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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Crisis and Opportunities

"The results showed a disheartening and dismal failure."



Having the first public school system in Southeast Asia, Filipinos are very proud of our highly literate English-speaking population. In fact, the advantage of being able to communicate in English with significant fluency contributed to a comparative advantage in terms of our country’s human resources. The fact that there are Filipinos nowadays working in almost every country in the world and in almost every industry and trade, seem to implicitly indicate our people’s superior learning capability compared to that of other developing countries, coupled of course with our long-recognized creativity, diligence and adaptability.

The current state of the quality of education in the Philippines seemed to be the elephant in the room that the education sector tried to avoid. For many years, attention was given to widening access to learning—thus ensuring that more and more funds were allocated towards building more classrooms, purchasing more learning equipment and hiring more teachers with the clear intent of bring more children to school.

In many ways, it did produce the results of improving our country’s literacy and school participation rates. More than any other time in our history, there are more children in school, and more innovative strategies are being tapped to provide alternative learning even for out-of-school children and youth.

Last month, the long overdue Alternative Learning System Bill authored by Tingog Party Rep. Yedda Marie K. Romualdez, which seeks to institutionalize the alternative learning system as “the other lung” of the Philippine educational system was approved by the House Committee on Higher and Technical Education. It is now awaiting second reading, and hopefully, its approval by the House of Representatives.

But then again, an apparent dissonance between widening access to learning, and ensuring a higher quality of education in Philippine schools continue, especially with the passage of the Enhanced Basic Education Act in 2013, and the adoption of the K+12 curriculum. The reason behind the K+12 reform was to “give every student an opportunity to receive quality education that is globally competitive based on a pedagogically sound curriculum that is at par with international standards.”

Six years after the adoption of the K+12 curriculum, the time is ripe for our education policymakers to establish whether or not keeping students for two more years of basic education have produced the desired quality of learning, at par with global standards.

Last year, for the first time ever, Filipino students participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), one of the most influential tools used globally to measure the capacity of learners to apply their knowledge in everyday situations. A brainchild of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA is conducted once every three years by an international team of education research experts in order to establish whether a school system is becoming more or less effective in preparing their students for further studies or for the workplace. It also measures whether fifteen-year-olds have acquired the necessary ability and knowledge in reading, mathematics and science and the right social or emotional skills in order to meet real-life challenges.

The 2018 PISA results were released two weeks ago. Among 79 countries in the international assessment, the Philippines ranked lowest in reading comprehension, the second lowest in both mathematics and science.

The results showed a disheartening and dismal failure.

The PISA results also showed that the socio-economic status of the students adversely affected their performance in school. In other words, students from poorer families were found to be performing even more poorly in school.

Surely, the PISA results has established that the current quality of learning that young Filipinos receive is far from being globally competitive, or being at par with international standards.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones calls it a wake-up call, for us to look into Philippine education for “what it is.”

The first step towards solving a problem is to admit that one exists. Secretary Briones is to be lauded for taking that step. Now we know where the problem lies—the very quality of learning that students receive in our schools.

One cannot avoid but trace the declining quality of education to the problem of mass promotions. With teachers worrying more about students dropping out of school, students worry less about failing grades, knowing that their teachers would promote them to the next grade level anyway, whatever their final grade is. The rigidity and discipline of passing one’s periodical exams seemed to have been relegated to mere compliance, and as a result, students are moved up the education ladder without the sure intellectual prerequisites needed for further learning. Instead of motivating students to work harder, their poor performance and proficiency is simply tolerated.

Of course, funding education is another challenge. To improve quality of education, having the right learning environment is a necessary criterion. This means finally closing the gap in the number of classrooms needed, and hiring the right number of qualified teachers. Unfortunately, while education continues to have the lion share in our national budget, there have been disturbing cuts in the allocation for basic and higher education. If we were to improve the quality of learning in our schools, there is a need to shift more intently towards an asset-based approach in funding education services, where spending may be better thought as investing in our country’s human resource. Thus, providing the equipment, laboratories and infrastructure needed in our schools must be of paramount importance.

If education means investing in our country’s human resource, then it is necessary to ensure a seamless alignment of our education policy—especially in terms of curriculum content and delivery structure. The time has come for our education policymakers to review our existing trifocalization approach of dispersing the government’s education bureaucracy into separate agencies for basic education, higher education and technical education. This will allow closer coordination between the three learning streams, and enable a more effective transition from lower to higher levels of learning.

It also means strengthening public-private partnership in education and affirming the role that private schools play not only in the delivery of education services, but in ensuring the diversity of learning strategies and strengths.

Finally, teacher training is the single most important factor in the educational system. Investments towards this end are absolutely necessary. This requires an updating of our teaching training curricula especially in the education courses offered in our colleges and universities. Better trained teachers are indispensable in improving the quality of learning in our schools. Especially with the emphasis on outcome-based learning in senior high school, there is a need to train more instructors who specialize on specific learning areas. More teachers must be hired to reduce the teaching load, and in order to encourage teachers to take further studies.

In like manner, in order to attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession, it is important to ensure the well-being and welfare of teachers not only by increasing their salaries, but more importantly by providing them with an enriching professional experience. To this end, it might be necessary to review the Magna Carta for Teachers enacted in 1969.

There is a long list of what could have been better with our education system, and an even longer list of what needs to be done. But our hope is that with this wake up call, the appropriate attention and action will immediately be undertaken in order to respond to, as Secretary Briones puts it, “the biggest lingering challenge of basic education in the country—quality, particularly of our students’ learning outcomes.” After all, isn’t it not that the best way to address a crisis is to transform it into an opportunity to be better?

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