In the Manila North Cemetery, I have read, is an American Teachers Memorial. It is said to mark a special plot, put up in 1917, for some of the American teachers who were stationed in the Philippines in the early 1900s to help with the school system. They came on board the ship USAT Thomas and were thus later referred to as “Thomasites.”

Prior to the American colonial period, and the arrival of the Thomasites beginning 1901, the Philippines already had a public-school system in place. The elementary school system was said to have been first established by the Spaniards in 1863, with Spanish as medium of instruction. I am uncertain, however, how different the Spaniard system was from the American system.

But, before the Thomasites arrived, according to some accounts, the US Army opened the first US-led public school on Corregidor Island, shortly after US Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish Pacific fleet in Manila Bay in May 1898. Their primary aim was to teach the English language. A batch of teachers later came on board the USAT Sheridan.

And then came the Thomasites, as ordered by US President William McKinley to a commission headed by William Howard Taft. The US government was said to have spent $105,000 (or about $3 million in today’s money) for the initial expedition of about 500 teachers that left San Francisco in July 1901, with salary offers of $125 a month (or about $3,500 in today’s money).

It is said that the Thomasites built on the foundations laid down by the US Army, and continued the “educational work” that the military started: basically, teaching English to Filipinos. The US government had sent over as many as 1,000 American educators by the time 1902 closed. And with that, the medium of instruction also switched to English from Spanish.

As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day today, and the close of the Philippines’ National Teachers’ Month, I believe it fitting to make mention of some of the Thomasites who had stayed in the Philippines and held important posts in public schools that still exist to date. They had laid the foundation of what we have come to know now as the Philippine public-school system.

• Charles John Anderson was assistant principal of Tayabas High School, and was later supervising teacher in Indang, Cavite; he helped establish the Indang Intermediate School (now Cavite State University) in 1904.

• Henry H. Balch and Audrey Boyle were principals of Quezon National High School.

• Edwin Copeland was first dean of the UP College of Agriculture and founder of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

• Frederic Vincent Doherty helped establish first English speaking school on Mindanao island, and helped build a small Catholic chapel there.

• A.V. H. Hartendorp was the founder and publisher of the Philippine Magazine and a former editor of The Manila Times.

• Delia Delight Rice, a daughter of deaf parents, was founder of the Manila School of the Deaf (now Philippine School for the Deaf) in 1907.

Initial provincial assignments were said to have included Albay, Catanduanes, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Sorsogon, Masbate, Samar, Zambales, Aparri, Jolo, Negros, Cebu, Dumaguete, Bataan, Batangas, Pangasinan and Tarlac. Schools set up include Philippine Normal School (now Philippine Normal University) and Philippine School of Arts and Trades (now Technological University of the Philippines) in 1901; and Tarlac High School, and Quezon National High School (now Tayabas High School) in 1902. They also reopened the Philippine Nautical School.

General subjects taught were English, agriculture, reading, grammar, geography, mathematics, general courses, trade courses, housekeeping and household arts (sewing, crocheting and cooking), manual trading, mechanical drawing, freehand drawing and athletics (baseball, track and field, tennis, indoor baseball and basketball).

The Thomasites were said to have helped turn the Philippines into the third-largest English-speaking nation in the world during the American colonial period (now fourth-largest, according to some statistics). They also reportedly were the start of the present-day US Peace Corps Volunteers.

I tend to think that the Thomasites brought on the Golden Age of Philippine Public Education. Since then, I get the impression that the public-school system has been confused, and regarded with less importance by our policy makers.

I have always believed a society’s maturity and development can be gauged by how much it pays its teachers, writers, and artists, among others, and how much it values creative thinking. In this regard, I think the Philippines is failing.

And in many instances, parents themselves regard teachers simply as glamorized nannies, but at the same time abdicate to them the “proper education” of their children with respect to curricula and values. They demand “free” public education, but complain about quality, and give little regard to that fact that even teachers have to earn a living.

While it can be argued that higher salaries will not exactly make better teachers, and that higher tuition don’t always result in better schools, still there has to be a good matching of time, effort, and resources to ensure success. One cannot expect the best quality, and the utmost effort, from overworked and underpaid educators. More so if these same educators are products of the very system seen as ineffective and inefficient.

Rather than focusing more on improving school facilities, I believe we should always prioritize establishing a system that creates, promotes, and sustains the quality of our educators. And this starts with giving them better pay and benefits, and allocating more public resources for the education of teachers, and enhancing teaching skills.

There are risks to prioritizing quality over quantity.

But, to me, the greatest risk is keeping a system of garbage in, garbage out. For what will the point in boosting quantity through improved “access” to education if the system will fail to produce the quality that we need to finally level up? Should we settle for truckloads of mediocrity rather than cartsful of superiority?

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 producing better graduates now? Are we producing the kind of graduates that we need to finally bring the country to First-World status?

Or, are we producing graduates that can be exported to other countries so that their economies can grow and move up, as the Philippines gets left behind?


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