Bad scores
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - December 11, 2019 - 12:00am

There were disturbing reports over the past few weeks which impact on our country’s ability to compete on the world stage. The reports indicate how the quality of our human capital has deteriorated, darkening our country’s future.

The first is about the Philippines sinking to the bottom of ASEAN in terms of IQ scores. The second has to do with our 15-year old students landing last in reading, and second to the last in mathematics and science. The Philippines is no. 79 out of 79 countries in reading literacy, and no.78 in mathematics and science literacy.

Of course, there are those who criticized the studies for being too quantitative and for supposedly disregarding things like cultural and other factors that may affect scores. Then again, the fact remains that you either know how to read, can add, subtract, multiply and divide, and explain how gravity works or you don’t.

This isn’t the first time we participated in an international survey. We participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1999, and also in 2003. In 1999, we were third from the bottom, and in 2003, we were still third from the bottom. Then we dropped out. These low scores are nothing new.

I see years of neglect coming home to roost. I see how economic inequality is affecting people’s abilities.

There are scientific studies that links proper nutrition and early childhood education as important factors affecting IQ. Children who are malnourished and not given intellectual stimulation early in life are stunted not just physically, but also intellectually.

Our high poverty incidence is to blame.  Our poor have poor nutrition when food is available at all. They also have poor access to early education. It should be no wonder the IQ scores of our children have been disheartening.

On the other hand, the low ranking of the Philippines in the 2018 Program for the International Student Assessment (PISA), points to a “correlation” with the current quality of education in the country. Again, no surprises here.

Our education secretary’s explanation blames our failure to spend the right proportion of our GDP for education. The United Nations recommends that the government should spend at least six percent of GDP on education. We are only spending 3.9 percent of the GDP on education.

That may be a significant factor, but I am not sure merely throwing money at the problem will deliver better results. Sure, we need more and better classrooms, better textbooks, better trained teachers and better curriculum overall. All those require money which we must be ready to invest on our children today for our country’s future.

Assuming DepEd gets more money today, would it know how to spend it well? I am not so sure. Like the rest of Philippine bureaucracy, DepEd has its own absorptive capacity problems.

Before we give them more money, we need to see more credible plans on how they intend to improve quality of education across the board.

To the credit of Education Secretary Leonor Briones, she realizes the importance of teacher training. She wants to elevate the status of DepEd’s training arm, the National Educators Academy, into a “real academy” to thoroughly upskill the country’s teachers and meet the students’ ideal standard for learning.

Sec. Briones points out that present teachers may have passed the LET (Licensing Exam for Teachers) or studied in universities, but the demands have changed and that explains our scores.

I can appreciate that. My daughter is a teacher in a public elementary school in California. While her school district is not among the more affluent ones, they are using computers to teach pupils starting in pre-school. Her pupils become computer literate at a very early age and that’s how to train them for today’s needs.

In our case, DepEd is still trying to cope with very basic things, like recruiting good teachers for science, math, and literature. Everything starts with good teachers, properly trained and totally committed to educating their pupils.

Paying the teachers properly is a good step forward. But in our system, even the lousy teachers get the same pay raises.

I am told that the salaries of public school teachers are now higher than those in the private schools. Indeed, many private schools are losing their teachers to the public schools.

Yet, some of our best teachers end up teaching in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Somehow, the best and the brightest of our young people don’t think of teaching as their first career choice, least of all teaching in this country.

What do these poor scores mean for all of us?

First of all, poorly educated young people threaten our economy. Even our dominance in the BPO industry is at risk with the low scores in reading, math and science. That means future potential workers will not be able to cope with the challenges of the higher level BPO jobs that are not going away with AI.

Secondly, we will not be able to get the economic benefits of the so-called demographic dividend. We now have a large working age population which should move our economy forward, if they are productively working. But with those scores, unemployable youth who can’t read, can’t count, and with few skills can be a serious economic drag.

The fact that we keep getting reports of how many young Filipinos get gold medals in math and science competitions abroad prove we have what it takes. What the rest of our young people need is better nurturing in terms of better food and better teaching methods from the earliest age.

Education reforms take time to sink in and for its fruits to become discernible to everyone. This should be top priority now. The low scores have been there for over 20 years.

Educating our youth is not just government’s responsibility, but everyone’s. The quality of our lives depend on it.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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