It is obvious that the Philippine Government is struggling to comply with the constitutional mandate that the State is obliged to provide free quality education at the basic education level for all Filipino children and youth. The inadequacies of the State are either due to limited funds or poor governance or both.
As in other areas of attaining the common good, the efforts of the government to attain the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of quality education for all must be strongly complemented by initiatives of business and civil society. Among emerging markets, the Philippines is notable for the role of both the business sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting the common good, oftentimes replacing the State in what it is mandated to do by the Constitution. What in other countries in which the State practices good governance, such as Singapore, Finland and Germany, are delivered by the government to the public, in the Philippines the private sector is oftentimes obliged to provide by default. An outstanding example in the field of education is the non-profit organization founded in 2006 by top CEOs, the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd). This NGO is the business community’s response to the need for greater education and economic alignment. Its advocacies include teacher quality and workforce development.
In a recent multisectoral assembly, the PBEd presented an Agenda for Education Reform that could lead, among others, to certain legislative measures. To get as wide a participation among the public in pushing for the implementation of the necessary action program, let me present here the main items in the PBEd Agenda:
1. Address malnutrition and stunting among zero- to five-year-old children and students through a strong implementation of the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition;
2. Increase the budget and resources for education: widen the pie and ensure accountability;
3. Establish an Autonomous Assessment Agency: consistently diagnose strengths and weaknesses, and target interventions;
4. Infuse the system with the best and brightest teachers through a National Teacher Education Scholarship Bill;
5. Bridge the gap and strengthen the implementation of the mother tongue-based multilingual education.
As regards the first item in the Agenda, it is a fact that even before they step foot in the classroom, hunger and malnutrition hinder our children from learning. One of three children under the age of five is undernourished and thus not ready to learn. Schools were supposed to help address this problem. Their continuous closure during the pandemic made it more difficult to remediate malnutrition among the children. As of the end of the third quarter of 2020, the Department of Education’s feeding program had an unobligated allotment of P6.8 billion. In this regard, the spontaneous response of private citizens to the community pantry movement started by a lone woman in Quezon City, which spread like wild fire all over the archipelago, is another example of citizens’ response to a national problem. Also to be noted are efforts of NGOs like the Philippine Food Bank Foundation to channel millions of pesos worth of soon-to-expire (SOTEX) manufactured food products and surplus food from restaurants and other eating establishments to orphanages and feeding clinics of schools and local government units (LGUs).
In this regard, LGUs all over the Philippines should take note of the very successful program of Quezon Province to implement the “First 1,000 Days of Life, Maternal and Child Healthcare Program” which consists of a package of healthcare and nutrition intervention in the first 1,000 days of life of the child (starting in the mother’s womb) and its pregnant mother. This was launched as far back as 2015 and has been strongly endorsed by such international organizations as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). At the level of the municipality, the example that can be followed is a similar 1,000 Days Program being implemented by the municipality of Quezon in Palawan. This is a project of the Food and Nutrition Research Center (FNRI) and the Department of Science and Technology (DoST). It cannot be over emphasized that the battle for quality education is already lost if millions of children are undernourished or malnourished in their first 1,000 days. The damage to the brain is irreversible.
As earlier mentioned, the Philippine Government is spending only 17% of its budget on education, while our more progressive neighbors are spending 20% or more. The PBEd recommends that when the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) to LGUs is finally implemented, following the Mandanas ruling, the LGUs should appropriate at least 20% of its annual allotment for education. There should be an increase in local accountability and the local school boards should be empowered and strengthened. There should be 100% utilization of the Special Education Fund (SEF) as well as full parental engagement. There should also be decentralization of authority, devolving more power to school division officials and principals. At the national level, serious efforts should be exerted to attain the 20% of the national budget target for education.
The additional resources should be especially directed towards solving the “last-mile” problem. According to the Department of Education, in 2020, there were 4,536 waterless schools in the country. There were 1,562 unenergized schools. Among the public-school pupils studying at home during the pandemic, 6.2 million had insufficient load in their digital devices, 6.9 million had unstable connections, and 6.8 million lacked gadgets. Given the realistic expectation that these last-mile challenges will take time to address, it is imperative that face-to-face classes be introduced as early as possible once the pandemic is put under reasonable control. Online learning and even blended learning will leave millions of school children behind unless physical presence in the classroom is soon allowed. Blended learning will work only for the children of the well-to-do (A, B, and some C households) who have access to the best digital devices and efficient internet connections.
The third recommendation is the establishment of an Autonomous Assessment Agency. The Philippine National Education Assessment Program will be implemented by an independent Philippine National Education Assessment Authority, modelled after Australia’s National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). What are assessed are reading, writing, numeracy and the so-called 21st century skills. The grade levels assessed are Grades 4, 9, and 12. Sampling will be utilized with regular and consistent diagnostic testing. There will be student and school summary reports. This autonomous assessment agency will allow the Department of Education to focus on teaching and learning interventions.
