Bernardo M. Villegas
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Strategic Plan for Philippine Education (Part 1)

             The last two articles of the series of “Strategic Plan for the Philippines Economy dwelt on the agricultural sector because of the highest priority that should be given to it by the future Administrations if we are to ever reach advanced economy status in the next twenty to thirty years.  The agricultural sector has always been the Achilles heel of the Philippine economy.  That is why it is not possible to have a successful strategic plan for the entire economy if the challenges enumerated in these two articles are not met.  In fact, the very first question that should be asked of every Presidentiable in the May 2022 elections will have to do with their plans of improving agricultural productivity and consequently the incomes of farmers.  As we have written many times in the past, there are enough examples we can learn from our East Asian neighbors like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea to find solutions to what I can consider our Number One economic problem.  We do not have to reinvent the wheel.    

Next in importance to our attaining long-term sustainable and inclusive development is improving the quality of Philippine education.  I was disappointed to notice that all the Presidentiables running in the May 2022 elections give only passing reference to addressing this very pressing problem, which if not addressed in the next six years, will seriously inhibit us from fully benefiting from our number one asset, which is our demographic dividend, i.e. our young, growing and English-speaking population.  It is this rare human resource asset that gives rise to the two strongest engines of growth of the Philippine economy, the Overseas Filipino Workers and the BPO-IT sector, which together account for some 15% our GDP.  In fact, these two human resource-based sectors proved to be the most resilient during the harrowing two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Both suffered very minimal declines during even the worst recessionary year of 2020 and bounced back almost instantly in 2021.

While it was during the second decade of the present century when we started to get rid of our reputation as the “sick man of Asia,” it was also during this period when the rot in the Philippine educational system was exposed.   In 2019, in an international test called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by the Netherlands-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Filipinos fared worst among 58 countries in an assessment for mathematics and science for Grade 4 students.  The Philippines scored 297 in math and 249 in science, registering a deterioration since 2003 when the relevant scores were 358 in math and 332 in science.  TIMMS is held every four years to measure student achievement in these two fields.  In the field of reading comprehension, Filipino students did not fare any better.  In 2018, Filipinos also ranked last among 79 countries in reading comprehension and second lowest in both math and scientific literacy in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading.

Before we attempt to formulate a long-term strategic plan for Philippine education, it would be useful to summarize some of the major points about the state of Philippine education raised in an interview with radio host Jarius Bondoc given by Dr.  Chito Salazar, President of the Philippine Business for Education Foundation (PBEd).  According to Dr. Salazar, the poor results shown by Filipino students were already recorded as early as 2003 by TIMSS.    The poor quality of Philippine education has been the result of long-term policy and institutional failures and inadequacies.  That is why, it is not fair to put all the blame on the present leadership of the Department of Education.  There is need for some drastic reforms equivalent to the game changing K to 12 curriculum that was introduced with great political will during the Administration of former President Noynoy Aquino, despite very strong opposition from some sectors.  For very long, we lived under the illusion that compared to the highly-motivated youth of such tiger economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, our basic education students are so brilliant that they can prepare for university studies within a ten-year period compared to the twelve years that their counterparts in Asia and other countries have to spend to prepare for higher education.

Decades of neglect of Philippine education by the Government is evidenced by the fact that in East Asia the average expenditures by the State is 6% of GDP while we have been spending only 3% of GDP.  We have to let the next Administration aspire to reach the 6% level in the same way that the outgoing Administration was successful to upping the percentage of expenditures on infrastructures from less than 3% to close to 6 % in their implementation of the Build, Build, Build program.  In the same way that there has been significant reliance on the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) approach in the construction of major infrastructures like airports, skyways, ports, etc.  Dr. Salazar also suggested in the interview that  the Government looks for creative ways of involving  the private sector to bear part of the burden of improving the quality of education. For example, it was not necessary for the State to spend huge amount in putting up more classrooms when they could just have taken advantage of excess capacity of private schools by subsidizing the fees of pupils in the latter schools.  The same can be said about saving on the salaries of public school teachers if there is this public-private partnership in basic education.

            Dr. Salazar also that other sectors of society should be involved in improving the quality of education.  The most obvious one is in food and nutrition.  A major reason why our Grade 4 students in many public schools obtain very poor results in the international tests cited above is that their brains might have been damaged because of undernutrition or malnutrition when they were growing from 0 to 5 years of age, the most critical period for brain development.  There must be effective programs implemented by both the State the civil society to address this most serious problem of child undernutrition.  There are enough outstanding models of the so-called First One Thousand Days in which LGUs subsidize the feeding of a child for three years from the time that he or she is conceived in the womb of the mother.  The most successful programs have been implemented in the provinces of Cebu, Quezon and Bataan, among others.  According to Dr. Salazar, there are other stakeholders in every baranggay that can contribute to feeding programs to assure the wellbeing of our youth.  It is hoped that a significant part of the added revenues that LGUs will receive starting 2022 under the so-called Mandanas-Garcia ruling will be channeled to these feeding programs.

            In fact, speaking of LGUs, another very important reform suggested by Dr. Salazar is the devolution of some tasks being implemented by the Department of Education to the LGUs.  There is over-centralization of such essential tasks as curriculum development and the recruitment and training of teachers. Provinces should compete in producing quality students.  The Department of Education should spend its time and resources in helping those LGUs that have weak local leadership in the field of education.  Finally, it is recommended that the Assessment Office should not be under the Department of Education but should be under the Office of the President.  This preliminary introduction to vital issues in the Philippine education sector, as perceived by the Philippine Business for Education management, should now prepare for a more thorough going process of formulating a long-term strategic education plan that can span the next three Administrations till 2040.  To be continued.