Teacher poverty leads to learning poverty
The newly released 2023 World Bank (WB) report on the quality of education in East Asia and the Pacific has shown that we have not fared much better since returning to face-to-face classes. We have earned a 91-percent “learning poverty” rate in that nine out of 10 students between Grades 4 and 5 are not able to read and understand a simple, age-appropriate paragraph. This is in stark contrast with the best performing Asian countries that only have a learning poverty rate of 3-4 percent.
This is beyond dismal as it means that our public school system is failing our children. Worse, it is clear that the Department of Education’s (DepEd) initiatives and focus are grossly misaligned to address learning poverty. DepEd has yet to staunchly commit to increasing the number of classrooms and improving basic facilities, saying it is unrealistic given their budget. The severe shortage of classrooms mean that students only get the opportunity to learn for a few hours a day as several sections have to be accommodated in the same space. This also has a bearing on the teacher-student ratio, meaning that students do not get enough attention and that lessons cannot adapt to children’s differing needs.
DepEd’s newly revised K-10 curriculum, whose pilot phase started last Monday, have also focused on reducing subjects by combining different subject areas together. This has reduced the learning depth of each lesson and has given students even less time per topic. This also means that teachers will have to teach this new Frankenstein of a subject, forcing them to go outside of their subject content expertise. This increases the risk that lessons will be taught unevenly, depending on the teacher’s familiarity with the topics. Already, DepEd is touting that their new “Matatag” curriculum was met with “positivity” by teachers. (We have to note that there is an increasing intolerance for criticism within DepEd, with them releasing memos requiring teachers to refrain from making public criticism as well as the public targeting of teachers’ groups and unions.) We have seen that, in truth, education outcomes could only be felt in years, if not more.
The WB report also focused on the outsized role of teachers in alleviating learning poverty. Aside from attendance issues, they discovered how teachers failed to answer subject matter questions correctly, highlighting poor subject mastery. This is simple yet sobering: Teachers that cannot teach the subject matter accurately will not be able to help students with their learning.
The report also mentioned that there are other factors to learning poverty such as family income, health, and access to school materials. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where he posits that one’s basic needs must be met before higher needs can be addressed, we can understand how children’s basic needs such as food, housing, security, and safety, as well as belongingness, need to be adequately met before they can focus on cognitive or learning needs. Indeed, we know that well-fed and well-slept children (and adults!) have greater capacity for concentration and memory which are essential for learning. But what about teachers?
Teachers’ basic needs must be met as well so that they can improve the quality of their craft and, in turn, reduce learning poverty. Their wages have long been an issue, especially compared to their work load and working conditions. Their health security is also a concern. How many times have I seen my fellow teachers implore for financial assistance from colleagues whenever they become sick? Hopefully, the Government Service Insurance System’s recent pronouncements of offering health insurance above and beyond the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. to public school teachers will lead to genuine action. A sense of security can also be felt if the work environment offers consistency in its support. We must do away with last-minute directives that require big changes within days of the start of a school year, for example. This leads to a sense of chaos and unpredictability.
In order to improve teaching quality, we must also support tertiary education. We must advocate for adequate funding at the tertiary level, especially for schools who produce teachers. The licensure examination for teachers have notorious passing rates, with less than half of the applicants obtaining their license during their first try. This coupled with the fact that practicing teachers have poor subject mastery means that the problem lies in their training. We must support teacher training programs. Instead of one-off workshops and seminars on a variety of topics, we must provide depth and continuous mastery of subject content. We need to develop a sustainable system of supervision and mentoring.
If teachers’ basic needs are met and their learning needs are addressed, they can focus more on improving their teaching rather than merely trying to survive the system.