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Philippine Education is at a Crossroads

The famous Nelson Mandela once said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” True indeed, but not just education. Education must espouse the dimensions of quality education. Mandela’s comment of course in 2003 comes 10 years after the end of apartheid in South Africa where racial segregation was institutionalized. His point was that South African children must be empowered through education so as not to suffer such tragedy again.

Quality education is what every child really needs not only in poor or developing countries but even rich ones like America. But quality education can just be a bumper sticker if not taken to heart. Quality education must begin from the start and that is the home. Once a child begins kindergarten, he or she becomes the responsibility of educational institutions. The home component and the school component are two distinct platforms but must complement each other to deliver quality education.

This thought comes to mind with the headline grabbing news that the Philippines did poorly in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) challenge. The 2018 PISA assessment scores for 15 year old Filipino students showed that the Philippines ranked the lowest out of 79 countries in reading comprehension, and scored second to the lowest (#78) in mathematics and in science.

The dismal scores are prompting nationwide concern and many are already hitting the panic button. Are these scores really alarming? Well, numerically yes. But there is also a silver lining. The scores should be put in context since this was the first year that the Philippines joined this United Nation’s initiative. What would have been surprising was if the Filipino students did well. It is a good baseline. After all, once you hit rock bottom, there is no other way but up, right?

But first, a little clarification might be in order. The Philippines was given a choice whether to take the assessment in Filipino or in English. Education officials picked English because they feared that those non-Tagalog speakers such as those in the Ilocos, Bicol, Visayas and Mindanao might not do well because Tagalog to some of these regions are secondary dialects. Imagine facing math worded problems in Filipino or try grasping a scientific theory in the dialect.

So, students took the English version. To have some context on this poor showing, I visited the PISA website and took the assessments myself in English comprehension, math and science. They are not hard but very challenging that even some Filipino college graduates now might have difficulty scoring high. Remember these are students who have just started high school. The results therefore reflect more on their elementary education.

Reflecting back when I first took the U.S. Navy’s Basic Test Battery (BTB) in 1975 reminds me of similar difficulties comprehending and visualizing some of the worded question in these areas. I was on my second year college in engineering when I joined the Navy. The Navy’s BTB scores became the basis for determining what my rating (occupation) would be. I only did well in the sciences but poorly on the others. Thus medical was the closest rating they could put me in. So this repercussions are something that’s been in my mind for the last 45 years.

There is a lot to unpack here. First, the choice of English versus Filipino. Personally, it was a good choice because the Philippines is a multilingual state having roughly 175 spoken languages/dialects and English would be a unifying language. But the 1987 Philippine Constitution mandate to use Filipino as a language of instruction in the educational system alongside English as another official language became a complication to fully absorb the English language. This was clearly included because in practice, many institutions use borrowed books from foreign countries particularly in the fields of science, math, law, and poetry.

Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones reacted to this outcome with a realistic mind but whose approaches to it lacks realism. “We have to shift DepEd focus from access to giving basic quality education,” she said during the launching of DepEd’s “Sulong Edukalidad.” “Edukalidad” is an education reform campaign aimed at four key areas: K-to-12 review and updating, improvement of learning facilities, teachers and school heads’ upskilling and reskilling through a transformed professional development program, and engagement of all stakeholders for support and collaboration.

The first question is why just now for quality education? It seems DepEd’s focus over the years has been finding a chair for every child even if it means packing the classroom or holding classes under the Acacia tree. It also meant that they were just passing every one and hoping that there will be self-correction later when a child reaches high school or college. This approach is precipitated by the fact that Philippine population has been growing in asymmetric proportion and thus overcrowding public schools.

It also meant that the bar for hiring public school teachers got lower, and institutions ignored teachers’ needs for continuing education. Briones admitted that teachers did not do well either and having poorly trained teachers equals poorly trained students.

In the elementary, we were thought in basic math with one plus one equals two and none of the worded problems like “if there are 5 birds perched on a tree branch and one of them was shot, how many will be left?” If they did that, I probably would have answered “none” to the consternation of the teacher. Why “none?” Because when you shoot at 5 birds gossiping up above the tree, one might get shot but all four will surely turn tails, fly, and leave an empty branch.

Teaching critical thinking in the elementary and secondary levels will be quite challenging but doable. Less emphasis on memorization, encourage reading to improve comprehension. It is not valuable to remember Joan of Arc who was burned at a stake but understand why she was tied to that stake. And this is really important if they want to develop critical and questioning minds. But families will have to be involved and be supportive. The upshot of this approach is that the public school system will be developing empowered children who will begin to question their parents, institutions, and the environment because that becomes a matter of course. And that’s the rub with the ongoing crackdown against leftist students.

We can agree that “EduKalidad” is “a step towards globalizing the quality of Philippine basic education. But when Briones said “We envision that no Filipino learners should be left behind and it takes a nation to educate a child” then I know she was parroting a slogan. “EduKalidad” must address sustainability. Mandela recognized that education unlocks the imagination and it is key to prosperity. But there lies the other rubs: poverty, income inequality, graft and corruption, inadequate school facilities, underpaid teachers, and lack of budgetary allocations for institutional needs (especially libraries).

More importantly, public school teachers must embrace the noble idea behind what they are trying to achieve. Sending your own children to private schools because they can get better education there is anathema to your mission.

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