Tackling PH education crisis
Ask typical 10-year-old public school students in the Philippines to read and understand a simple, age-appropriate paragraph and there is a good chance that as many as nine of 10 of them will not be able to.
This dismal level of reading comprehension among pupils puts the Philippines firmly among the poorest in learning in the region, according to the latest World Bank (WB) report on the quality of education in East Asia and the Pacific, with an alarming 91 percent “learning poverty” rate even with the return of face-to-face classes across the country.
The Philippines has therefore failed to improve from the same dismal ranking in the 2022 study of 22 middle-income countries in the region by the Washington-based lender that was done after two years of remote or distance learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In stark contrast, learning poverty—defined by the WB as being unable to read and understand short, age-appropriate texts by the age of 10, or between Grade 4 and Grade 5 under the country’s K-12 system—in high-income Japan, South Korea, and Singapore is at a minuscule 3-4 percent. In Vietnam, it is just 18 percent, the lowest among the Southeast Asian countries in the survey.
Clearly, this dismal record cannot and must not be acceptable, especially as billions of pesos are poured every year into the public basic education sector.
As the WB emphasized in the report, the failure to equip the students with such a foundational skill as reading and understanding text “jeopardizes their ability to acquire more advanced skills that will help them succeed in the labor market and escape poverty,” especially as this deficit is more pronounced in poorer communities.
“Since learning is cumulative, many of these children will never be able to develop the more advanced skills needed for innovative manufacturing and sophisticated services, the productivity-boosting economic activities that could lift countries from middle-income to high-income status,” the WB added.
Given the bleak prognosis, the Department of Education (DepEd), which is mainly responsible for improving the quality of the country’s education, must view these disturbing findings by the WB with a greater sense of urgency and passion to institute the reforms needed to significantly upgrade the state of the country’s basic education.
The report already suggested ways forward, singling out the major role that teachers will play in reversing the trend of poor learning outcomes.
The WB stressed that while there are multiple factors influencing learning, from family income to health and access to school materials, teachers “have the largest impact” once the child enters school.
But unfortunately again for the Philippines, the quality of public school teachers leaves much to be desired.
A 2016 study showed that the average elementary or high school teacher in the Philippines in 2015 “could answer fewer than half of the questions on subject content tests correctly,” which indicates a below-average mastery of a subject they are expected and entrusted to teach their students.
As if these were not enough, the WB likewise found that in the Philippines, 40.1 percent of Grade 5 teachers were reported by surveyed students as “often or sometimes absent” while close to 70 percent were said to be “often or sometimes late.”
With the resources entrusted to DepEd—at 17.5 percent of the total government budget on the schooling sector, among the biggest proportions in the region—it must lead the way toward removing these bright red flags.
This gargantuan effort, however, will require much more than just removing the colorful visual aids in the public school classrooms and downplaying the dire effect of enrollment numbers for the current school year falling below target and pre-pandemic levels.
Instead, it should take up the recommendations on how to improve teaching quality contained in the comprehensive report to make a difference in the learning outcomes of the students who badly need the help and will influence the level of progress that the Philippines will make once they leave school.
“To be effective, [teacher] trainings should bolster subject knowledge, offer opportunities to practice newfound knowledge among peers, include follow-up coaching and mentoring, and provide career incentives linked to promotion or salary. Teachers must also be rewarded for sustaining the quality of their teaching over the course of their careers,” the WB said.
But for these massive reforms to happen, there must first be an admission and acknowledgment of the magnitude of the learning crisis. As the report noted, policymakers and government officials tend to severely underestimate the extent of the problems in basic education, thus blunting efforts at urgent reform and skewing spending priorities.
With these grim data now in Philippine policymakers’ and government officials hands, it behooves them to use these to rise up to the challenge and institute real reforms to upgrade the quality of education.
Indeed, the country’s future depends on it.