It isn’t just money

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

My recent column titled “An F for Philippine Education” apparently struck a chord among many readers who messaged me to say how appalled they were by the findings of the Second Congressional Commission on Education or Edcom II. Released just last January, the commission’s report graphically displayed just how poorly young Filipinos are faring in their schooling, especially when compared to the Asian neighbors they’ll be competing with for jobs down the road.

To recapitulate just one particularly distressing finding, our best high school learners are performing at a level comparable to the worst of Singapore. I read as much as I could of the report not just to be able to write about it, but – as an educator myself – to find out how this disaster happened.

There’s clearly a lot of blame to be thrown around for this situation, but to be fair, the report makes it clear at the outset that Philippine education’s systemic failures and shortcomings go back many decades, to problems being recognized by previous studies (notably Edcom I in the early 1990s) but left unattended rather than decisively acted upon.

“This report was not crafted to point fingers,” say the report’s framers. “Our intention, instead, was to find things out and to instill a sense of urgency, along with a sense of doability – a clear horizon, and perhaps a sketch of the map toward that horizon.”

Its noble intentions notwithstanding, the report is a 400-page indictment of what successive Philippine administrations have failed to do, and it isn’t like they didn’t know or weren’t told. There’s been a plethora of studies of Philippine education between the two Edcoms in the 30 years separating them, and they’ve identified many of the same chronic problems plaguing the system today. The report identifies 28 “priority areas” such as governance and financing, in each of which specific problems and their implied solutions are discussed.

One aspect that drew my attention was that of funding, which many of us, including myself, have thought to be the big problem of Philippine education: throw more money at it, and maybe it will go away. It turns out to not be the case or, at the very least, not the only major issue. Our “more” still isn’t enough, and even with more, the money needs to be spent, and spent wisely.

At the time of Edcom I, the report notes that the Philippine government spent only 2.7 percent of GDP on education, rising to 3.6 percent from 2014 to 2022 and to a high of 3.9 percent in 2017 (do take note that these are percentages of Gross Domestic Product, not the national budget). That comes very close to the global minimum of 4.0 percent set by the Incheon Declaration, but still falls short of Malaysia’s 4.2 percent and Singapore’s incredible 25.8 percent in 2018. Even so, our expenditures on education are rising to an average of 16 to 17 percent of the national budget for 2023 and 2024, compared to 10.7 percent in 1987.

Nevertheless, we still spend significantly less on education than our Asian neighbors, and the PISA results show a direct correlation between levels of spending on education and national scores in math, reading and science. It’s also possible that we’re spending our education money in the wrong places. The report notes that: “Between 2015 and 2020, increased government allocations to education were actually mostly at the tertiary level, with per student expenditure rising from only P13,206 to P29,507. In contrast, during the same period, investments at the primary level modestly improved and even fluctuated.”

And it seems like in some cases, we’re not even spending it at all. As I noted in my earlier column, from 2018 to 2022 alone, the Department of Education had a total budget of P12.6 billion allocated to textbooks and other instructional materials, but only P4.5 billion or about a third of this was obligated and only P952 million or less than 8 percent of it was disbursed for only 27 textbooks for Grades 1 to 10, since 2012. The budget of the Commission on Higher Education grew by 633 percent from 2013 to 2023, but it wasn’t spent on the additional people that its expanding responsibilities required, with its staffing complement increasing by only 22.7 percent, from 543 to 666 within the same period.

There’s a lot of room for reform in education, but Edcom II zeroed in on a problem even more basic than funding in trying to change things – one of institutional culture. “Scholars have criticized the sector’s inability to implement reforms due
to frequent changes in leadership, resistance to change within the government and the agency’s ‘culture of obeisance’ (Bautista et al., 2008) – a bureaucracy accustomed to jaded compliance.”

This reminded me of a point raised by a reader named Peter Traenkner, an expat who recently visited Norway where their youngest son and his family live.

“Almost everybody admires the Nordic educational system,” Peter wrote me. “Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland) was generations of phenomenal educational policy. The 19th-century Nordic elites realized that if their countries were to prosper they had to create truly successful ‘folk schools’ for the best educated among them.

“They realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society. Education meant for them the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person. For them education is intended to change the way students see the world, to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things – between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

“The Nordic educators worked hard to cultivate each student’s sense of connection to the nation: ‘That which a person did not burn for in his young years, he will not easily burn for as a man.’ That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. All Nordic countries have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between freedom and communal responsibility.

“High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interaction of life, when institutions of society function well. When you look at the Nordic educational system, you realize that the problem is not only training people with the right job skills. It’s having the right lifelong development model to instill the mode of consciousness people need to thrive in a complex pluralistic society.”

In other words, we have to remember that education is about much more than teaching people the right skills so they can become good workers and earn good money. It has to teach them good citizenship, and their stake in the success of the nation.

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

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