Why PH’s dismal Pisa results were no surprise

04:04 AM December 10, 2019

When Dr. Andreas Schleicher, the head of Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test, visited Manila in 2011, I received the assignment to interview him for the Philippine Daily Inquirer Learning Section, where I was a regular contributor.

A few weeks after my article was published, I was invited by a congressman who was then chair of the committee on education. He wanted to know what I thought of the Philippines joining Pisa. I told him an external audit would be a good gauge of our education quality, but I cautioned against the huge expense for participation (he said we had the budget for it). I also gave a pessimistic prediction that if we did join, the results would be disappointing or embarrassing, based on our dismal ranking in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Still, knowing our baseline would provide us with knowledge of the weaknesses in our educational system, I said. After that consultation visit, I did not hear again from the congressman, who has since become a senator.


Eight years later, I was surprised to see that the Philippines had finally decided to join the Pisa in 2018. And when the results were reported last week, the country was abuzz. But I was not surprised by the results at all. Who is to blame? I went back to my interview with Dr. Schleicher to see what we had missed.

First, is reading comprehension a problem of the English language? No, the Department of Education (DepEd) chose English knowing that using Filipino would not yield better results, particularly in Math and Science. Moreover, Filipino may not be the preferred language in many schools in the Visayas and Mindanao.


Second, are the test items to blame? No, they passed through the most rigorous validity and reliability tests for standardization. In fact, the two-hour Pisa assesses the students’ “capacity to extrapolate and apply creatively from what they know.” Either our fifth graders know too little, or they do not know how to apply what they know in problem solving.

Is poverty to blame? No. According to the 2018 results, poorer countries like Moldova and Kosovo ranked higher than the Philippines. In my interview with Dr. Schleicher in 2011, he explained that the “Pisa result was not about how much a country is spending on education, but where it is spent. The top-ranking countries do not spend the most for education, but they spend a good portion on recruiting and sustaining the best teachers.”

What is the takeaway message? DepEd officials have suggested a curriculum overhaul, but according to Dr. Schleicher, the top-ranking school systems are dead-serious about teacher recruitment. In Singapore, only the top one-third of the graduating class in college can consider enrolling in an education degree, and only one-eighth of the candidates will be accepted for a teaching position after 240 hours of training.

How do we recruit and sustain smart people in the teaching profession? Through financial incentives, yes, but more than that, through intellectual stimulation. Furthermore, metacognition (learning how to learn) should be part of basic education. By understanding the distinctive cognitive demands of each subject, teachers will become experts of the course contents and processes.

Why was I not surprised by the results? As a professor in the University of the Philippines for the past 23 years, I have observed the steady decline of the quality of students in terms of English and Math proficiency. Education is not an attractive vocation. Hence, teacher education institutes sometimes lower the bar by accepting applicants who do not really make the mark.

It’s rather ironic that many teachers thought they could get away from Math and Statistics. “You can’t improve what you can’t measure.” Do not hate Math. Math is important, class!

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Grace Shangkuan Koo, PhD ([email protected]), is a professor of educational psychology at the University of the Philippines.

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TAGS: Commentary, Grace Shangkuan Koo, Pisa, Programme for International Student Assessment, reading comprehension
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