The fourth item in the Agenda has to do with the quality of the teachers. We should attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession by implementing a teacher education scholarship program. The granting of scholarships will be merit-based. The successful candidates will be given a full scholarship to study in select high-quality Teacher Education Institutions (TEIs), whether public or private. To maximize learning, each student will be assigned a mentor who will closely follow her or his progress, not only in academic matters but also in the values and virtues that are especially relevant to the teaching profession. In the contract of scholarship, there will be incorporated a return of service obligation. Each scholar will have a guaranteed teaching position after graduation.
The fifth relates to an issue in which there is no consensus among the experts and policy makers. It has to do with the mother-tongue based (MTB) multilingual education (MLE) law. Under this MTB-MLE law, the mother tongue (there are 19 mother tongues in the Philippines for this purpose) is the medium of instruction during Grades 1 to 3, after which there is a transition to Filipino and English. International research has shown that students with well-developed skills in their first language have been shown to acquire additional languages more easily and fully and that, in turn, has a positive impact on academic achievement. Second language learners use what they know in their own language to help develop other languages. The positive transfer effect has been found especially significant in reading. Under this MTB-MLE law, it is expected that by the end of Grade 3, students will enjoy communicating in their first language on familiar topics for a variety of purposes and audiences using basic vocabulary and phrases, read texts in their mother tongue with understanding and create their own stories and texts in their mother tongue.
This is the theory. Unfortunately, the reality is that for a variety of reasons, most Filipino students — especially in the public schools — are not able to transition to English well enough to be competent in reading in their later years.
Considering that our 15-year-old students who participate in international achievement tests like that of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) take the tests in English, and their lack of fluency in English is a handicap. This fact could partly explain why they do very poorly in these tests. To address this problem, the PBEd recommends that the implementation of the MTB-MLE law be strengthened through: a.) Teacher training (pre- and in-service) in MTB-MLE; b.) Adequate and quality teaching and learning materials for students written in the mother tongue: and, c.) Sticking to 19 mother tongues and avoid undue multiplication. This approach rests on the assumption that mother-tongue based teaching and learning, if done well, positively correlates to better learning.
In a consultation meeting with legislators, however, there were dissenting opinions from this view. The harsh reality in the Philippines is that an effective implementation of the MTB-MLE law is made very difficult because of the paucity of resources that can address the problem of producing teaching and learning materials in 16 mother tongues. Only three fourths of students have access to textbooks per student. The rest have to share textbooks with others. Only half have access to libraries. This shortage of materials has been compounded with the need to make available all sorts of learning materials that have been made necessary by blended learning during the pandemic. The peculiar linguistic situation in the Philippines in which there are numerous mother tongues may make it necessary to review the MTB-MLE law and already introduce English as one of the media of instruction even during the pre-school years. This is one of the contentious issues that can only be resolved by constant multi-sectoral research and dialogues that are facilitated by civil society organizations like the PBEd. The establishment of an Autonomous Assessment Agency will also help in arriving at more practical solutions to this admittedly very difficult language problem.
Having resided in Europe for a couple years, I observed that some of the most successful multi-lingual programs in education were in regions like Catalunya in Spain and countries like Switzerland and Germany. While teaching in Barcelona, I observed that Catalan is the mother tongue used from the very start of basic education. The Catalans, however, are also sufficiently fluent in Castilian (Spanish). The multilingual society par excellence is Switzerland. The Germans come close as a multilingual people. One has to remember, however, that these societies have per capita incomes 10 or more times that of the Philippines. They can afford to spend huge amounts in providing teaching and learning materials to teachers and students in their MTB-MLE educational programs. We may have to make the hard choice of giving priority to English in our language policy because of its crucial role in making possible two sectors which account for 12% to 14% of our GDP, the OFW and the BPO-IT sectors.
As regards the cultivation of fluency in the national language, Filipino, we just have to rely on the widespread use of Filipino in the mass media and in the film and entertainment industry. An optimistic note in this continuing controversy is the finding of linguists that children who are exposed to the sounds of different languages from the cradle find it easier to learn several languages when they grow up. This may partly explain why our 10 million or more OFWs, most of them with modest academic attainments, are able to adjust to the linguistic requirements of their hosts, even in countries whose languages foreigners find difficult to learn, like Japan, China, and Finland (in fact, in one of my visits to Helsinki, I was impressed to listen to Filipina domestic helpers speaking the esoteric language of the Finns).
Those who have difficulties learning new languages are individuals who were exposed to only one sound in their childhood, like North Americans whose mother tongue is English.
To be continued.
Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a Visiting Professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.