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Thursday, December 7, 2023

We are at the bottom

"There was a time when our country was one of the leaders of the pack in Asia."


Out of 79 countries that took the Program for International Student Assessment test, we are either second to the last or last in reading, math and science. That is how far our educational system has deteriorated and we should try our very best to get out of this very shameful situation. Otherwise, there will come a time that we will be last in everything.

There was a time when our country was one of the leaders of the pack in Asia. The first to have an airline, the first to have a stock exchange. We were also leaders in education.

As a result of this PISA test result, the Department of Education has just announced that it will start implementing reforms ostensibly to upgrade education in the country as if the Education department is entirely clueless of the state of education in the country. Surely, education officials must have had an inkling of what our students can do because the signs have been there for some time—Low teachers’ pay, too many students in a class, poor quality of teaching, corruption like the textbook scandal a few years ago, and the exodus of good teachers for better-paying overseas jobs. Indeed, there are many other reasons. Up to the 1980s, the Teachers’ Camp in Baguio City would be full of teachers all over the Philippines taking courses during summer to improve teacher quality and skills.

Today, the Teachers’ Camp is more of a tourist facility for vacationing tourists or groups going up the summer capital. The summer programs for teachers then went a long way in upgrading teacher quality and we are not even mentioning the capability of officials running the department. Why, for instance, are they introducing reforms only now? Managing education normally involves constant reviews and evaluation so that the system will continuously be upgraded instead of falling behind.

It would appear that nothing has been done along this line. Over the last several years, we have not seen anything resembling a significant reform being introduced. The news item about the PISA test results of course, did not say whether the test was administered to public school students only or whether private school students were also involved. If they were and we are still in the bottom, then the situation is no less than catastrophic. When Education Secretary Leonor Briones was interviewed after the PISA test results were published, she compared her age being 79 years to our educational system which, according to her, has not changed much.

Maybe without intending it to be, Secretary Briones has put her finger on part of the problem. The Education department is one of the largest government bureaucracies, if not the largest. The work involved in supervising the operations of the department could be very tough even to a much younger person and the good secretary is now nearing 80. It makes me wonder whether her constitution can still cope to the demanding job of an Education secretary.

This is not to question her dedication. But perhaps the President should consider moving her to a less demanding position like a government corporation where she could reap the rewards of her long and distinguish government service and not end her career by refusing to let go of a position she really does not need anymore. The job of reforming our educational system is going to be a long term endeavor and it is doubtful whether she will still have the time to see it through. The first target should be our public elementary and high school education which have unquestionably deteriorated. This is the reason why most parents would rather spend more to enroll their children in private schools instead of public schools in the hope of giving their children a better head start. I went to a public school for my elementary education and I am very proud of it. But things were a lot more different then but it also shows that we can have quality education in our public schools.

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From 2015 to 2018, the government was able to reduce poverty incidence in the country from around 23 percent to 16 percent which is something truly outstanding. No administration in recent memory has been able to achieve such a huge reduction. This means that millions of families were taken out of poverty in the last three years. For years, our poverty rate have been stuck at over 20 percent and at one time went beyond 30 percent. Now, we are more or less aligned in the middle of the pack among all countries and could even go down further in 2022.

There are many reasons for the improvement. Our unemployment rate is at its lowest together with underemployment. It could also be that there is now less corruption because the funds being spent are going to where it is intended or at least most of the funds rather than the pockets of corrupt officials. In the last administration, our economy grew almost seven per cent but poverty incidence went up instead of contracting. If the Duterte administration could bring poverty rate further to the vicinity of 12 to 13 percent as it is promising, then even for that alone, President Duterte administration would have accomplished something that no other recent administration have done and that is to get millions of Filipinos out of poverty. Considering that the country is about to graduate to a higher bracket of middle income countries, reducing poverty incidence further will erase the black eye of the country for persistently having a very high incidence of poverty.

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