proficiency among Filipino learners. According to a report by the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) of the Philippine House of Representatives, “One indicator of the country’s state of basic education is the performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which showed dismal bottom ranking of the Philippines – 78/78 in 2018 and 77/81 in 2022.”  This abysmal score places the country far behind every single ASEAN country that participated in the Assessment, and poses significant negative implications for the country’s economic and social development.

It would be great if Secretary Angara could arrest – and even reverse – this freefall by implementing early literacy programs that emphasize pre-school education and which treats reading as a core component. Interestingly, most public schools now do run after-school literacy and numeracy programs. However, these initiatives fall short of their laudable goals simply because they can’t keep the students in them – many of the learners enrolled in these programs end up dropping out because their parents need them to come home so they can help earn money for the family!

Providing continuous professional development for teachers to equip them with effective reading instruction strategies is also crucial, and just as essential as increasing access to books and reading materials, particularly in rural and underserved areas.

Curbing the bullies

A study conducted by PISA revealed that Filipino students experience one of the highest rates of bullying among the participating countries, with approximately 65% reporting being bullied at least a few times a month. As someone who spent a sizeable chunk of my growing-up years as a part of that 65%, I can attest to the fact that bullying didn’t just affect me physically – it soured me to the learning environment itself, making me believe school was a hostile place and adversely affecting both my ability to learn, and the school’s ability to teach.

Learning from the experience of other countries, I imagine Secretary Angara can bolster the ability – both financially and professionally – of schools to implement anti-bullying laws and spearhead the development of comprehensive programs to provide adequate counseling services, enact awareness campaigns that educate students, teachers, and parents about the effects of bullying, and implement peer mediation programs, where students are trained to help mediate conflicts among their peers. I recognize that some of these solutions may, at this exact moment in the development of our education system, be a bit too pie-in-the-sky, but as Secretary Angara’s alma mater challenges – Kung hindi tayo, sino? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan?

 

Strengthening the roots of democracy

The institutionalization of voter education is the Holy Grail of democracy advocates everywhere. With voter education integrated into the national curriculum at various educational levels, students can better understand the importance of voting and how the electoral process works.

At the start of every school year, every homeroom “elects” student officers; and then they engage in further elections to select a supreme student council. In theory, this practice builds civic awareness among students, preparing them for future participation in the process of selecting national leaders. In theory, this is where students are supposed to learn about the democratic norms and ideals that mark our democratic system – the understanding that the authority to govern emanates from the governed, and the importance of abiding by the expressed will of the majority, and the foundational necessity of fair play.

In practice however, these yearly exercises have been allowed to devolve into vaudeville – a pale, and often trivialized, reflection of the real thing. Is it any wonder then, that young voters stride into voting booths with no idea of just how consequential their votes are, and so end up squandering the power of their voices? Secretary Angara can change this and ensure that our schools become incubators of a well-informed electorate.

As a politician himself, he should see the pedagogical value of encouraging schools to conduct mock elections and debates provides students with practical experience in democratic practices, making learning about democracy more engaging and relevant. Partnering with the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and other relevant organizations to develop and disseminate voter education materials can ensure consistency and accuracy in the information provided, while extending voter education initiatives to parents and the broader community through school-led programs and partnerships with civic organizations can amplify the impact and foster a more politically engaged society.

He has a lot to do

I am fully aware that Sonny Angara’s role as the Secretary of Education comes with significant responsibilities and challenges, and I would not presume to tell him how to do his job. But as a citizen and a democracy observer, I feel strongly that by focusing on improving reading proficiency, combating bullying, and institutionalizing voter education, Angara can do much to help pave the way for a more educated, safe, and democratic society. To my mind, these efforts are not only critical for the personal development of learners but are also fundamental to the nation’s broader developmental goals. Secretary Angara has his work cut out for him, and I wish him all the luck in the world. ###

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