Dumb and dumber?
It may not be as bad as it seems (as I will explain below), but even as it was widely expected, our continuing bottom ranking in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results led to wide disappointment anyway. A recent letter-writer to the Inquirer predicted another round of “self-flagellation” over the then anticipated dismal results of this standardized test given to 15-year-old students in 81 countries. Public discussions on Philippine education have indeed been highly negativistic, even bordering on helplessness and hopelessness, after our students ranked last in reading comprehension in 2018, and second to the last in science and mathematics.
The bad news is that we remained at the bottom rungs in 2022, with our average performance scores for reading, math, and science not statistically different from our 2018 results. Then and now, our Asean peers scored way above us, exceeding our 347 average score in reading for 2022, for example, by gaps ranging from 12 (Indonesia) to 196 points (Singapore). Vietnam, which ranked 34th in a field of 81 countries and second in Asean to world-topping Singapore, beat us by 112 points. The not-so-bad (but not good) news is that we have more company at the bottom now, with Cambodia at last place and 18 points below us in reading, while we are statistically tied with Palestine, Kosovo, Jordan, and Morocco, above Uzbekistan and Cambodia. It’s largely the same picture in mathematics and science, and we actually got worse in the latter!
Education experts have long argued that our 15-year-olds fare so badly in the Pisa and other international tests because we keep insisting on having them take it in English, rather than in their mother tongue, as all our other Asean neighbors do. Give those tests in Filipino or the student’s mother tongue, and our ratings should improve significantly, they argue. They may be right, and I find it rather odd that we would test our young students in a language that only a small fraction of them could read, speak, and think in comfortably. It’s no surprise that the rest of our comparable Asean neighbors far outperform us in the Pisa.
Still, it’s an undeniable fact that so much is wrong with education in our country. An appalling revelation that came out of recent Senate hearings is that the Department of Education (DepEd) has not had textbooks in our public elementary schools for the last 11 years except for grades 4, 5, and 6—and only for two subjects in grade 4! The Second Education Commission or EdCom II traced the problem to our textbook procurement processes, noting that a major cause of delay was “the previous practice of procuring manuscripts separately from printing and delivery services.” Add to this the high cost of materials, suppliers’ failure to meet printing and delivery deadlines, and too few bidders or publishers. It’s a disheartening picture, and in the middle of so much bureaucratic inertia, it’s hard to get the feeling that needed improvements are forthcoming.
There’s also the Commission on Audit report that DepEd travel expenses doubled to P1.692 billion in 2022, with foreign travel expenses jumping nearly 12 times. Is our education budget, constitutionally mandated to be the largest, being spent in ways that improve education outcomes? It’s bad enough that we spend far, far less on our students than our neighbors do and much of the rest of the world does. One of Pisa’s damning observations is that our average cumulative 10-year spending per student from age 6 to 15 ($11,030) is only one-ninth of the average spent by all Pisa countries ($102,612). Given the stretched state of government finances, especially in the wake of massive pandemic-related expenses that brought public debt levels quickly back to the danger zone, significant improvement on this will not be forthcoming. And with the recent failed attempt to snag a substantial DepEd budget increase in the form of confidential funds, the quality of budget utilization keeps coming into question.
Finally, we must keep reminding ourselves that our education crisis is not just about missing textbooks, inadequate classrooms, and ill-equipped and poorly trained teachers. More fundamentally, it’s about students handicapped by weak learning and cognitive abilities tracing to early childhood malnutrition and stunting, which has afflicted one in every three Filipino preschool children five years old and below, and even up to one in every two in parts of the country. It’s also about children unable to concentrate in the classroom on a hungry stomach. So until we are able to boost farm productivity and bring food prices down for the food security of our poor, our education crisis will remain as much a reflection of bad governance in agriculture, as much as in education.