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Learning crisis and complementarity

A World Bank forum this week added weight to the appeal sounded by PBEd (Philippine Business for Education) last year for action on the country’s learning crisis. The pandemic damaged and continues to degrade the educational system. Both public and private schools have suffered, adding greater urgency to the goal of promoting greater complementarity between them. But the learning crisis predated the pandemic.

It was the performance of basic education students in international assessment examinations, reported in late 2019 and early 2020, that triggered talks of a learning crisis. The bottom place finish of high school students in reading, math, and science in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test and of Grade IV pupils in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) math and science tests were unexpected and disappointing, but not as distressing as three points about this performance.

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First, the depth of the hole from which our students must climb. A TIMSS “High” score of 550 reflects an understanding of how math and science concepts apply to problems. A “Low” 400 score indicates some basic mathematical knowledge, some knowledge of foundational science facts, and a limited understanding of concepts. About 80 percent of all examinees surpassed this “Low” score. More than 80 percent of Philippine takers failed to reach this mark.

The World Bank forum discussed possible reasons for the test results: high student-teacher ratios in congested classrooms; low budget for learning resources; inadequate attention to teacher quality; overly centralized bureaucracy; poor management and assessment systems; ineffective medium of instruction; poor learning environment because of bullying; the systemic problem of malnutrition. This list is a second source of concernʍbecause the items are not new; they have been discussed and debated for decades, sadly, often among the same people or their descendants.

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The third point is the most alarming: Not only were the problems familiar, but several administrations had also invested effort and resources to address them, with some measure of success. We were providing greater access to education, even at the tertiary level. We were beginning to focus on the issue of quality, admittedly a moving target more difficult to achieve. The pandemic, however, has rolled back our gains on access and compromised our campaign for quality.

We need to understand why our investments have not yielded the expected benefits in basic education, which must now be our priority. Were the reform measures, pursued over many decades with generous support and advice from international development agencies, misguided? Or was failure the result of sound policies poorly understood, denied political and financial support, and badly implemented? Both factors may be playing a role. We need to do the research.

Successful schools, perhaps, deployed more material and management resources to help their students. We must also consider the qualities that their students bring with them to the schools, a factor over which the Department of Education (DepEd) has little control. Were their students healthier, beneficiaries of more years of pre-school training, better skilled in the languages of instruction? Education reform programs generally assume, therefore, that the problems and their solutions must be rooted at the level of the accountable institutions. For basic education, accountability rests with the government and DepEd, which enrolls over 90 percent of the students. We presume that student learning outcomes depend on what happens in the schools. We accordingly produce the list of factors presumed to affect the delivery of DepEd services and strive to improve them.

Comparison of the average performance of public and private schools in the TIMSS test would seem to validate this approach. Although barely clearing the “Low” bar of 400, private schools posted average scores higher than those achieved by public schools: 410 to 290 in math and 405 to 203 in science. Were better-performing schools doing something differentʍlower class sizes, better learning resources, more robust assessment systems? Perhaps some of their systems can be adopted by less successful schools through a program promoting private-public collaboration.

Unfortunately, the dominance of the state in basic, and especially elementary, education has driven out many private schools from this sector. The CREATE law raising private school taxes from 10 to 25 percent will accelerate the pace of their exit, further eroding the potential for complementarity. We have a serious problem in basic education. This provision does not help.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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