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Addressing the Philippine education crisis


(Part 1)

Food security and quality education are the two most important challenges to the attainment of sustainable and equitable economic development in the Philippines during the coming decade or so. It is not a coincidence that no less than the President and the Vice-President have decided to take upon themselves the leadership of these two vital sectors, respectively. In a series of articles in this paper, I addressed the problem of the underdevelopment of the agricultural sector. In this series of articles, I will try to come up with solutions to the problem of the poor quality of basic education in our country.

In a succinct summary of what is ailing the Philippine educational sector, former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director General Ernesto M. Pernia gave a lucid analysis of the challenges facing Philippine education in a Commentary in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Consistent with the diagnosis made by the private-sector initiated Philippine Business for Education (PBEd), Dr. Pernia starts off by linking undernourishment of babies and children to the quality of education. Every expert in the field agrees that nutrition and education are very closely interlinked. As Dr. Pernia comments, “it is common knowledge that human infrastructure (or human development) begins in the early stages of pregnancy, and becomes more manifest at 0-5 years of age. At birth, the size of a kid’s brain on average is said to be about a quarter the size of an adult’s brain. Its subsequent growth is so fast that by age five, a kid’s brain is nearly full grown, at 90% of the adult’s brain.” He then cites the well-known fact that about one-third of Filipino children in the 0-5 age group are stunted. This phenomenon is especially widespread among the more than 20% of the population below the poverty line.

Dr. Pernia goes on to cite a World Bank report that 91% of children at 10 years of age are unable to read and understand a short and simple text. In this regard, the Philippines stands out like a sore thumb in the East Asian region which is well known globally for the high quality of basic education. It is at the bottom of 10 Asian countries in “learning poverty,” with Singapore at the top, followed by South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, in that order. In other categories like “learning deprivation,” the Philippines also ranks last and third to the last in “schooling deprivation,” better off than just Indonesia and India (two more populous countries than the Philippines). The first obvious explanation for this sorry state of affairs is that of the government’s underspending on education. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that expenditure per student in the Philippines was the lowest among all the countries that participated in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Compared to the OECD average, it was 90% lower. Spending per student in the Philippines is much lower than its peers in the ASEAN. For example, it is only 60-72%, respectively, for primary and secondary levels. Compared to countries with much higher per capita incomes like Malaysia and Thailand, Philippine spending on education is even a smaller fraction, not to mention the competency levels of teachers, appropriateness of curricula, and learning materials.

Dr. Pernia then makes reference to the well-known catastrophic performance of Filipino students in the PISA where our 15-year-old representatives in 2018 obtained the lowest scores in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. Reading literacy is the capacity of the students (already in their senior years of high school) to understand, use, evaluate, reflect on, and engage with texts (in English) in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate in society. Mathematical literacy is the student’s capacity to formulate, employ, and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. Science literacy is the students’ ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen. A scientifically literate person is willing to engage in reasoned discourse about science and technology, which requires the competencies to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically.

In the 2018 tests, Filipino students obtained an average score of 340 points in Overall Reading Literacy, which was significantly lower than the OECD average of 487 points. Only one out of five students (19.4%) achieved at least the minimum proficiency level (Level 2) in Overall Reading Literacy. Among the participating ASEAN countries, Filipino students performed closest to but significantly behind Indonesian students by 31 points in Overall Reading Literacy. In Mathematical literacy, Filipino students achieved an average score of 353 points, which was significantly lower than OECD average of 489 points. Only one out of five students (19.7%) attained at least the minimum proficiency level (Level 2) in mathematical literacy. Likewise, as in reading, among the ASEAN countries, Filipino students performed closest but significantly behind the Indonesians by 26 points in mathematical literacy. The pattern was not significantly different in the third field, that of scientific literacy, in which Filipino students attained an average of 357 points, significantly lower than the OECD average of 489 points.

How are we to assess these very disappointing results of the first time that our Department of Education (DepEd), under the leadership of former Secretary Leonor Briones, decided to join PISA in 2018? In the final section of the Report entitled Ways Forward, we read: “The DepEd decision to join PISA for the first time in its 2018 round is a step towards globalizing the quality of Philippine basic education. Together with the changing landscape of education, global standards are also changing, and the country needs to have a complete view of the gaps and areas for improvement.”

The results of international assessments, coupled with our own National Achievement Test, will provide the necessary data that will inform the efforts of DepEd to formulate a plan to significantly improve the quality of Philippine education. This masterplan will be designed to install aggressive reforms in four key areas: 1.) K to 12 curriculum review and updating; 2.) Improvement of the learning environment; 3.) Teachers’ upskilling and reskilling through a transformed professional development program; and, 4.) Engagement of stakeholders for support and collaboration.

How are these reforms directly related to the over-all plan of Philippine society to attain First World status of its economy during the decade of 2040 to 2050? We shall try to answer this question in the subsequent articles of this series.

(To be continued.)

Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

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