Education in the Philippines during the pre-Magellanic times was informal, unstructured, and devoid of methods. Children were provided more vocational training and less academics (3 R’s) at home by their parents, and in the houses of tribal tutors. During the Spanish colonization, the Spanish missionaries replaced the tribal tutors. Education became religion-oriented, and made available only to the elite.

Following the defeat of Spain by American forces, the schools maintained by Spain for more than three centuries were temporarily closed, and then reopened on August 29, 1898 by the Secretary of Interior. In 1901, the Philippine Commission installed a highly centralized public school system, resulting in a heavy shortage of teachers. Because of this, the Philippine Commission authorized the Secretary of Public Instruction to bring to the Philippines 600 teachers from the United States of America, to teach basic education and train Filipino teachers, using English as the medium of instruction. Named after the transport vessel USS Thomas, that brought them to the shores of Manila Bay, those teachers were called Thomasites.

Prior to the Thomasites’ arrival, however, the soldiers had already begun laying down the foundation of the Philippine public school system by teaching the Filipinos the English language, and opening the Philippines’ first public school in Corregidor Island. Building upon what the U.S. Army had started, the Thomasites established elementary schools and learning institutions such as the Philippine Normal School (1901), Philippine School of Arts and Trades (1901), Tarlac High School (1902), and Quezon National High School (1902). They also reopened the Philippine Nautical School, which was originally established by the Board of Commerce of Manila in 1839 under Spain. They taught English, agriculture, reading, grammar, geography, mathematics, general and trade courses, housekeeping and household arts (sewing, crocheting and cooking), manual trading, mechanical and freehand drawing, and athletics (baseball, track and field, tennis, indoor baseball and basketball).

The Thomasites, about a hundred of whom stayed on to live in the Philippines after finishing their teaching assignments, will long be remembered for having transformed the Philippines into the third largest English-speaking nation in the world. They were the precursors of the present-day U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers.