TESTED for the first time by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a presumably representative population of 15-year-old Filipino students put the Philippines last in reading comprehension among 79 countries. They hardly fared any better in science and mathematics; they were rated second to the last at 78th place.
The PISA findings were not too surprising. Despite high school and even some college units, many Filipinos can’t really read or even do simple arithmetic. Some have been known to blame journalists for the opinions of a source the former quoted in a report, for example. Science is also alien territory for the superstitious many, and mathematics something the innumerate despise the most.
A 2017 study by an international news website found that Filipinos aged 16 to 64 are the third most ignorant of key issues among the citizens of 36 countries. Evidence of the failure to comprehend what they read also abounds in social media and in the letters to the editors of newspapers in which alleged readers demonstrate how badly they’ve misread and misunderstood the news.
But what is the OECD and why is it so concerned with the state of education across the globe? The British publication The Economist describes the OECD as “a club of mostly rich countries.” The Philippines is not a member, although to qualify a country only has to demonstrate its “readiness” for, and “commitment” to, “democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights,” plus to an “open, transparent economy.”
It was founded in 1961, but its antecedent was the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) which was established in 1947 to oversee the reconstruction of the countries of Europe that had been devastated by World War II — and to keep the now defunct USSR and its economic system at bay.
Its members are mostly advanced industrialized countries that claim to be committed to improving economic performance, fighting international tax evasion, and encouraging better education worldwide. It describes itself as “an international organization that works to build better policies for better lives. Our goal is to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all.”
For all the seeming nobility of that goal, the OECD has nevertheless been faulted for the dominance in it of its wealthier members’ neo-liberal ideology and economics agenda. Neo-liberalism, say critics, has kept the poor countries poorer and the rich richer in a world order dominated by the major economic powers.
PISA itself has been criticized for, among others, pitting the educational systems of poor countries against those of the richly endowed, and for encouraging what the skeptical describe as the equivalent of an “arms race” in education.
There is, indeed, a class divide between poor and rich students in the Philippines, where the former end up in inferior schools while the wealthy are educated in better ones. The consequences are evident in, for example, the results of the University of the Philippines College Admission Tests (UPCAT) in which graduates from “exclusive” (read: expensive) high schools have been outnumbering those from the public schools for decades.
There is the same divide between the poor and rich countries of the planet. But even a less developed country can still invest heavily on education if it is its first priority. The 2018 PISA results were dominated by Chinese students from four less affluent regions of China, who bested their counterparts in the Western countries. An OECD analyst said this shows that “you don’t have to spend more to do better,” — without, however, revealing how much those regions spend on education.
The Philippines doesn’t invest as much on education as its ASEAN neighbors Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and Laos. As mandated by the Constitution, the biggest share of the annual budget goes to Philippine education. But the 3.4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) appropriated for it is still much less than the United Nations standard of at least 6%.
In addition to the PISA results, the bad news for Philippine education is that Congress, with the recommendation of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), has cut the Department of Education’s (DepEd) proposed 2020 budget. Adversely affected are, among others, the construction of additional classrooms and the hiring of more teachers.
It need hardly be said that how much a country spends on education helps decide the quality of school facilities and its teachers, and therefore the quality of its students. Teaching has lost much of its attraction as a career in the Philippines because public school teachers are among the most underpaid employees of government. And despite the digital age, many public schools also have a dearth of computers as well as teachers, classrooms, books, and even desks and blackboards.
But the budget a country allots to education is only one among several other factors that decide what, how much and how well students learn. Among these other factors is whether the system is focused on the quality of the learning students get, or on just getting as many students as possible through the mill.
The United States, for example, didn’t do very well in PISA, most likely because its educational policy has been focused on the latter. Among its results is the graduation from the basic education system of young men and women with reading, writing, and reading comprehension issues and even gross ignorance of US history and governance. Filipinos may be the third most ignorant in the world about public issues, but one suspects that as a consequence of the emphasis on promoting even non-performing students rather than making them go through the mill again, most Americans are not far behind.
These issues notwithstanding, the dismal showing of Filipino students in reading comprehension, mathematics and science has to be addressed. Ignorance and the contempt for learning are antithetical to national development and the democratization process. Citizens who know little or nothing, or are misinformed about the most pressing issues cannot intelligently make the informed decisions on which democratic governance depends. The sorry state of education helps explain the fragility of what passes for democracy in the Philippines.
Increasing the funding for education is a necessary first step. But rethinking the educational system, its aims and its directions, is equally crucial.
Philippine education’s fundamental aim, it has been said often enough, is to produce men and women who can be “competitive” in today’s world. It would be a laudable enough goal were it not for the meaning most policy makers attach to it, which in sum is to enable Filipinos to be “worthy of employment” as nurses, nannies, domestics or construction workers.
Real competitiveness should mean developing among the country’s young men and women the critical capacity and love of learning that can make them the equals of the world’s best thinkers, artists, scientists, and professionals so they can contribute to the country’s development. Instead the competitiveness mantra puts less emphasis on knowledge and more on the skills the global labor market needs. Under that rubric, reading comprehension, mathematical proficiency and understanding of science are at best a second priority. In response to the PISA report, Education Secretary Leonor Briones has thankfully declared that the system she oversees will henceforth emphasize quality rather than quantity, hopefully without limiting universal access to basic education. But between the wish and the fulfillment, alas, is a vast ocean of official indifference and misplaced priorities in a country that claims to be 98% literate but too many of whose citizens are grossly misinformed because they hardly understand what they read — if they read at all.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).