Learning poverty

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

A chart from a study of the World Bank talks of learning poverty, now a mega crisis for our country. The chart shows us at the bottom in a list of 10 countries with 90.9 percent learning poverty among school-going children.

Learning poverty is defined as inability to read and understand age-appropriate texts by age 10. That means almost all of our children are way behind their peers in the region in basic skills that matter most in our world today.

Our disastrous 90.9 percent rating compares (within ASEAN) to top ranked Singapore at 2.8 percent; Vietnam at 18.1 percent; Thailand at 23.4 percent; Malaysia at 42 percent; Indonesia at 52.8 percent. What happened?

We were once the center for education in the region. Now it is clear that our educational system has collapsed. We cannot sugarcoat this national disaster that has dire consequences for the next generations.

My worst fear, something I have written here a number of times, the Philippines will not be able to benefit from a demographic sweet spot that a young, fast-growing workforce can bring in terms of market buying power. Because our young population is basically illiterate in an increasingly sophisticated IT world, they will be locked out of the best jobs and have little buying power. We will be a failed state of angry, hungry, jobless people.

Experts tell us this situation shouldn’t come as a surprise. Apparently, DepEd knew how big the problem was and decided to sweep it under the rug. At one point, DepEd no longer wanted to cooperate with international testing because they already knew how bad it is and the tests would confirm their abysmal failure.

Instead, they continued with their merry money-making ways of producing substandard textbooks and buying overpriced equipment, like those outdated laptops.

An expert told our Viber group that we do a national achievements test (NAT) almost annually for grade 6 and grade 10. Unfortunately, DepEd doesn’t release the results for public analysis and discussion – treating test results like a state secret.

Releasing the test results for public discussion would have alerted policymakers and the public about the problem. You can’t start to offer solutions without detailed data.

Said our expert: “We (the DepEd, even CHED, PRC, and HEIs) must change our attitudes towards test results and learn from them well. We can’t diagnose well if we don’t have good information. We can’t work with hypotheses forever. We need to find rigorously validated solutions.”

I remember that even the DOF castigated the World Bank for publishing its report online. Sec. Sonny should have used the report to wake up DepEd. The country was not embarrassed by the report, it is a victim of incompetent education bureaucrats in the Duterte and other past administrations.

And the dire consequences of our learning poverty are about to happen sooner than we think. Former NEDA Secretary Ernesto Pernia pointed out that “by 2028 there’ll be 10 million more Pinoys, around half of them from poor families.

“Currently, the Philippines already has 28 million children/youth in basic education. Spending per student is a fraction of what other ASEAN countries spend. Also, our teachers are subpar as the good ones go overseas. All this is an indication of low-quality learning.”

Rep. Joey Salceda, one of only two serious economists in the House, sounded the alarm over the World Bank report saying that more than 80 percent of Filipino children do not know what they should have learned in schools.

Rep. Joey pointed out the report found that across the three global assessments, only 10 to 22 percent of Grade 4, 5, and 9 students in the Philippines posted scores “at or above minimum proficiency.”

“We will get through this pandemic. Economic crises come and go. But literacy and its permanent effects on growth and inter-generational poverty stay. That is why this report is alarming. Unless we make drastic changes to this situation, our actual economic growth will always be much less than our potential. And poor kids will likely have poor families and have poor kids,” Salceda said.

Joey is right. Learning poverty is a generational curse.

Salceda is pushing for a Comprehensive Education Reform Agenda to overhaul the country’s curriculum and focus on functional skills, critical thinking, and good citizenship.

“The lack of usable skills, especially in this hypercompetitive global economy, is a life sentence to poverty. We can’t let this pass,” Salceda added.

The Albay congressman also called attention to our children being stunted and undernourished while the learning materials are “substandard” and the curriculum is “impractical”. He also noted that teachers are overworked while schools are under-equipped.

“Due to the delays in reopening of school because of  COVID-19, and for those who skipped school this year, we estimated the costs to be 0.5 to 0.7 percent of GDP [gross domestic product] this year, and 0.3 to 0.4 percent of GDP for the entire productive life of this generation of students,” he said.

But, Rep. Joey, your favorite Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte has an urgent solution to all those problems: introduce ROTC in the curriculum. With no skills to earn a decent living, our future generations will at least know how to kill. Rep. Joey should talk to his idol about her priorities.

The World Bank report (which can be googled) pointed out that education is a path out of poverty. “As in many other countries, more schooling leads to access to wage employment and higher income in the Philippines.

“The probability of employment in the formal sector rises with high educational attainment. For each additional year of education, the potential to earn income increases by 15 percent for women and by nine percent for men.

“The rate of return to education is higher for post secondary and tertiary education, particularly for women.” The World Bank said their data showed almost no households headed by a college graduate are poor.

With the government seemingly incapable of meeting the challenge, it is time to bring the private sector in.  Perhaps, a voucher system that reimburses private schools for public school students they enroll is worth a try.

DepEd should prioritize skills learning. ROTC can wait until our students can read, write, and count first.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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