Feelings over facts
Education Secretary Leonor Briones, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, and presidential spokesperson Harry Roque must now be leaning back, purring in satisfaction, and exchanging “high fives”–even if distantly. As they had insisted, the World Bank (WB) has issued a formal apology for releasing a report “prematurely”–that is, before it had submitted the report to the Department of Education as per “protocol.” The bank said it had taken down the report from its website.
The report had to do with the state of education in the country. The finding: More than 80 percent of students in the Philippines “do not meet the standards expected for their grade level.” This, the WB said, constituted a “crisis” in the country’s educational system “which started pre-COVID but will have been made worse” by the pandemic.
This is nothing new. The data released were gleaned from previously released international assessments in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Old, yes, but not ancient or obsolete, and still relevant today. Filipino students, these studies found, performed poorly in the basic elements of learning: reading, writing, comprehension, and ability to understand and perform even the most basic math functions.
That young people spent much of the last year or so hunkered down in their homes, making do with distance learning with guidance from periodically distributed printed modules, doesn’t auger well, either, for the anticipated performance of Filipino students in future studies. It is indeed an alarming situation, which our education officials should have responded to with alacrity and audacity.
But the sense of anger and umbrage was not directed at the deficiencies that have doomed our youth and the country to bottom or near-bottom rankings in the global studies. Instead, what Briones et al. focused on was the oversight committed by the WB when it released the report. “The country was insulted… shamed,” the education secretary groused in a press briefing–as if, when the “old” studies were released not too long ago, the Philippines had not already been embarrassed.
What the Duterte administration ought to be more ashamed and vexed about is that after the dismal performance of Filipino students was revealed in multiple studies, an already bad situation has only gotten worse. The shutdown of the school system has left millions of schoolchildren cooped up in their homes in a limbo of ignorance, boredom, and, for many, stress and anxiety. Add to this the dire economic straits inflicted by the lockdowns, resulting in poor nutrition that affects children’s ability to learn, and we have a “perfect storm” of consequences that will last way beyond the pandemic.
The numbers are dire. Historian and educator Ambeth Ocampo pointed out in his column in this paper yesterday that while the United Nations recommends that 6 percent of a nation’s budget be allocated for education, in 2019 the Philippines spent a mere 3.9 percent, one of the lowest in Southeast Asia.
The Philippine Business for Education, an NGO founded and managed by the private sector, reports that one out of every four Filipino parents say their children are not learning. But how could they, when one out of every three children under five years old is considered stunted, a symptom of malnutrition with implications on their brain development; and one out of every five children under five years old is underweight?
Dr. Maria Liza Antoinette Gonzales of the UP College of Medicine cites “disruptions” that could negatively impact the health of children these days: social isolation due to social distancing policies and school closures, disruptions in medical care and social services, and economic and societal hardships. Dr. Jocelyn Eusebio, president of the Philippine Pediatric Society, supports this observation and bats for the limited opening of in-person classes in COVID-19-free areas. The advantages outweigh the risks, according to Eusebio, given the mental stress Filipino children have been suffering from the prolonged state of distance learning.
So much remains to be done to address the crisis that young Filipinos, the much-vaunted future of this country, have been plunged into. A concerted effort to improve the reach and quality of distance learning, a more determined drive to ensure that learning modules are delivered in a timely manner even to children living in remote areas, a bigger share for education in the national budget–all these are necessary to address the aggravations posed by the pandemic and the economic crisis, on top of the primordial need to uplift the quality of basic education which had been deteriorating rapidly even before the virus arrived. What the country could do without are officials quick to tend to their feelings over the hard facts and urgent problems faced by the next generation.
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