Storm clouds
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2019 - 12:00am

The questions required analytical answers rather than mere factual information.

Also, the test was administered in English, the official medium of instruction in the Philippines from third grade up unlike in countries such as China and Thailand where the native tongue is the medium of instruction.

These are some of the possible reasons being eyed by the Department of Education (DepEd) to explain the bottom ranking of Filipino 15-year-old pupils in the latest Program on International Student Assessment.

PISA is administered upon a country’s request by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is the first time since the test was launched in 2000 that the Philippines has participated.

Why ask for it now? Because there have been troubling signs for some time, according to Education Secretary Leonor Briones – such as in the results of the National Achievement Test. NAT is administered in Grades 6, 10 and 12.

“You see it already. It’s like may storm signals na. You see the clouds forming,” Briones told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News a day after the PISA results were released.

*      *      *

Because of those storm clouds, Briones pointed out, DepEd had in fact launched – a day before the PISA results came out – a four-pronged program to address weaknesses in the education system.

Its acronym is KITE, an object that soars, Briones explained – for K-12, Infrastructure for a better learning environment, Teacher skills upscaling, and Engagement with civil society, mass media and other sectors.

The thrust of education in this age of rapid advances in science and technology, Briones said, should be in line with the rise of  “homo deus” – the super-man or human god. This concept is explored by Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari – currently Briones’ author of choice – in his book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.”

How do you do this in a country where students are ranking low in reading comprehension, that most basic requirement for learning?

Educators, thankfully, don’t just carp about problems, they also look for solutions.

DepEd is setting up a National Educators Academy of the Philippines, to provide continuing skills upscaling to teachers.

Several top private schools are also currently working with DepEd to share their experiences in curriculum and teacher development as well as general management.

Lessons can be packaged, Briones said, to make learning exciting even in courses that are not considered glamorous but are critical to national development such as agriculture.

“It has to be interesting. It has to be sexy,” she told us. “If we stick to the way we used to teach before, then our students will be lost.”

Since Briones is a fan of Harari, perhaps DepEd can get pointers on agriculture education from the Israelis, who have perfected drip irrigation and grown in the desert not just dates, luscious pomegranates and olives but also wine grapes, bananas and mangoes for export. One of the most impressive vineyards I’ve visited was in Israel.

Even mathematics can be taught in such a way that will hold students’ attention. Briones cited a father and son tandem of mathematicians who developed a basic math textbook using the story of Juan Tamad, with an exercise in mathematical calculation at the end of each chapter.

*      *      *

The Filipino students included in PISA, with the sampling cutting across income brackets from both public and private schools, landed at the bottom among 79 countries in reading comprehension. They ranked 78th in math and science.

Briones said the results were not unexpected. But there were still some intriguing points that emerged in the PISA results. Among them: girls performed better than boys – a point that Briones said could be due to the delayed maturity of boys. She stressed that this did not mean girls are brighter than boys.

Students from private schools and higher income households performed better. This is a cause for concern, considering that there are only 14,000 private schools and 47,000 public schools.

The top performers were from Metro Manila, although those from Region 7 or Central Visayas did better in science and those from the Cordilleras scored high in reading comprehension.

Briones can’t explain her home region’s better performance in science. But the performance of the Cordilleras is understandable; long-time residents of Sagada, educated by native English speakers, have the language proficiency of their mentors.

The lowest scores were registered among students from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao – one of the poorest regions in the country.

Students covered by K-12 also performed better than those who didn’t, Briones noted. Obviously, she is against scrapping the program, although she supports a review of K-12.

Singapore topped the test overall. No surprise there; when the city-state went into technical recession some years ago, I asked its ambassador in Manila what measures they were taking to address the economic slowdown. His quick reply: they were increasing their investment in public education.

The PISA should galvanize the Philippines into action – including increasing public investment in education.

*      *      *

The global standard is for education spending to constitute five percent of gross domestic product. “We are not anywhere near the five percent,” Briones said.

Our education infrastructure is highly vulnerable to disasters. Some 1,700 schools need reconstruction or repair due to earthquakes, typhoons and other calamities. Even in schools without damage, WiFi connectivity is weak, she said.

There are the hindrances to learning brought about by poverty and personal problems: poor nutrition, which stunts brain development; emotional distress from family matters.

The country, Briones notes, lacks not only skilled teachers in math and science but also guidance counselors for troubled youths. A master’s degree is required for this important job, but the pay is modest.

Technology has been a boon for education, but it can also be a bane. There is less urgency, for example, for children to memorize multiplication tables because cell phones have calculators.

Mass media also has a powerful influence on learning. Briones cited TV shows revolving around educational question-and-answer games.

“Ang daming mali” – there were so many mistakes, she sighed, in both facts and grammar. “I have watched some of them. We have to gear for accuracy… our school now is so much bigger than our formal school.”

With so many challenges, all sectors must be on board if we want our students to do better in the PISA. “Every Filipino has something to say about education,” Briones said.

We can think positive: when you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s no other way to go but up.

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