Learning poverty

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

At age 10, I was in fifth grade and avidly going through our family’s complete set of Book of Knowledge children’s encyclopedia.

Reading has always been one of my greatest pleasures. It opens new worlds for me. Growing up I devoured everything, from Pinoy illustrated komiks to Marvel comics and Mad magazine to encyclopedias, classic novels and modern works both fiction and non-fiction.

The thought that 85 percent of Filipino 10-year-olds are deprived of the joy of reading, unable to comprehend simple texts and stories, is so saddening. Even more tragic is the impact of this learning impairment on their prospects for improving their lot.

Education is supposed to open opportunities for advancement in life, to narrow the yawning inequities in societies such as ours.

But even with universal free education from kindergarten to college, the quality of Philippine education is in dire need of improvement.

Some Filipinos with modest means have won scholarships to the world’s top schools. Except in the University of the Philippines where tuition is state-subsidized, however, quality education has largely become a luxury beyond the reach of the majority in our country.

Two years of distance learning due to the COVID lockdowns worsened the situation. Department of Education officials say 1.1 million students failed to enroll in basic education during school year 2020-2021, the first year of the pandemic. For the current school year, DepEd reported a 3.8 percent increase in enrollment.

Last November, the World Bank estimated that a staggering 90 percent of Filipino 10-year-olds could not read or understand a simple story.

The figure improved to over 85 percent in a recent study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund together with the World Bank and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The World Bank calls it learning poverty, which was placed at 69.5 percent pre-pandemic. Of 122 countries included in the Unicef-Unesco-WB report, the Philippines has had the longest school shutdowns – over 70 weeks as of mid-February this year, when limited in-person classes were gradually resuming.

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Learning poverty was merely compounded by the lockdowns. Several other countries that suspended in-person classes for shorter periods than the Philippines also suffer from learning poverty of around 85 percent. They include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mozambique and Myanmar. Their common characteristic is plain and simple poverty.

Obviously, it’s a problem that hits the poor the hardest. In exclusive private schools in our country where English is the medium of instruction from Day One, children enter kindergarten seamlessly; English is their second language at home or even effectively their mother tongue. Many have two to three years of kiddie school before first grade, and they play with gadgets as soon as they can poke a keyboard or safely grip a mobile phone.

For public schools in underdeveloped communities, we can’t even decide which language or dialect is the best medium of instruction to get children started on the road to formal education. It turns out that the mother tongue is not always the same for all households even in a small community.

With weak language proficiency, reading comprehension and learning in general are impaired from the outset. How can a child internalize ideas imparted in incomprehensible words?

This state of incomprehension is compounded and carried over to the higher school levels, when the learner, tired of the inability to absorb most of the lessons, may decide to drop out and just rely on street smarts for survival.

I have met people who told me they dropped out of high school or even grade school not only because they wanted to help their parents earn a living, but also because they could no longer understand their lessons and thought formal education had become a useless exercise.

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Learning poverty stunts mental development. For the very poor, the problem is aggravated by physical stunting due to lack of proper nourishment.

Health experts have stressed that malnourishment and undernourishment stunt all aspects of physical growth, including the proper development of the brain and mental capacities.

To address the problem, the government has a supplemental feeding program in public grade schools, which includes a free supply of milk in tetra pack.

Naturally, this program had to be suspended during the two-year pandemic lockdown. I don’t think poor families could afford to compensate for the lack. Milk in particular, rich in nutrients essential for child development, costs around P30 per 250 ml pack.

Curbing the spread of COVID compelled the government to suspend in-person learning and resort to distance education, with children barred from even going outdoors.

Critics of this policy must consider that while children have shown strong natural resistance to COVID, the typical Filipino household is large, including persons who are at high risk of infection: grandparents, and possibly the child’s aunts and uncles who might have comorbidities.

While children might resist the coronavirus, they can carry it. In a cramped dwelling, this can mean infection of the entire household. For vulnerable members particularly the unvaccinated, this can be fatal.

Even today, “mild” Omicron is killing so many mostly unvaccinated people in Hong Kong, where bodies are piling up in morgues.

So the resumption of face-to-face classes is being rolled out with care, since the country still has too many vulnerable elderly and immune compromised who are unvaccinated or refusing to get boosted.

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Safety from COVID unfortunately has had an adverse impact on learning. But the pandemic lockdown merely aggravated a long-festering crisis in Philippine education.

Members of older generations have told me that if quality education is there in the first place, the two-year suspension of in-person learning need not be written off as lost years. They point out that their education was also disrupted by World War II when many schools were shut down, but they recovered just fine.

We aren’t investing enough in providing quality education – with emphasis on “quality.” Universal free education has translated into substandard services.

There’s the popular proverb that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

We haven’t gone beyond doling out fish per day to the needy, and we’re reaping the consequences in many aspects of our society, including governance and elections.


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