Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 December 2019


The news that the Philippines is No. 79 out of 79 countries in reading literacy, and number 78 in mathematics and science literacy—the bottom in one and second to the bottom in the other two—brings a sense of déjà vu. Remember when we were considered the basket case of Asia? From 1960 to 2009, our average per capita GDP growth rate was below 2 percent while those of our Asean neighbors were over 4 percent. And we were the only country in the region that got caught in the international debt crisis in the ‘80s.

We’re definitely no longer the bottom dwellers as far as the economy is concerned. Now, it is the quality of our education that suffers in comparison with 78 other countries. And that does not augur very well for the country’s economic development objectives, because improvement In human capital (education, health, etc. ) goes hand in hand with increased growth and development.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) ”is a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in member and nonmember nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It was first performed in 2000 and then repeated every three years. Its aim is to provide comparable data with a view to enabling countries to improve their education policies and outcomes. It measures problem-solving and cognition.”So, how has our overall performance been over the 18-year period? Well, actually, 2018 was the first time the Philippines participated. So, we have no basis for comparison. We did, however, participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which started in 1995 and has been done every four years thereafter. What is the difference between TIMSS and Pisa? The former is administered to fourth and eighth-grade students, and the latter to first-year high school students.

The Philippines participated in TIMSS in 1999, and also in 2003, and then dropped out altogether. What were the results for those two years? In 1999, we were third from the bottom, and in 2003, we were still third from the bottom.

It is logical to ask why the Philippines stopped participating. No reason can be found, but I dare to speculate that the Department of Education (DepEd) authorities adopted the ostrich theory of self-preservation. The ostrich hides its head in the sand when danger approaches. The theory is, if you don’t see the danger, it isn’t there. Self-deception. Which is why Education Secretary Liling Briones must be congratulated. She opted to participate in the Pisa, even if she suspected (evidence-based) that we wouldn’t do well. At least that’s what she reported at a congressional hearing some time ago. But she needed a baseline to measure our progress against, because she and the DepEd are committed to increasing the quality of education at least since early this year (that’s what their website says). In other words, the succeeding Pisa assessments will be an objective way of measuring progress, if any, in our efforts to improve. I sincerely hope our Pisa effort doesn’t go the way that our TIMSS effort went.Reader, please try very hard not to conclude that since we were third from the bottom in 1999 and 2003, and we are second from the bottom today, the quality of our education must have deteriorated. There are any number of reasons why that reasoning would be invalid.

But Fr. Ben Nebres, SJ, former president of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), a mathematician, a National Scientist and an education expert has some interesting insights on that score. He observed that ADMU and the University of Santo Tomas have found that the mathematics performance of the K-to-12 graduates is worse than those of the graduates of the past. Whether that has been the experience of other universities, one has still to discover. Some evidence of deterioration, in any case.But the other observation he made is that way back in the ‘80s, after a conference he chaired with principals and teachers, their group came to the conclusion (reported to the DepEd) that what was needed for education to improve was 1) give the teachers the time to teach; 2) give the students the time to learn; and 3) improve the textbooks.

And 30-40 years later, the same recommendations still apply. Nothing has changed. We have nowhere to go but up.