Beyond Duterte’s “peace and discipline”: Media’s proactive review of education woes

By Leah Perez

Media must continue to report on education, because of its primary importance in society

and in the future of the country. But it cannot be reported with passive news accounts,

with journalists waiting for briefings and press releases.  

DEVELOPMENTS THROUGH the year unfolded and dramatized more clearly the dismal state of education in the country as news picked up the close to bottom rankings of the Filipino students in the 2022 global rankings of literacy and numeracy.  

But Vice President Sara Duterte, concurrent Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary, was more concerned about national security, arguing that the education sector had a role to play in the pursuit of peace and security goals. 

Media stood pat on a shared editorial position, focusing not only on Duterte’s statements but on the deficiencies of the education sector. 

True to the Name 

In 2022, CMFR noted Duterte’s preoccupation with issues outside of education, reprising her father’s focus on military action to end insurgency. (See: “Under New Management: Sara Duterte on Education”) The Dutertes have never said much about social justice issues that underlie the communist armed rebellion. Sara Duterte’s orientation relies on the intelligence work which other agencies should be doing already.

Her performance so far has confirmed the widespread reservations expressed about her leadership of the sector. Her words continued to reflect the lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of the challenges she faced. She called for the return of the much-lamented mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. When she defended her budget request in Congress, she asked for allocations for confidential funds that would enable her to seek the help of “the security cluster and the security sector to address the issues and challenges to basic education.”

In 2023, determined to pursue these objectives during the budget deliberations, she asked once again for confidential and intelligence funds (CIFs) for the OVP and the DepEd. Lawmakers criticized her argument, referring to the department as “Department of Surveillance” instead; as Duterte continued to defend and explain that “education is intertwined with national security.” (See: “2024 bad-get? Media spotlight questionable funds”)

In November and after vigorous public backlash, Duterte dropped the request of CIFs both for the OVP and DepEd, saying that it was a “divisive” issue.

CMFR cheered Rappler for its in-depth report on CIFs in civilian agencies such as DepEd; and for its report that looked into the impact of budget cuts on state colleges and universities, especially those located in geographically isolated areas.

Persistent Woes

At the start of the year, in January, Duterte presented a Basic Education Report that was designed to project that she knew her job. She did identify the challenges in basic education: the shortage in classrooms and resources as the “most pressing issue”; low literacy and numeracy rates as reflected in the 2018 report of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); the “congested” K-12 curriculum and the program’s failure to assure the employability of graduates; and the lack of sufficient training and support systems for teachers. 

But apart from covering her speech as an event, some media cited advocates who welcomed the admission of persistent deficiencies. They also pointed out that the education report neither presented data nor described what actual steps DepEd would take to address the problems. 

News highlighted other issues and concerns. 

Hazing in Schools

Mainly afflicting the tertiary sector, violence in schools erupted from the long-standing problem of hazing and “frat wars.” In February, John Matthew Salilig, an Adamson University student, died from injuries sustained from fraternity initiation. His death made headlines when his body was found buried in a vacant lot in Imus, Cavite. 

While media reports followed up on Salilig’s death and recalled past cases of hazing, went beyond the development of the investigation to discuss the Anti-Hazing Act, further exploring other factors so as to prevent hazing. 

CMFR pointed out how these frat killings reflected the culture of violence that drives clan feuds and political rivalries toward murderous attacks among competitors.

Classroom “clutter”

In August as students return to classes, DepEd issued Order no. 21 directing schools to clear “school grounds, classrooms and all its walls of unnecessary artwork, decorations, tarpaulin, and posters.” Coverage showed Duterte herself removing these materials from the walls. 

CMFR cheered and CNN Philippines for reports that drew out the context of learning in which such decorations have a purpose,  questioning the wisdom of relegating all materials as “clutter.”

Furthermore, the two news accounts called attention to more serious problems which more urgently deserve the attention of the education  secretary, such as overcrowding, lack of teachers and learning resources, and deficient facilities that all affect students’ learning ability. 

Historical Revisionism?

In September, the month of Marcos Sr.’s birthday and the commemoration of martial law, media picked up reports on a curriculum change. A department memo ordered the removal of the name “Marcos” from the phrase “Diktadurang (dictatorship of) Marcos,” a term used in the Grade 6 Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies) curriculum.

Media gave voice to those opposed to the order, citing teachers, academic, and advocacy groups who criticized the instruction and said that removing the name of the former President from the dictatorship would be distorting his role in the country’s history. 

CMFR compared and noted the shift in coverage as a week earlier, news accounts about the curriculum change and martial law commemoration simply echoed statements of public officials who talked about the very same period with a positive spin, describing Marcos Sr. as someone who “fought for peace and order.” (See: “A Tale of Contrasts: Ten-day coverage of Martial Law commemoration”)

Perhaps, newsrooms have yet to settle the question as a matter of history. If so, it is an urgent task as journalism has to be truthful and faithful to the facts, not allowing politics to determine how it reports on a crucial period of national history. 

Not so merry end

The month of December highlighted the problems of education when it reported the 2022 PISA report which placed Filipino students among the poorest performing in the world, ranking 77th out of 81 surveyed. 

Media did well in opening up the discussion to other sources. It did not limit the discussion to DepEd officials. Sources included advocates and members of the private sector who discussed other longstanding problems, such as malnutrition, the poor quality of teacher education, and the government’s inadequate investment in education as factors that contribute to the continuing crisis in learning. 

Lack of focus on core issues 

Overall, the problems facing the educational sector in the Philippines are multifaceted and require comprehensive short-and long-term solutions. The magnitude of the challenge dramatizes the sheer inadequacy of Sara Duterte’s leadership. The dismal showing of Filipino students also reveal the folly of her responses: red-tagging critics, complaining of classroom “clutter,” wasting her energy on actually stripping the walls of “decoration.” 

Her preoccupation with security and defense is misplaced in the two posts she holds. National security and defense are important, but the education department does not play a primary role in achieving these goals. Her tendency to use the department to enforce militaristic policies only distracts DepEd from its core functions, involving its personnel in arenas where they have no real competence or authority. 

But beyond these inadequacies, media need to bear in mind that Duterte’s request for confidential funds was tinged with a sense of entitlement. When politicians begin to show such tendencies, the media should be guarded, alerting the public about the perils of giving them more power.

Need for radical transformation 

Media must continue to report on education, because of its primary importance in society and in the future of the country. But it cannot be reported with passive news accounts, with journalists waiting for briefings and press releases.  

Journalists will have to understand how the bureaucracy itself can hold back genuine reform. A full examination of these deficiencies could show how the highly centralized structure does not lend itself to responding more effectively to the differing needs and issues of schools all around the country. 

Thus, news about education must go regional as well, demanding a more granular knowledge of the system on the part of journalists. Accounts from the ground will reveal that more than just an effective secretary, the bureaucracy must also be ready to admit how it must change. MT