Not a matter of perspective

The Philippines’ dismal performance in the 2022 Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) should not be taken as a matter of perspective, that we should be consoled by the fact that many other countries have also failed to meet the global standards. The results are clear: Filipino students who took part were five to six years behind in math, science, and reading compared to their 15-year-old counterparts from most of the participating countries. Even the education secretary, Vice President Sara Duterte, admitted as much in a video message during a forum last week, lamenting that the latest Pisa results “may bear [an] uncomfortable truth” as a significant majority of the students fell “below the proficiency level required for full participation in society and contributing to nation-building.”

Launched in 2000, Pisa is a benchmarking tool used by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that allows participating countries to understand what students know and do not know, benchmark their achievements against other countries, and draw out any policy implications to strengthen their education systems. The Philippines participated in Pisa for the first time in 2018, and came in last place among 79 participating countries in reading, and second to last place in science and math. The results for the 2022 edition were hardly changed for the Philippines.

Shocking ‘optimism’

The “optimism” of some government officials about the Pisa results is rather shocking. Undersecretary Gina Gonong of the Department of Education (DepEd) said that between 2018 and 2022, the performance of the country’s 15-year-old students in the three subject domains “remained stable despite the COVID-19 pandemic.” She pointed out that the performance of Filipino students was “positive in the sense that many other countries’ performance fell.” Pasig Rep. Roman Romulo, chair of the House committee on basic education, shared the same view, saying that interpreting the Pisa results was “always a matter of perspective.” He said: “During the pandemic when classes were practically online, many students did not have technology, many did not even know how to use technology … We should be happy, we held the line compared to other countries.”

While the pandemic no doubt contributed to the “stagnant” performance of the country, the crux of the matter, as Education Undersecretary Michael Poa correctly pointed out, is that the reforms and interventions since the 2018 Pisa were not immediately implemented. Last July, DepEd announced the implementation of what it called the National Learning Recovery Plan (NLRP) to provide enrichment or intervention sessions for children.

Learning recovery programs

DepEd said the National Learning Camp will have phased implementation starting with Grades 7 and 8 with focus on English, math, and science. DepEd also promised to roll out national programs on reading, math, science, and technology starting school year 2023-2024.

These learning recovery programs are laudable indeed. But how does DepEd intend to implement them without adequate funding? Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate education committee, observed that the DepEd needs at least P10 billion to fully fund its learning recovery programs in about 40,000 public schools. But in the proposed 2024 budget, the DepEd has only P2.9 billion earmarked for various learning recovery initiatives.

Mandate of the Constitution

But even the lack of funding is not an excuse for the DepEd to continue to fail in ensuring that children get the proficiency skills at their respective levels. It is a matter of having the correct policy, informed by the various statistics such as those coming from Pisa, the World Bank, and even local organizations, and focusing the resources on those key priorities. Every year, the education sector gets the biggest slice of the national budget—P895.2 billion of the P5.268 trillion budget this year—in accordance with the mandate of the Constitution to give priority to education to achieve social progress and human development.

Yet in this current administration, so much energy were spent on proposals to revive the mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corp., on spending millions of confidential funds in preventing communist recruitment on campuses, or removing posters from classrooms. These are hardly the priorities needed to solve the education crisis.

The Pisa results are not a matter of perspective. It’s whether Filipino students are equipped with the essential literacy skills or not. The consequence is clear: If grade schoolers are so poor in literacy, they will also suffer the same setbacks in high school and college. And as the private sector-led Philippine Business for Education warned, “the weaknesses in our basic education system will eventually translate into the weakness of our workforce, affecting the productivity and key source of our economic growth.” The country has a lot of catching up to do, and this major crisis in education requires swift action and a concerted effort from all sectors.