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Rising to the Challenge: Improving Basic Education in the Philippines

The ABC+: Advancing Basic Education in the Philippines project works with government and private sector partners to improve learning outcomes for children in the early grades.


To strengthen the quality of education in the Philippines by improving reading, math, and socio-emotional skills of children in the early grades (Kindergarten to Grade 3).


Work in partnership with the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) to strengthen teacher professional development, improve availability and use of learning resources, and bolster education system capacity and commitment to support effective early grade instruction.


The project aims to benefit up to two million students in Regions V and VI, as well as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

With more than 170 languages, the Philippines is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Southeast Asia and the world. In addition, Filipino and English are national languages, making it a multilingual and multicultural society. In 2012, as part of wider education reforms, the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) launched the Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) policy, which supports the development of students’ foundational literacy skills in their mother tongue, Filipino, and English by the end of grade 3. 

Although MTB-MLE is solidly grounded in scientific evidence of how children learn to read, its implementation has been challenging in such a linguistically diverse country. To date, low reading and math skills persist among a significant portion of K-3 learners, placing them at a high risk of falling permanently behind in school and in life. Since 2014, RTI has supported DepEd to track and monitor early reading skills, results of which are available on USAID’s Early Grade Reading Barometer.

The ABC+: Advancing Basic Education in the Philippines project works with DepEd, local governments, and the private sector to address factors that contribute to low learning outcomes in Bicol (Region V) and Western Visayas (Region VI) and is also implementing a smaller set of interventions in select School Divisions in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

ABC+ operates in partnership with central and regional education officials, and local organizations to ensure that evidence-based solutions for improved early literacy and numeracy instruction can be adopted and sustained by the Philippine education system. The project also focuses on fostering a more equitable, inclusive, and nurturing climate for learning in the early grades as part of its social and emotional learning (SEL) focus.

Teachers are Key to Student Success

ABC+ provides a comprehensive professional development program for in-service teachers that includes two training events in the school year, as well as ongoing support during the school year through teacher communities of practice, teacher Facebook groups, and instructional supervision from school heads. Teacher training introduces concrete and applicable instructional strategies for bridging from mother tongue to Filipino and English across language and literacy skills, and effectively using supplemental reading materials in the classroom. 

Due to COVID-19, training for teachers, instructional supervisors, and content developers for supplemental reading materials is now being conducted virtually (Read more about how the project has adapted training). By September 2020, the project had trained over 5,000 teachers through an approach that blended online synchronous (Zoom) sessions with offline self-study and small group work. The training design was informed by the results of a survey that gathered detailed information on over 3000 teachers’ access to technology, familiarity with online courses and delivery platforms, and internet connection and speed, among other factors. To monitor the quality of online trainings, ABC+ developed a Teacher Training Dashboard to track participant attendance, learning, and course completion.

With support from Florida State University, the project is also working with Bicol University and Western Visayas State University to design modules for university courses on early literacy development to strengthen the pre-service preparation of future teachers. 

In addition, ABC+ is supporting DepEd’s efforts to strengthen the National Educators Academy of the Philippines (NEAP), the agency assigned to lead and standardize professional development activities for teachers and school heads across the country. Among the initiatives ABC+ has implemented is the development of the Professional Development Information System (PDIS), a computer-based system to track teachers’ professional development. In June 2020, NEAP accredited ABC+ as one of its learning service providers for professional development programs in line with DepEd’s priorities for 2020-2023, which certifies ABC+ trainings for rollout at national scale.

Plans for the 2021-2022 school year include implementation of two pilot interventions for improving delivery of instruction. The first of these pilots will focus on strengthening teacher training in early math instruction. The other pilot will test the impact of Tangerine:Teach, a mobile application that will help teachers assess learners’ literacy skills throughout the school year, and then match them to reading materials appropriate for their skill level. 

Supporting Early Literacy Development in a Multilingual Context

Supporting literacy instruction in the language that the children know best is especially beneficial in the early grades, when children are learning to read and being introduced to foundational learning across the curriculum. But to effectively implement a mother tongue-based early literacy policy, there must be an adequate supply of early reading materials available in children’s mother tongues. Guaranteeing the availability and use of mother tongue-based early reading materials can be especially challenging in a country as linguistically diverse as the Philippines.

To increase DepEd’s capacity to successfully implement the MTB-MLE policy, ABC+ partners SIL LEAD and The Asia Foundation are developing supplemental reading materials in select mother tongues through their Bloom and Let’s Read innovations. The project is also developing text leveling criteria, which DepEd does not currently have for local languages, to ensure that reading materials cover the correct range of levels appropriate for K-3 children and to help teachers match materials to individual children’s needs. Through several materials-development workshops—bringing together writers, editors, and illustrators—ABC+ will develop at least 200 new titles in Central Bikol, Hiligaynon, and Maguindanawn, the most predominant languages in the ABC+ target regions, by the end of 2021.

With SIL LEAD, the project has researched and documented all the languages and their dialects in Regions V and VI—which are among the most linguistically complex regions in the Philippines—and mapped their geographical distribution, as well as the status of their written form. This effort helped improve the quality of data currently available to DepEd on the different languages and enabled ABC+ to accurately map the extent to which the mother tongue used for early reading instruction in each school matches the form of the language spoken in the community. These and other initiatives will support ABC+ target regions to make data-driven decisions for improving the implementation of MTB-MLE.

The Ultimate Goal: Sustainability

The ultimate goal of ABC+ is to develop DepEd’s capacity at the central, regional, and local levels, to identify and adopt successful innovations and sustain positive impacts related to teacher professional development and access to reading materials. Working together with DepEd to use data for policy decisions, such as better allocation of public funds in support of early grade learning and reaching schools in geographically isolated areas, will further contribute to sustainability. 

Beyond support to DepEd, the project is engaging other stakeholders, such as local governments, the private sector, and parents and communities. For example, The Asia Foundation is working to create and mobilize stakeholder coalitions, especially at the local level, to advocate for, influence, and participate in ensuring that resources are used to support ABC+-related investments, as well as engage the private sector—at the national, regional, and local levels—in several ways: as advocates, influencers, sources of advice and expertise, and contributors to DepEd initiatives and programs. These efforts will also improve DepEd’s capacity to engage partners and stakeholders more systematically and strategically. 

Response to COVID-19

Thanks to the inclusion of a flexible pool of emergency response funding built into the award, ABC+ was able to rapidly respond to the need for a dramatic shift in education delivery, when COVID-19 led the Government of the Philippines to suspend face-to-face instruction until COVID-19 vaccination is available. DepEd subsequently issued a Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan that established home-based, modular learning for all children during the 2020-2021 school year. 

To support this ambitious program for mitigating learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, USAID/Philippines approved use of $2.5 million to support development of instructional materials for television, radio, and print-based self-learning modules for reading; distribution of printed and electronic copies of supplementary readers (along with video explainers on how to use the materials for teachers and parents); and the use of rapid, remote learning assessments to gauge learner reading skills after the long break. Working closely with DepEd the project is developing guidelines for learning continuity for K-3 learners, who are most in need of in-person interaction for learning, be it with a teacher, a parent, or a sibling.

The project launched a Learning Connects YouTube channel and a Facebook group in October 2020 to disseminate short guidance videos for teachers and parents, and as an additional way to disseminate radio-based instruction. These activities were informed by an in-depth review of the EdTech ecosystem, conducted by another USAID project implemented by RTI—All Children Reading-Philippines—to help prioritize decision-making around appropriate technologies and how to distribute them.