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Opinion

Education crisis

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The secretary of education is correct: the current sorry state of Philippine education is a product of decades of neglect and missteps.

Everyone recognizes this, including the World Bank. So Secretary Leonor Briones shouldn’t take it personally and get touchy when a person or organization comes up with an assessment that is unflattering to the state of Philippine education.

Also, people do recognize that it was under her watch as Department of Education (DepEd) chief that the Philippines participated in international assessment tests – precisely to get a clear picture of the competencies of Filipino students compared with their peers in other countries.

Our students, to everyone’s dismay (but not surprise), ended up near or at the bottom of the assessment tests on subjects that are critical for survival in a highly competitive global environment: reading comprehension, mathematics and science.

Philippine education was already in crisis before the pandemic struck. We don’t even know where to start in the daunting task of fixing a badly broken system. Briones has an unenviable job.

A basic problem is the language of instruction. DepEd itself has acknowledged the weaknesses in the implementation of the program to use the mother tongue in early childhood education. Offhand it makes sense: it’s easier for children to learn using the language in their household. But not all households in the same community use the same mother tongue. And there aren’t enough teachers fluent in the dialects.

How can kids understand math and science if they can’t even understand what’s being said?

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As for reading comprehension, it seems to me that in whatever language, many among the younger generations have simply lost interest in reading. They get information and communicate using abbreviated words and ideas, emojis and message stickers. They have little time for long stories that provide crucial context and nuancing about current events.

Parents are grateful for the novels that have managed to get the kids to read, such as the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Divergent series. But Pinoy children who are poor in English lack similar alternative reading options, in language that they can understand.

Teaching math and the sciences in English can be complicated enough; teaching the concepts in Filipino or the major dialects – which lack words for many of the concepts – can be tougher. You need truly accomplished teachers for the job.

I’ve always been in denial about being math-challenged. I blamed my teachers in high school for my failure to expand my math comprehension beyond the basics. Why could I easily grasp grade school math but couldn’t make heads or tails of algebra and trigonometry? At the state university, I could grasp Statistics, but I would have earned higher honors if I hadn’t nearly flunked Math 11.

Even in science, I wonder why I aced my biology classes from high school to university, while chemistry eluded my comprehension. Was that purely my own intellectual failure or would better teachers have made a difference?

There was no language barrier for me; my parents spoke English extensively with us children, and they instilled in us a love for reading both English and Tagalog books, comic books, Pinoy komiks – any reading material we could lay our hands on. My earliest textbooks were those sleek ones made in USA featuring David and Ann (See Ann go; go Ann go.)

And yet I still failed to grasp high school math (and geometry and physics, for that matter). Maybe there is faulty wiring in my head.

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As far back as the 19th century, Jose Rizal had already been emphasizing the importance of education in national development.

All advanced economies invest heavily in education. I have written that when Singapore went into recession in previous years, its diplomats told me that one of the first things they did was to boost their resources for education.

We can see some of the consequences of substandard education: people can’t tell fake news from real; they believe they will die after two years if they get vaccinated against COVID. They can’t make informed choices during elections; populists rule.

To be fair, DepEd can’t do it alone; this will have to be a multi-agency and multisectoral effort. Especially now that the COVID pandemic is wreaking havoc on education. Unfortunately for Leonor Briones, COVID struck during her watch.

DepEd has done its best to cope, ensuring that teachers will not lose their jobs, private schools will remain open and it will not be a wasted year for students.

Despite all the best efforts, however, “no one left behind” is impossible under the circumstances. Approximately 1.1 million students failed to enroll in basic education for school year 2020-2021. If COVID-related problems again force them to stay out of school this coming academic year, it would be difficult for them to catch up with their former classmates.

Thanks to COVID, the educational divide between rich and poor has widened into a chasm. Small private schools have been forced to shut down because their students have transferred to public schools where tuition is free and the required gadgets for distance learning might be subsidized.

Even among those who enrolled, many students (along with their teachers and parents) are struggling with blended learning – whether using gadgets or printed learning modules.

Learning from home has also deprived poor students of badly needed nutrition supplements that they used to get through school feeding programs. All pediatric experts have stressed the importance of proper nourishment for childhood learning. The lack of nutrients stunts not only physical growth but also mental development.

Vaccination had raised hopes that face-to-face classes might be possible in certain pilot areas when public schools open on Sept. 13. But now the more virulent Delta variant is moving inexorably toward community transmission. Already, breakthrough infections are being reported among some of the fully vaccinated in our country, regardless of the vaccine brand – yes, even Pfizer.

With another school year burdened by COVID, the country should put off participation in another PISA or Program for International Student Assessment in the near future.

A country’s most precious resource is its people, and quality education is the best way to ensure optimum performance of that resource. With the pandemic deepening the crisis in education, the sector must be given the emergency attention that it deserves.

DEPED EDUCATION
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