Philippine education in crisis

More than 9 million students in both private and public schools had enrolled online for schoolyear 2020-2021 as the month of June ended. The resumption of K-12 classes is scheduled for Aug. 24 this year, hence the Department of Education’s (DepEd) reserving the entire month of June for registration, and later extending it till July.

The turnout of 9 million surpassed the expectations of Education Secretary Leonor Briones. Presumably because DepEd was aware of the technological, financial, and other differences among the millions of Filipino families with school-age children, Secretary Briones expected many of them to forego their enrollment during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Some 5 million children will most probably not enroll precisely because of those issues.

As Bishop Roberto Mallari, who chairs the Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines pointed out during a May interview with media, many families “are not prepared financially [and] technologically” for online learning. Some can’t afford the computers or even smart phones needed, or to subscribe to Wi-Fi providers and master the use of the technology involved within a short two months. As some news reports have noted, some teachers are similarly unprepared, either because they don’t have the devices needed and can’t afford them, and/or are also as technologically challenged as their students.

There is also the problem of connectivity. Despite the Department of Information and Communication Technology’s (DICT) pledge to make Wi-Fi available throughout the country, the connections are still either too weak or nonexistent not only in those remote localities from where students have had to walk for kilometers and cross rivers to the nearest school during pre-pandemic times, but even in some urban areas.

The economic and class divide of Philippine society has long been a fundamental issue in Philippine education. Students from rich families based in the cities and some highly urbanized municipalities have more access to usually private and expensive schools, while those from poor families are plagued by a lack of classrooms and teachers, and almost inaccessible public schools with limited resources that teachers themselves are often forced to provide.

But it seems that even the former have not really benefited as much as expected from their privileged status. A 2018 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested a representative population of 15-year-old Filipino students and found them last in reading comprehension among 79 countries. The students surveyed, in a country that claims 98% literacy, hardly fared any better in science and mathematics either: they were a poor second to the last at 78th place.

It has been argued that the PISA findings are the results of the fact that those tested mostly came from public schools and therefore do not provide any indication of the alleged superiority of private institutions. But they nevertheless confirm the reality of the perennial crisis of Philippine education evident in the quality of its products. Many Filipinos can’t really read or even do simple arithmetic. Science is alien territory for the superstitious many, and mathematics a much despised subject.

A 2017 study by an international news website also found that Filipinos aged 16 to 64 are the third most ignorant of key public issues among the citizens of 36 countries. That finding is validated by, among other indicators, the epidemic of fact- and logic-challenged posts that appear in social media, and by the popularity rather than issue-based results of Philippine elections.

There is, indeed, an education class divide between poor and rich students in the Philippines. There is also the same divide between poor and rich countries. But even a less developed country can still invest heavily on education if it is its first priority. The 2018 PISA results were dominated by Chinese students from four less affluent regions of China, who bested their counterparts in the Western countries.

The Philippines just doesn’t invest as much on education as its neighbors Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and even Laos. The biggest share of the annual budget goes to education as mandated by the 1987 Constitution, but the 3.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) appropriated for it is still much less than the United Nations standard of at least 6%. In 2019, Congress even cut the DepEd’s proposed 2020 budget despite the need for more classrooms and teachers.

It need hardly be said that how much a country spends on education helps decide the quality of school facilities and its teachers, and therefore the quality of its students. Despite the digital age, many public schools still lack not only computers but even books, desks and blackboards. There is also a shortfall in the supply of public school teachers, due in part to their being among the lowest-paid among government employees despite their qualifications and many responsibilities.

It need hardly be said that the dismal showing of Filipino students in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science has to be addressed. The ignorance and contempt for learning evident in many sectors of the population are in conflict with the imperatives of national development and the democratization of Philippine society and politics. Citizens who know little or nothing, or are misinformed about the most pressing issues, cannot intelligently make the decisions on which democratic, honest and effective governance depends.

The sorry state of education helps explain the fragility of what passes for democracy in the Philippines. It is of course possible, although never explicitly stated, that keeping much of the population ignorant best serves the interests of the political oligarchy that rules the country. A dumb constituency is after all the surest guarantee of keeping ineffectual and corrupt governments in power.

This is the already troubled and troubling context in which the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire educational system to shift from traditional face-to-face classroom learning to online, “blended,” and “flexible” methods.

As expected, the better-endowed and equipped schools are adopting various ways to address the problems involved. In higher education, the leading universities, such as the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and De La Salle University are also developing their respective versions of remote learning methods to best serve their students and to train their faculty in them. But at both the K-12 and much of the tertiary level, there are still the differences in capability, resources and training between such institutions and the majority.

To the longstanding problems of Philippine education have thus been added the difficulties posed by the shift to online teaching. These difficulties boil down to the possibility that the schools may not effectively impart the literacy and numeracy skills required at the basic level, and, at the collegiate level, the respect for and commitment to knowledge and the critical outlook that authentic tertiary education is supposed to impart to the citizens of a democracy. As things now stand, the crisis of Philippine education is likely to reach its most acute stage in these extraordinary times because of the public health crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as a less than capable system flounders in the sea of troubles unleashed by the necessary shift to remote learning.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in the Business World
July 9, 2020

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