“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”
— Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
This article comes out a bit later than the global celebration of International Literacy Day which is celebrated worldwide in September. The theme for this year was “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces,” a timely reminder of what needs to be done as the world continues to navigate a safe return to schools for learners of varying age after more than two years of disrupted learning.
Students lost basic numeracy and literacy skills due to the prolonged period of learning outside the classroom where such skills could have been acquired and this loss is too significant to be dismissed. According to UNICEF, learning losses due to school closures in low- and middle-income countries were up by 17% from its pre-pandemic status. From 53% before the onset of COVID-19, the percentage of 10-year-olds who are unable to read and write is now at 70%. This defines the very concept of learning poverty, an indicator introduced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics to refer to the lack of proficiency in reading and understanding simple texts at age 10. Resolving it involves a retooling of academic policies fit for post-pandemic normalcy and a serious rethinking of the role of literacy in today’s society.
In the Philippines, the outlook towards this crisis is met with concern, a bit of defiance, but overall treated as a matter of national urgency. This is not without reason. Based on a recently released and updated version of the World Bank’s State of Global Learning Poverty (2022), the country’s learning poverty ranks among the highest in the Asian region. With learning poverty at 90.9%, the Philippines outranked all its ASEAN neighbors with the exception of Lao PDR (97.7%) and Brunei (no assessment included). Outranking does not mean the country fares well. On the contrary, the scoring is such that, the higher the number is, the poorer the performance is. Singapore, a small country with population that is just a fraction of the Philippines’, performed better at 2.8%. Indonesia, though more than double the Philippines’ population, likewise scored better at 52.8%.
THE NEED FOR AN EDUCATION PRESIDENT
The dismal report on the country’s state of education was not lost on key stakeholders. Thus, it was not surprising that this became an integral part of critical conversations leading to the May 2022 national elections. The Philippine Business for Education, an advocacy group led by leaders in the business sector, expressed the need for the Filipino people to choose government leaders who are focused on education, emphasizing that literacy is an elections concern.
This sentiment was echoed by other organizations, such as Education Nation, particularly on the need to elect leaders who will prioritize reforms in the education sector. Experts from Education Nation and Philippine Business for Education, in search of an education president, released a scorecard giving former Vice-President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo a perfect score of 10/10 vis-à-vis her strategies and evidence-based solutions to address the learning crisis. Then presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. received a 5/10.
MARCOS’ FIRST 100 DAYS
Three months into the presidency, Mr. Marcos Jr.’s focus was on putting “together a government which is functional” (Cupin, 2022). A lot of premium was and continues to be directed towards livelihood and economic recovery as seen with the administration’s efforts to secure investment pledges, among other agreements, through bilateral deals such as the ones closed during the president’s recent trips to Singapore and Indonesia (CNN, 2022).
Aside from livelihood and economic recovery, a quick rundown of Marcos’ top policy measures during his first 100 days includes public health and peace initiatives. Partnerships with the private sector have also been actively sought out in order to advance the country’s agriculture, infrastructure, water, health, and tourism sectors (PNA, 2022). After 100 days it seems all is set in motion to “get things done” for what the administration sees as the country’s most pressing concerns, controversies and issues aside.
While assessment of an executive leader’s first months into the job rests on a lot tentative variables, it does provide a picture of how the next few years will unfold. To this end, it begs to be asked: Where does post-pandemic education recovery lie in President Marcos Jr.’s priority measures?
THE ROAD TO POST-PANDEMIC RECOVERY MUST INCLUDE EDUCATION RECOVERY
It goes without saying that it will take more than 100 days to recover the learning losses incurred in the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But 100 days is a good start to establish where the government stands with regard to addressing the said loss. The call for an education president who will also prioritize addressing the Philippines’ state of learning poverty is valid and must be heeded.
Students, especially in the basic level and those who are marginalized, need intensive and active support from the government to recover education lost due to school closures, aggravated by economic, personal, and social circumstances. There is a need, too, “to rebuild their mental and physical health, social development and nutrition” (UNICEF, 2022), which requires more than a return to face-to-face modality of learning. In President Marcos Jr.’s SONA (state of the nation address), references to the education sector included the students’ return to face-to-face classes, the appointment of Vice-President Sara Duterte as Education Secretary, putting an end to the poor quality of educational materials given to schools, the importance of connectivity and appropriate tools for digital education, and the reinstitution of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). Would these pronouncements suffice?
The window is narrow in terms of recovering basic literacy skills impacted by learning disruptions borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic. A more explicit expression of political will prioritizing literacy and education recovery, alongside other pressing concerns, is needed to accelerate said recovery and address the country’s high learning poverty rate in a sustained manner. Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon’s recent statement echoed the importance of political will in focusing on urgent issues such as “inadequate healthcare and poor education” (Yang, 2022).
But then again, political will is just one thing, having a catch-up plan beyond returning to school is another. The current leadership must undertake a needs assessment in order to identify learning gaps and develop appropriate short- and long-term interventions. Merely returning to face-to-face modality in the delivery of classes might not be sufficient enough as there could be other factors at play including poor nutrition of the students or the state of school facilities. Finding out what these other factors are is critical.
Ultimately, the challenge at hand is to close the learning gap and lower the country’s learning poverty rate. Political will is needed to ensure that the role of literacy today and in the future is kept alive.
Pilar Preciousa Pajayon-Berse, PhD is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.