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No Free Lunch

Our education disaster

I had heard since well over a year ago about how our country landed at the very bottom on the global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scores, but it’s only recently that I had the chance to examine the actual report. Given these results, it is hard not to feel that education in the Philippines, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, had been a total disaster. Even more alarming is how in the midst of the pandemic, the disaster has only made a turn for the worse. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) initiated Pisa in 2000 to assess how students have acquired the key knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society, focused particularly on reading, mathematics, and science. The last assessment done in 2018 covered 79 countries, in each of which at least 150 schools were selected to capture a geographic cross-section. Around 42 15-year-old students were then randomly selected in each school, thus leading to an average of 6,000 15-year-old students assessed in each participating country.

If it’s any consolation, it was only in the category of reading where we were at the very bottom, with a score of 340 out of a maximum of 600, as we managed to beat one country (Dominican Republic) in mathematics (on a score of 353) and science (357). The countries just ahead of us include small countries like Kosovo, Lebanon, and Morocco. The top performer was China, although its sample students only came from the four regions of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. However, the report points out that the size of each already compares to that of a typical OECD country, and their combined populations add up to over 180 million. More remarkably, these four Chinese regions have income levels well below the OECD average. Others in the top 10 were Singapore (in second place), Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea, and Poland. The United States only came in 13th, behind New Zealand and Sweden, and just ahead of the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia.

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There’s more bad news in the details. Four-fifths (80 percent) of our students failed to even reach minimum levels of proficiency (i.e., Level 2 out of 6 proficiency levels), which is one of the largest shares of low performers among all countries covered. Almost no Filipino student in the sample showed the highest proficiency (Levels 5 or 6), whereas such top performers made up 21 percent in Korea, and 44 percent in China, in the case of math.

The miserable performance of the Philippines is sobering, and speaks volumes about how we have grossly neglected investing in what is often cited to be our most abundant and most important resource: our people. Indeed, Pisa comparative data showed that we spent the least per student among all participating countries, with our level of spending per student a mere one-tenth of the OECD average. By comparison, Indonesia spent 70 percent more than we did, and not surprisingly, their students outperformed ours, putting them five ranks higher than the Philippines.

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The country’s disastrous Pisa results have been an eye-opener for our government, but even herculean efforts to reform and improve our educational system cannot be enough, as the problem goes well beyond that. Average IQ in the Philippines had also been found to be lowest among the 10 Asean member states, based on cross-country assessments made by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. But intelligence also comes from cognitive ability, which is in turn dependent on physiological brain development.

I have written much about how our peculiarly high levels of child stunting due to severe malnutrition have impaired not only physical development, but more importantly and more permanently, brain development as well, inflicting lifelong damage to the child. And it is availability and affordability of food that are paramount in ensuring that Filipinos are adequately fed, and that children are able to gain the most out of education.

This tells us that reversing our education disaster is a challenge not only for our education authorities, but no less importantly, for our agriculture, health, and nutrition authorities as well.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, PH PISA scores, Philippine education
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