Scaling education programs in the Philippines: A policymaker’s perspective

Students raise their hands to answer questions in a classroom at a public high school in Paranaque city, metro Manila February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco (PHILIPPINES - Tags: EDUCATION) - GM1E7480UJO01
Editor's note:

This is the second blog post in a series reflecting on key scaling-related themes discussed at the global convening of the Millions Learning Real-time Scaling Labs held in July 2019 in Switzerland.

In 2016, 586,284 children of primary school age in the Philippines were out of school, underscoring demand for large-scale programs to address unmet learning needs. As a chief education program specialist in the Department of Education (DepEd) in the Philippines, I have firsthand experience planning, implementing, and monitoring and evaluating a variety of education programs. One of our main challenges is ensuring that effective initiatives, such as with our teacher professional development program, take root and grow into sustainable, system-wide approaches for improving teacher quality and encouraging responsive instructional practices to improve learning outcomes.

Testing, refining, and scaling teacher professional development in the Philippines

With the implementation of the K-12 Basic Education Program, DepEd has taken significant strides toward fulfilling its mandate of establishing a comprehensive and integrated education system relevant to the needs of people and society. The program aims to develop productive, responsible, and engaged global citizens with the essential competencies and skills for lifelong learning and employment. We believe this begins by ensuring every child of primary school age acquires basic literacy and numeracy skills.

How was DepEd able to improve literacy and numeracy skills in recent years? We began by articulating a clear vision that focused on teachers, as they play a fundamental role in developing these skills among their students. I worked closely with my team of education experts to retool teachers’ mastery of content knowledge and pedagogical skills so they could effectively lead in the classroom. In 2015, we introduced the Early Language, Literacy, and Numeracy Program (ELLN) to improve reading and numeracy skills of K-3 learners. ELLN strengthened teacher capacity to teach and assess reading and numeracy skills, improved school administration and management, established competency standards, and introduced a school-based professional development system for teachers, the “School Learning Action Cell” (SLAC). ELLN trained teachers through a ten-day, face-to-face training module. While this approach had some impact, it was not to the extent we hoped—we wanted to reach the entire country. We understood that scaling an in-person training would be costly and time-consuming to reach primary grade teachers in all schools throughout the country. Because of this, my DepEd colleagues and I began thinking about ways we could harness technology to deliver improved teacher professional development at a national scale.

Before we selected an approach for delivering technology-enabled teacher professional development, we decided to test some things to see what worked. Over a five-month period from November 2016 to March 2017, we piloted ELLN-Digital (ELLN-D) with 4,030 K-3 teachers in 240 public elementary schools that had not participated in the ELLN program. During this piloting phase, we collaborated with the local Filipino NGO, The Foundation for Information Technology, Education, and Development (FIT-ED). ELLN-D is a blended teacher professional development program on early literacy for K-3 teachers with two components: an interactive, multimedia courseware for self-study, and collaborative learning through SLACs. Due to the success of the pilot, DepEd is scaling up the program nationally (with support from FIT-ED) to more than 38,000 public elementary schools throughout the country during this coming school year. We accomplished this by planning for scale from the start: We prioritized a focus on teachers, then pursued digital solutions that could reach teachers across our island nation—experimenting at a small scale first to determine what works—and finally implemented the program through existing SLAC structures instead of creating new ones.

What have we learned about scaling and sustaining impact?

Analyzing education programs that sustainably scale offers rich insights for people like me who work in government and are trying to serve a massive population with limited resources. What common factors enable programs to scale? Who should programs serve? How can program implementers facilitate the success of programs?

First, programs that sustainably scale are relevant and responsive to the needs of the people they serve. Second, these programs should demonstrate some meaningful change that is visible to citizens. And third, to effectively scale a program, implementers should truly understand and commit to the program, believe in its success, and go above and beyond what is expected to achieve sustainable outcomes.

In the Philippines, the following approaches helped us to create, adapt, and scale programs with the aim of sustainable impact:

  • Identify learning champions at all levels: There is a need to identify and empower a pool of champions at multiple levels of the system—in the regions, divisions, communities, and schools. By doing so, these champions become agents of change. In the case of ELLN, regional directors play a critical role in implementing the program by liaising with school division superintendents and public school leaders.
  • Adapt programs to local context: Those implementing programs at larger scale or in new locations should be equipped to make the programs work in their areas by contextualizing approaches to suit local needs. This includes identifying and articulating the “non-negotiables” of the original design to ensure adherence to a set standard, but those implementing in new contexts should feel agency to adjust to fit local needs. Setting specific standards on program implementation through policy guidelines or memoranda can help maintain the appropriate level of consistency in implementation between different areas. On ELLN-D, we encourage slight variations in the structure and format of SLACs in ways that make sense for a given context.
  • Recognize that every idea is valuable: It is important to allow champions to implement the program with standardized guidance but recognize that adjustments and changes are not only inevitable but also beneficial. Have faith that even when the originating organization or institution is no longer around, others implementing can successfully deliver the programs and have sustained positive impact on the people they serve.

Thirty-four years working in government has provided me ample opportunity to stress-test these principles, which I believe are critically important to sustainably scaling programs. Through the implementation of ELLN, ELLN-D, and similar initiatives as part of the K-12 Basic Education Program, DepEd has fully committed to providing quality, accessible, and relevant basic education to all Filipino learners. The road ahead will not be an easy one, but through adherence to these key principles, scaling effective interventions that reach all Filipino learners will help our country continue down the path toward quality educational opportunities for all citizens.