Funding real intelligence

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

You could hear the gnashing of teeth from Aparri to Zamboanga when the Filipino men’s basketball team crashed out of the recent FIBA tournament with three losses, the fans’ dismay relieved only momentarily by the locals’ drubbing of arch-nemesis China. All over social media and even in the mainstream press, there was a lot of hand-wringing, with soul-piercing questions like “Is basketball really a Filipino sport?” and “How do we regain our hardcourt glory?” followed by angry demands for certain heads to roll and fresh calls for a renewed grassroots-based sports development program.

Aside from politics – arguably the most vicious blood sport hereabouts – nothing gets us Pinoys more worked up than sports (and maybe beauty contests, another kind of sport). We know all the players and coaches, can recite the history, analyze all the moves, surveille the opposition and scout and spot the best prospects. You would think that it was a national industry, although it all comes down to one thing: Pinoy pride, our fervent desire to matter in the world at large, if not be No. 1.

That’s all understandable, so hold that in your memory while I rattle off some other “sporting” statistics for the Philippines.

In a 2018 PISA ranking of 15-year-old students from more than 100 countries worldwide in terms of their abilities in reading, math and science, the Philippines scored second to last in both math and science, next only to the Dominican Republic. If that sounds bad, we scored last in reading. (The Program for International Student Assessment is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

Maybe they got something wrong? In 2019, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study or TIMMS, which covered fourth-graders from 58 countries in math and science, ranked the Philippines last. That same year, the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics, checking up on fifth-graders and their proficiency in reading, writing and math, scored the Philippines below the regional average in all three; more than 40 percent of all Filipino students tested failed to meet the minimum proficiency standard for math.

Did we hear or do I hear any gasps of dismay or demands for accountability from our government and educational leaders – or from the general public, for that matter? Of course not. The private sector has taken note, knowing they’ll be paying for these gross deficiencies down the road, but they don’t make policy, or decide the budget. Otherwise, we don’t seem to be seeing ourselves in any kind of race in global education, which just isn’t sexy or entertaining enough like singing, dancing or basketball. We’d all be insulted if anyone called us “stupid” – and these surveys don’t use the word – so we pretend that it’s not a real problem and that we can get by on our natural smarts, like we always have.

If we’re feeling feistier, we can even trot out the names of all the Pinoy Spelling Bee and Quiz Bee winners, chess grandmasters, Moot Court victors, World Poetry Laureates, inventors of this and that gizmo and so on. In the meanwhile, we scratch our heads and wonder why our neighbors like the Thais and Vietnamese are surging ahead of us. (“Why, we have nicer beaches! And didn’t we teach those people advanced rice technology?”)

So instead of ensuring adequate funding for programs, reforms and resources to address these shameful scores, what do we do?

We cut the budget of the Philippine Science High School System – our flagship secondary school system, especially in math and science – from P3 billion to P2.7 billion, an 11 percent reduction. Not only the PSHS, but other agencies in our science and technology cluster found their 2024 budgets slashed as well – a 14.17 percent budget cut for the Advanced Science and Technology Institute, 18.04 percent for the Food and Nutrition Research Institute and 83.7 percent cut for the National Research Council of the Philippines.

“We can no longer sustain our cloud-based Knowledge Hub or KHUB learning system because of this cut,” PSHS executive director Lilia Habacon was quoted as saying. “We developed KHUB during the pandemic, and it was being accessed by 10,000 students.” The PSHS System now comprises 16 science high schools nationwide. “Even as we’ve returned to face-to-face learning, many of our modules remain online, and the students really learn from there.” The cut will also halt the system’s infrastructure projects such as gymnasiums, dormitories and multipurpose halls in Mimaropa, Zamboanga, Soccsksargen, Calabarzon and Caraga.

The Department of Budget and Management says that the cut corresponds to “38 non-recurring and terminating locally-funded projects in FY 2023,” but as Dir. Habacon points out, there are clearly many ongoing and vital projects that need continuing funding through to at least next year.

The DBM also took the PSHS to task for its lack of “absorptive capacity,” meaning that it couldn’t spend its allotted funds fast enough. And here’s where the irony of this whole budget business and our national priorities really gets me. (Granted, the problem goes much deeper and at more basic levels than the PSHS, but if they can do that to our premier high school, what do you think they’re doing with the less illustrious others?)

The Office of the Vice President (OVP) – under recent criticism for spending P125 million in “confidential funds” in 11 days in 2022 – claimed in its defense that it did so not in 11 days, but 19. Oh, OK – is that supposed to make us feel better? Does that qualify in the DBM’s books as proof of “absorptive capacity?”

Confidential funds here, intelligence funds there in the hundreds of millions, and the recipients even feel demeaned if they’re asked to account for the money, for which their fawning friends in Congress are only too happy to give a free pass.

Meanwhile, we scrutinize every line in our budget for science education, and probably in other areas as well, and get all uptight when we spot some tiny item we can’t figure out, like some alien cockroach, and squash it with gusto, thinking we’ve done our job. When it comes to funding real intelligence, we balk.

The sad part is, we’ll get away with it, because appallingly low science, math and reading proficiency doesn’t get people worked up as much as poor basketball tactics do. We don’t even know who our National Scientists are (there are now 42 of them), nor care what they’ve done. Fire the education coach? What for? No harm, no foul.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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