A Philippine Myth: Quality Education

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Donald Wu on Unsplash

I heard that we have a new Secretary for Education. I wish him well—less for himself and more for the future of most Filipino youth in the public school system. After all, with a learning poverty of 91% and no known diagnosis for the horrible ailment, there is no remedial program as well. Catching up is not enough, as those already ahead are moving forward, too, maybe at an even faster clip.

The Department of Education is mandated to provide quality education through the public school system. If I take quality to mean what it is usually described to be, then what may have been the noble dream of quality education has turned out to be a myth. The meanings of myth include the primary one, which refers to a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon.

The myth of quality education in the Philippines, however, as I mean it in this article, points to the secondary meaning of a myth, which is “a widely held but false belief or idea.”

When Sara Duterte decided to relinquish her role as Secretary of Education, I saw, read, and heard subtle and overt moves to promote specific individuals to the position. I wondered to myself why people would encourage the ambitious to take over. After all, no one has the qualifications needed to run the department effectively and reverse the learning poverty we have driven ourselves into.

A good administrator might manage the department more efficiently, which means containing the waste of people’s resources by unaddressed corruption and drifting leadership without a doable vision. A good administrator, however, cannot reverse learning poverty without identifying its pitiful consequences for our people in their daily lives and what it will do to our future labor force. An insightful, pragmatic, and courageous leader might succeed, if at all.

The World Bank’s learning poverty results of 10-year-old Filipinos determined that 91% of them struggle to read simple text. This struggle guarantees that our future workers, 10 to 15 years from now, will still struggle to read and comprehend simple words and operational instructions required in the workplace.

In other words, our young students below 10 and above 15 today are not only failing but falling far behind their counterparts in most of the world, including in Asia. They had been failing before they were 10, and the World Bank just caught them at that age. They are also failing and falling behind as 15-year-olds caught by the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) near the bottom of all countries assessed.

“Although the government was muted in admitting this, it is now clear that we not only have a learning poverty but a teaching poverty as well. To understand the problem more clearly, we must look at the key players of education—the students and the teachers.”

For these test results to be as shockingly low as they are, it means that students are failing but are made to pass, not just as special individuals but as a class. By doing that year after year, our students fall behind, and future students enter a system with the lowest standards.

No wonder that the other finding of the World Bank study immediately pointed to data gathered from classroom observation, which determined that most teachers in the Philippines use ineffective or weak teaching practices that ultimately translate into poorer learning outcomes. The same World Bank studies said that too many teachers have not mastered the content they are expected to teach.

Although the government was muted in admitting this, it is now clear that we not only have a learning poverty but a teaching poverty as well. To understand the problem more clearly, we must look at the key players of education—the students and the teachers. We cannot make our students learn by passing them when they do not deserve to pass. We also cannot make our teachers teach more effectively by increasing their salaries. We are caught in a bind that only an honest realization can unravel.

The sadder thing is that learning and teaching poverty is an indictment of the more powerful sectors responsible – the homes/families in charge before the schooling age and the workplace and government where graduates go after. Families are responsible for the earliest learning process; businesses and the government are just as responsible because they set the standards for those they want to employ.

There is now a Gordian knot, an intricate problem insoluble in its own terms.

Why, then, would anyone want to be the secretary of Education? He cannot solve the problem he faces. In fact, he cannot even begin to imagine the magnitude of the problem unless he or others call for a national summit to discuss it and its impact on the country’s key sectors and industries. There is no way forward without a clear understanding of the ailment—and there is still none.

If we do not have a visionary as Secretary of Education, if we do not have a courageous Secretary of Education who will not bend his best course of action whatever the political cost, if we do not have a population that realizes the impossibility of the problem, if we do not have businesses and employers who will demand the best and invest to bring their workers to greater productivity, if we do not have a presidency that will look 10 to 15 years ahead and risk its whole political future to start producing citizens who are effectively educated and committed to better work ethics, then we will stay holding a heavy bag. This citizenry is behind everyone else and will keep falling behind.

I know a new Secretary of Education has been named. I know luck is insufficient to make him begin a new course for our education system. Instead, I will pray for him and wish for him the divine inspiration needed to turn a myth into a hopeful reality.

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