Education: Is it getting the best for every buck?

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - December 10, 2019 - 12:00am

Just like how the Philippines landed last in the world’s list of worst airports, finding us in the same place in the OECD’s ranking of reading proficiency among 15-year-olds has raised another national howl of shame. In mathematics and science, we were thankfully not last, but still among the cellar-dwellers.

Last year, the Philippines for the first time participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide ranking started in 2000, and now represents findings conducted in 79 participating countries and economies.

A key feature of the PISA 2018 is its focus on reading. The data culled from between 4,000 to 8,000 students in each of the enrolled countries assessed reading literacy, which is differentiated from simply reading skills. Reading literacy means finding out what the student understands when reading, and being able to integrate this with pre-existing knowledge.

This shift in test scope recognizes how reading has significantly evolved over the past decade, primarily because of the impact of digital tools. In fact, between the PISA 2009 (when reading was also the major domain) and PISA 2018, there were marked changes in what and why students read.

As the latest PISA report stated: “Reading now involves not only the printed page but also electronic formats (i.e. digital reading). Moreover, readers must now engage in a greater variety of tasks. In the past, when students did not know the answer to a question, they could look it up in an encyclopaedia and generally trust that the answer they found was accurate.

“Today, digital search engines give students millions of answers, and it will be up to them to figure out which are accurate, true and relevant and which are not. Now, more than ever before, literacy requires triangulating different sources, navigating through ambiguity, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and constructing knowledge.”

Lion’s share

The ranked low reading literacy level of our 15-year-olds comes as a big surprise given the amount of money that the government has been appropriating in the national budget for education over the past years.

Last year, education alone received P665.1 billion, or 18.2 percent of the P3.662 trillion national cash budget, with the Department of Education (DepEd) receiving the lion’s share of P531.6 billion for the implementation of its Basic Educational Facilities (BEF) program, creation of teaching and non-teaching positions, and provision of educational assistance.

A more detailed look at how the money was spent in previous years reveals a shifting pattern of spending based on a prioritization of needs. In 2017 and 2018, for example, in response for the need for more classrooms, the focus was on the construction, replacement, and completion of kindergarten, elementary and secondary school buildings and technical vocational laboratories under the BEF program.

Poor spending

Unfortunately, and even in previous years, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) had noted the continued poor spending in the appropriated funds, especially for the BEF.

In 2015, only P 39.3 billion was obligated and only P6.68 billion was disbursed out of the P53.88 billion appropriated. In 2016, P82.26 billion was appropriated, of which P59.08 billion was obligated, and only P16.38 billion was disbursed. In 2017, an additional P36.52 billion or P118.78 billion was appropriated, but only P113.65 billion was obligated, and only P7.39 billion was disbursed.

This represents lost opportunity for the DepEd to fill the need for the lack of classrooms in public schools that have forced administrators to increase the number of students in a class beyond acceptable ratios, and to sometimes accommodate three classes using one classroom on shortened hours.

The DepEd is not entirely to blame for what happened, though. The onus for building and repairing classrooms falls on the Department of Public Works and Highways, but with the government’s Build Build Build program, its priorities were consequently elsewhere.

Shifting priority

In this year’s DepEd budget, more so in the proposed 2020 budget, there is a shift towards supporting quality basic education initiatives, with the former budget allocation for classrooms significantly reduced to give way to initiatives such as the transformation of the National Educators’ Academy of the Philippines (NEAP).

The DepEd has laid down three main challenges in the next three years: the “low proficiency level” of learners as gleaned from the National Achievement Test (NAT) due to the change in content brought about by the introduction of the K-to-12 curriculum; the new education trend brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence; and the wide range of contrasts within education systems, especially the so-called “Last Mile Schools.”

Joining PISA is a good way to benchmark our students’ learning proficiency levels to world standards, and DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones’ move should be welcomed, in the same way that her proposed program moving forward should be supported.

Getting the biggest bang for every buck that is allocated and eventually spent for education should continue to be top of mind with our education bureaucrats given the many pressing needs of the country in other areas like infrastructure.

The Philippines already lags behind its ASEAN neighbors in education spending, currently only at 3.4 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product, far lower than what is appropriated by Vietnam (6.3 percent) and Malaysia (6.1 percent), Lao PDR (4.2 percent), and Thailand (4.1 percent).

Let us learn from the experiences of Hong Kong and Singapore which have managed to improve in great leaps their scores in the PISA rankings. If they can do it, so can we. 

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