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Business

Learning poverty

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

There is a technocratic way of describing the problem of galloping illiteracy. It is called learning poverty. The World Bank defines learning poverty as being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.

And according to the World Bank, learning poverty among 10 year old Filipinos is now at a record high of 90 percent. This means only one in 10 Filipino children can read by this age.

Maybe this is how our political leaders want it… a population of illiterate people they can easily exploit. Even before the pandemic, our elementary and high school pupils have been testing at the bottom of their international peers.

A responsible president should have called a national emergency and organized a concerted effort to improve the quality of education. But it was business as usual, and now we are on track to have a fast growing, but illiterate and unemployable future population who will likely remain miserably poor the rest of their lives.

Some educators are understandably worried. Children should be able to read by age 10. How else can they learn math, science, and everything else?

If children cannot read by age 10 they will find it more difficult to catch up. The brain is not as absorptive as they grow older and the same factors that prevented them from learning how to read will still be there.

There are many reasons why children are unable to read by age 10. Poor nutrition since birth has compromised the ability of their brains to absorb learning.

Because of extreme poverty, many pupils go to school hungry. Again, this affects the ability of the brain to learn.

Then there is the quality of teachers, the quality of textbooks and the quality of the learning environment... all affect the learning process.

So millions of children graduate from elementary school and enter high school without the necessary basic reading skill.

The problem gets tossed to the high school teachers. But they are supposed to teach them other things like algebra, history, physics, and chemistry among others. High school teachers assume their students know how to read.

Some say parents are to blame. They are no longer as engaged in educating their children compared to our parents some generations ago. Maybe many parents can’t help their children because they also can’t read. This has been a multi-generational problem our government has ignored.

Students should learn how to read in the elementary grades or even in kindergarten. Indeed, by the time they get to Grade 2, the ability to read is assumed.

Before COVID-19, learning poverty in the Philippines was already at 69.5 percent.  The pandemic made things even worse as our learning poverty rose to as high as 90 percent.

Because of the lockdowns, we stopped in-person schooling. DepEd relied on online classes or its hybrid system wherein students answered learning modules or watched television or listened to the radio for lessons.

According to a World Bank report, as of March 2021, distance schooling in the Philippines covered only 20 percent of households with schoolchildren – the lowest rate alongside Ethiopia. This is not surprising because most of the country lacks access to the internet and the rest suffer slow connection.

ABS-CBN used to broadcast the Knowledge Channel’s curriculum-based lessons, covering even remote areas.  Studies have shown KC’s modules have been very helpful in the learning process. That was lost when Duterte shut down ABS-CBN.

“Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners,” the World Bank said.

NEDA admitted as much… that the state of education has suffered significantly in the absence of face-to-face learning. Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua pointed out that “To our knowledge, no other country in East Asia closed their schools for face-to-face learning for an entire year.”

A NEDA presentation I wrote about recently noted the inability of some students to engage in distance learning resulting in an enrollment decline of 1.1 million. Some 865 private schools reportedly closed down.

“Based on US studies, online learning is only around 52 percent as effective as face-to-face learning. Other forms of learning (e.g., module) may be less effective and are estimated at 37 percent as effective as face-to-face learning,” NEDA noted.

For the school year 2021-2022, only 120 public and private schools in areas with low infection rates will be allowed to have very limited face-to-face learning. There is uncertainty when students will be allowed to go to school physically.

Secretary Chua warned that the consequences of no face-to-face classes include: less learning, and lower future income, productivity, and competitiveness.

ADB estimates that each year of lost schooling translates to around 10 percent permanent lower wages in the future.

“All these mean the pandemic and school closures are exacerbating the already unequal access and lower quality of education in the Philippines.”

Of course health concerns are paramount, but these have been addressed in other countries. I noticed from newspaper photos that some of our classrooms have flimsy plastic sheets to separate students from each other.

I doubt this will work at all. Since COVID is spread by air, they have to ensure proper air flow and may even have to install a system of bringing fresh air in and exhaust fans to take air out.

Indeed, when the weather is good, it is safer to have classes under shady trees out in the open. A system of rapid testing of students and teachers may also be needed to determine who is infected and must be immediately isolated. If an infection breaks out in the pilot schools, in-person classes will be delayed further.

Beyond the pandemic and the limitations it imposes, there must be a serious effort to address the reasons why our students can’t read by age 10.

At DepEd, we should have more hands-on experts out in the field addressing the problem than office-bound bureaucrats who are more interested in writing useless reports. Otherwise,our educational system will remain a failure.

Learning poverty translates to economic poverty. That’s scary. And it’s happening now.

 

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

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