PISA results and education's crisis of credibility

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

A nation’s development starts with its educational system. This educational system must harness the promise or potential that young people give to the future development of the country.

Incidentally, the Philippines is blessed with a younger demographic compared to other countries, particularly the advanced or highly-developed nations in Asia and Europe, which face challenges due to an ageing population that puts significant strain on their social security and pension systems.

Given our much younger population, emphasis should be placed on providing high-quality education to our youth to ensure their future competitiveness. Imagine what a dominant, highly-educated, highly skillful, younger, and dynamic population can do for the country. We can become the center of innovation in the Asia-Pacific region, with a labor force that is not only highly equipped to fill the coffers of social security but also to ensure a means of production that is both highly efficient and more productive.

But the dismal performance of the Philippines in the 2022 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) throws cold water on such ambitions. The PISA report, which was released Tuesday last week, indicates that the mean scores for participating countries in the 2022 assessment were 472 in mathematics, 476 in reading, and 485 in science. In contrast, the Philippines' scores were significantly lower, falling approximately 120 points below these averages: 355 in mathematics, 347 in reading, and 373 in science. This must be addressed seriously, not just with mere rhetoric but through comprehensive, and possibly painful, reforms.

I scoured news reports about the Philippines' PISA performance, yet I couldn't find any that identified the factors causing our poor results. I understand that it might be too much to expect the government to openly admit where our educational system is falling short. Thus, it was not surprising that DepEd's reaction focused on pandemic recovery in the education sector and the 'various reforms' being implemented or planned, such as the 'Catch-up Fridays' in public schools, to address the problem.

Rep. France Castro of ACT Teachers party-list, in a statement, proposed solutions but they too were general in nature and focused mainly on the need for increased educational funding. Castro advocated for raising the education budget to at least 6% of GDP. This increase should be allocated towards building more classrooms, improving teacher salaries, and revising the curriculum to be more relevant to Philippine contexts and to simplify student learning.

I am not an educational expert, but I urge our policymakers to discuss a specific aspect of our educational system: The so-called 'no child left behind' policy, also called “mass promotion”. I first heard about this from some public school teachers in 2017, who were my classmates in a master's program. They expressed their dismay over this policy. Although it isn't an official policy, teachers are under immense pressure to assign passing grades to students regardless of the latter’s actual performance. This practice allows students to advance to the next grade level, even if they are not truly qualified.

To me, this represents a betrayal of the highest level for our students and parents. Parents may be happy to see their children graduate from elementary or high school, but they often overlook the likely possibility that these students are ill-prepared for the job market. Moreover, these students might be incapable of driving innovation and enhancing the means of production in their communities.

Without credible improvements, we face the prospect of nurturing a large young populace that is ill-equipped for the demands of the local and global economy, potentially perpetuating a pattern of underachievement and limited opportunities.

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