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Secure basic education first

“Preparing the Filipino Student for Higher Education” was a recent webinar conducted by Manila House’s Bambina Olivares. Despite the impressive lineup of speakers, the irony of the topic was not lost on me: Can we be seriously concerned with higher education, beset as we are at this time with the difficulties of basic education and virtual learning?

Felicia Atienza, president and CEO of Chinese International School Manila, left listeners with much envy over her account of the close supervision and mentoring of the school’s students, who thrive in an exclusive setting with the most desirable student-teacher ratio and facilities that the public school sector can only dream of having. One has to be appreciative of her words of wisdom from Confucius: “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” There is much to ponder in that and take to heart. We are not just teaching these days to ride out the pandemic, are we?

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Henry Motte-Muñoz, founder and CEO of Edukasyon.ph, works with Gen Z students who are interested in satisfying and well-paid professional careers after exploring their options for college. He has discovered that this generation is totally different from millennials or Gen Xers, as they strive for independence, the power to choose and make decisions, and for authentic acceptance—not wanting to belong, but to simply be themselves. Success on their own terms, in short, and not by the usual adult standards.

Lizzie Zobel, chair and CEO of Teach for the Philippines (TFP), spoke from her experiences with TFP’s corps of teachers—how to help teachers who are themselves stressed and troubled by how they are unable to meet their students’ needs. As important now as IQ and EQ for our educators is AQ (adversity quotient).

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All webinar participants were in agreement that the longstanding problems of the Philippine educational system—the inequality between private and public school education, for instance—have only become more glaring with the pandemic. There are forward-looking educational leaders who have been able to anticipate and cope with the wrenching changes, but how many of them are out there? We were reminded once again that we cannot let a good crisis go to waste.

It’s a welcome development that a university like Far Eastern University is taking the lead in innovation, because it is an institution originally established not for the elite. With the success stories shared by university president Michael Alba, it means the school’s actions will impact a larger segment of Philippine society.

In a sense, today’s student population is “marked,” in the same way that, as Alba pointed out, students during the American recession had to cope with distinct inadequacies in their learning. In the present case, haven’t the usual learning competencies in public schools been reduced to make virtual learning feasible? One dreads to think how the complications of the pandemic will affect the performance of our students in the next Programme for International Student Assessment study.

What to do with a public school system that obviously needs a drastic boost? And this is certainly looking way beyond the blended learning lapses and hiccups of today. Emmanuel S. de Dios, professor emeritus at the UP School of Economics and coordinator of the Philippine Center for Economic Development’s Institute to Study Inequality and Poverty, is the first to acknowledge that such an enduring problem demands a long, well-thought-out process across administrations. It is impossible to achieve all the needed reforms during the term of one education secretary, as structural programs spanning into the future are necessary.

Part of the reforms should come from employers who need to specify to educators what skills are needed by the job market. Considering that students are being prepared for jobs that may not be known today, it is clear that skills like critical thinking and creativity are more important than the mere acquisition of knowledge.

De Dios put forward a final sobering thought: Bear in mind that any input in tertiary education is only as good as what basic education brings in. Aye, there’s the rub.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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