Falling educational standards and worsening teaching conditions: Sara Duterte’s legacy as Education Secretary

The cracks in the so-called UniTeam alliance of President Bongbong Marcos Jr. and his vice-president and running-mate in the 2022 election, Sara Duterte, have exacerbated in recent days with the latter’s resignation from Cabinet and from her post as secretary of the Department of Education (DepEd).

It is clear what Duterte’s end-game is in stepping down from the Marcos Cabinet: she is strategically positioning herself away from the President and his diminishing popularity in time for the 2025 mid-term elections.

While Marcos Jr.’s freefalling approval rating is self-inflicted, caused by his incompetence in tackling worsening cost of living pressures in the country, it is important to recognize Vice-President Duterte’s own shortcomings in her work as the education secretary as well.

Vice President Sara Duterte has no answers on how she got confidential funds in 2022, or how she spent this. But knowing the support she has in Congress, she knew this wouldn't be a problem. (Photo: Mike Alquinto/The Manila Times)
Vice President Sara Duterte faces a congressional hearing during the 2024 Budget process. (Photo: Mike Alquinto/The Manila Times)

This week, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) launched a benchmarking test for creativity among learners worldwide. The Philippines landed in the bottom four globally, rankings its students as one of the worst in the world in creative thinking.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Filipinos lack creativity given our proclivity to elect leaders from the same political dynasties in perpetuity, however such a result is a slap in the face to our education system. By all accounts, the onus is with DepEd to ensure we lift our educational performance to remain competitive with the rest of the world.

Sadly this isn’t even the first indicator of poor learning outcomes in the Philippines. In another PISA global assessment released in December 2023, Filipino students remained among the weakest in the world in math, reading and science.

Both of those international assessments happened well within the present Marcos administration, and during that time the head of our country’s education department was Sara Duterte. When reflecting on our poor showing in both assessments, questions must be asked to Duterte about the work she was doing in her role as education chief.

**T0822jane1 **AUGUST 21, 2022 Public school teacher Julieta Golez is busy rearranging the arm chairs and fixing the table in her classroom on Saturday, in preparation for the implementation of face-to-face classes on Aug. 22. PHOTO BY JANE CAROLINE BAUTISTA
A Philippine public school teacher arranges chairs in her classroom. (Photo: Jane Caroline Bautista/Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Poor learning outcomes can be expected when the resources needed to help students learn are also insufficient. The Philippines suffers from a shortage of classrooms that inflate class numbers, with a report last March indicating our classroom deficit stands at 165,444 classrooms.

The 2023 version of the report by DepEd placed the classroom shortage at 159,000, indicating a marginal increase in the classroom deficit as another year of Duterte as education secretary passed. These classrooms also are not equipped to give students a conducive learning environment to adapt to the natural environment of the Philippines.

A tropical country, the Philippines is vulnerable to extreme weather events such as the El Niño phenomenon that brought record temperatures in the country this past summer. Due to the lack of air conditioning units in many Philippine schools, in-person classes were regularly suspended affecting student learning.

Extreme temperatures should be expected in a tropical setting like the Philippines, yet no measures were ever put in place to address this risk. Instead, in the two years Duterte was in the role of education secretary she introduced measures that were doubtful to positively affect learning outcomes or student wellbeing.

Students listen to their teacher in this Philippine classroom. Under Marcos Jr.'s new directive, students and pupils will be among those who will need to recite the Bagong Pilipinas Pledge and Hymn regularly. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Students pay attention to their teacher in this Philippine classroom. Learning outcomes of Filipino students have worsened under Sara Duterte as education secretary. (Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the first initiatives Duterte introduced as education chief was to implement “mandatory toothbrush drills” among learners, including the distribution of toothbrushes with a “toothbrush guide” to students.

She also wanted to make military training a requirement for learners, by making the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program mandatory in the tertiary level. Not only will this add to student expenses due to the added costs involved with joining the program but this will also increase student workload while adding no apparent benefits apart from achieving eligibility for military service.

It was this initiative to make ROTC participation mandatory that led to arguably Sara Duterte’s biggest scandal to date when, in 2023, she requested a whopping Php150 million in intelligence funds for DepEd. These funds are intended for intelligence-gathering purposes and are typically requested by government agencies with national security responsibilities; hence, it raised eyebrows when the Education Department requested for such.

With her departure as DepEd chief, Duterte is leaving behind a disgraced legacy marred with corruption scandals, trivial programs, and declining educational outcomes. The former Davao City mayor is widely-tipped to make a run for the presidency at the next presidential election, but having already been exposed to be inept as education secretary it begs to be asked if she has what it takes to follow in her father’s footsteps as the head-of-state.