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Marvin A. Tort

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In a column last October, I raised the issue of whether or not we are aiming — as a matter of government policy — to produce school graduates who are primarily for export. If so, aren’t we just helping other economies grow and move up, and thus leave us further behind? Should we be producing instead graduates who meet primarily our own economy’s need?

I raised these questions in light of the fact that we have had a public-school system in place since 1863. And after over 150 years, from the Spanish to the Americans and now to the present Republic, what have we got to show for it? Are we actually producing better graduates now? Are we producing the kind of graduates that will make us a wealthy country?

In particular, in moving the school opening to between August and September, instead of the traditional June opening for the Philippines, will we actually produce better graduates? Will our public-school system ensure academic excellence? And, will our private schools be more accessible, more affordable, and produce better educated and better skilled graduates?

Exactly a year ago, on May 3, 2017, Senator Francis Escudero, chair of the Senate Education Committee, filed Senate Bill 1432 that sought to require all schools to start the school year anytime from “the second Monday of August to the second Monday of September.” A similar bill, House Bill 5802, was later filed at the House of Representatives by Rizal Rep. Michael John Duavit.

The arguments presented in favor of the calendar change was that top schools abroad usually opened in August or September, and that following this trend will benefit us. Moving the school opening to August or September will also make transition easier for students who wish to study abroad. And, classes are normally suspended during typhoons in June-August.

In his bill, Escudero noted that “our engagement with the world’s top universities will be greatly facilitated with the alignment of our academic calendar with the rest of the world.” He added that we “need to engage with the top educational institutions of the world in order to benefit from their experience and expertise and hopefully raise the standards of our education.”

He also said that “the synchronization of the academic calendar will assist in the conduct of research between local and international universities as well as student participation in exchange programs designed eventually to benefit local education.”

What confuses me is that Escudero bill appears to be targeting mainly Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) or colleges and universities. And yet, in its actual scope, it appears the bill will also cover all public and private elementary schools and high schools in the synchronization plan. To what benefit, I don’t really understand.

As for the Duavit bill, he cites data that 34 universities and colleges have already adopted the August-May academic calendar, and thus, all schools should already follow this. He noted that the change in calendar is in line with ASEAN “economic integration,” and to encourage “student and faculty mobility, both at home and abroad.”

Duavit also asserts that since 34 universities and colleges have shifted, then everybody else should already shift “to provide smooth transition from one level to another.” He added that a calendar shift will also boost the country’s “educational competitiveness” as it helps the Philippines attract a “pool of talented students and faculty,” presumably from other countries, and prepare students for “global integration and advancement.”

Call me old-fashioned. And, perhaps I have little appreciation for integration, particularly in a region where economies are far from equal. But, it seems the two bills benefit mainly the rich — those with plans and means to study abroad — than the majority composed mostly of poor students in public schools. Even avoiding class suspensions during typhoons at the start of the rainy season is a poor excuse, considering that typhoons come even after September.

I remain unconvinced. I need to see more data and research, more scientific proof, that shifting the academic calendar — to move the school opening from June to anytime between August and September — will actually be better for our children in the long term. That the change in school openings will actually produce better graduates, a more educated community.

Meantime, I fully support Education Secretary Liling Briones in her plan to stick to the June opening for classes. “We don’t have plans to move the calendar as of this time,” Briones was quoted in newspaper report. “I believe there was logic in originally opening the classes in June, so we will abide by it,” she added.

Briones’s reasons are more realistic and practical, as opposed to Escudero’s and Duavit’s justifications: If we open schools in August, then schools will remain open in the summer months. But, classrooms in public schools and many private schools are not suited for the hot and dry season from late March to May. School buildings and classrooms were not designed to hold classes in summer, she said.

And with school buildings not designed for extreme heat, students and teachers will suffer. Climate change in recent decades has also made summers hotter, and the dry season longer. Briones noted that school rooms “are going to be like an oven.”

She also said: “the June opening will help to avoid diseases and other related illnesses during summer like sore eyes, stomach ache, dengue and others.”

As for students looking at further studies abroad, I am certain their numbers are insignificant relative to millions of other students in public and private schools. As Briones noted, “We haven’t changed our calendar because we have to be more or less, harmonized to the local situation of learners, compared to those who are going abroad to study.”

In countries like the United States or in places like Europe, the school calendar remains in sync with the seasons. Schools break in June-September, primarily because these are their summer months. In this line, why should we change our own tradition of breaking school during the summer months? There is logic to the present school calendar which cannot be swayed in favor of synchronizing the Philippine academic calendar with that of Western countries, for the sake of education competitiveness.

As for the 34 universities and colleges cited by Duavit, did their “educational competitiveness” actually improve after their shift to the August-May calendar? Did they start producing better graduates? Did they start attracting a pool of “talented students and faculty” from abroad? Did the shift help promote their students’ “global integration and advancement?”

Or, did they simply increase their enrollment of foreign students, and improve their revenues, with little impact on the quality of education for Filipinos?

 

Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.

matort@yahoo.com