Artwork by Alyssa Arizabal (httpswww.instagram.comalyssaarzbl)

The spotty quality of Philippine basic education is something we knew anecdotally but until the PISA results of 2018, did not have objective evidence to bring this into a national discourse on education quality.  (Back in 2000, then Secretary of Education, Brother Andrew Gonzales, FSC, had Philippine Grade 7-8 students aged 12-13 years tested under TIMSS [International Math and Science Study] to dismal results.  The next DepED Secretary, Senator Raul Roco took the Philippines out of TIMSS rationalizing the move by saying it was a waste of funds to pay for expensive testing if we already knew the outcome.)

The 2018 PISA results were not stellar.  Test results for the country’s 15-year olds randomly tested as a group scored the country lowest among the 79 countries tested in Reading literacy and second lowest in Science and Mathematics literacy.

This was the first time the Philippines has ventured into the PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment, and international testing since 2000.  Despite of the poor results, the Department of Education (DepED) should be commended for taking a brave approach to PISA. By doing so, we now have a baseline around which we can hold discussions that are evidence-based and not tendentious. The results, dismal as they are, show where we are today as an education system and how far we need to go to be a better-performing one.

In the letter of invitation to the launch of a new program to push for quality in the education system (Sulong EduKalidad) using the PISA results as a springboard, Secretary Leonor T. Briones wrote, “The results, which we anticipate will mirror our performance in the National Achievement Test, will put into sharp focus the challenge we face as we aim to globalize our quality standards.”

What is PISA and why is it important?

PISA is a worldwide study by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) that evaluates education systems in member and non-member countries. A total of 79 countries participated in the latest PISA test in 2018 by measuring 15-year olds’ academic performance in mathematics, science and reading.

The test, done every 3 years, is a system test where a randomly selected group of students in each participating country are tested. The aim of the test is to provide comparable data that would give each country a chance to benchmark its education system against the best in the world in order to improve on education policies, practices, and outcomes. The test does not focus on factual knowledge; rather, it focuses on problem-solving and cognition – two essential 21st century skills.

The application of skills and knowledge to solve real-world problems serves as an indicator of how prepared a student might be for the real world.

In addition to testing students, PISA has survey questions that can provide insight that might help explain how country education systems perform. Access to this data should be invaluable to the Philippines and DepED (Department of Education) for policy planning and programming. In previous tests, PISA looked at factor inputs (quality of teachers, material inputs) and the effects these might have on learning outcomes in different countries.

Comparison between boys and girls test performance is also useful data for policy and programming.  (In the 2018 test, data was also collected on bullying. Here, data on the Philippines should be studied more carefully given that reported bullying was highest for the Philippines among all countries in PISA 2018. This will be the subject of a future article.)

What does PISA tell us about our education system?

The headline news is that the Philippines scored lowest in Reading and second lowest in Mathematics and Science among the 79 participating countries.

15-year olds tested in Reading literacy had an average score of 340 (out of a possible 600) versus the OECD average of 487. A breakdown of this score revealed that 81% were reading below level.  And of this number, 24% were one level lower and 57% were two or more levels below.

In Science literacy, the average scores were similar. The average score for the Philippines was 357 versus the OECD average of 489.

In Mathematics literacy, the average score for the Philippines was 353 versus 489 for the OECD average.

Philippine girls, in all three tests, were marginally better than boys but not by much.

The way forward

The initial conclusion points to low levels of reading comprehension which might be at the root of the problem. We pride ourselves as being a country with a high level of literacy.

The name of the game today, however, is about functional literacy (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic plus an ability to follow written and verbal instructions to accomplish given tasks and solve problems) proceeding to more complex problem-solving.

The latter requires an ability to break down problems into smaller parts and then re-assemble these in a meaningful manner in order to come up with a solution or create something new.  Our 15-year olds, for the most part, are having difficulty doing this based on the PISA test results.

In management, if doing something does not produce the desired results, it is time to do something new.  Putting more resources into the same old processes will only result in more of the same poor results.

What is needed is to think of a different way to get the superior results we are aiming for. The system needs to introduce self-correcting processes and mechanisms.  More specifically, the Philippine education system needs to be better streamlined so that better results (i.e., Learning outcomes) can be realized.

What might be done?

  • One, de-clutter the curriculum.
  • Two, start with building strong fundamentals in Reading and Writing as basic building blocks (Learning tools).   (The question of what language – English of Filipino – is a topic that needs more discussion at the national level and will be the subject of a future essay.)
  • Three, refocus and strengthen teacher pre-service and in-service training around the top two concerns.

On the curriculum, ours is actually comparable in scope to other countries including high-performing PISA countries with one major difference:  The DepED curriculum is too cluttered with mandated competencies to be covered.

In science and mathematics, for example, a study that looked at high performing countries versus low performers did a correlation between the number of competencies required (i.e., things to be studied in a given school year) versus test scores.

The major finding: high-performing countries focused on a lesser number of competencies (8 to 12 in a given year) versus low-performing countries which covered as many as 80+ competencies in the same year. This meant that students in high-performing countries had time to digest concepts, do more practice on problem sets or written exercises, and generally had time gain facility and competence on the subject studied.

Students in countries that pushed for more competencies to be learned (including the Philippines), on the other hand, were forced to nibble on different competencies without much chance to internalize concepts, gain practice solving problems, or generate solutions. This “smorgasbord” approach does not result in deep learning or the acquisition of expertise.

Rethinking (de-cluttering) the curriculum should start in Grade 1. The early grades should focus on foundational competencies cutting down on the number of academic subjects to be taken. At higher grade levels, we should abandon the spiraling approach that DepED does in mathematics and science and move back to a more focused discipline approach to these two subject areas.

Teacher training and development is another area that needs to be better managed. Thankfully, DepED is embarking on this with at least two initiatives:

  1. The Philippine Professional Standards for Teachers first rolled out in 2019; and,
  2. The transformation of the National Educators Academy of the Philippines (NEAP) as the lead institute in DepED on teacher training and development to starting in 2020.

If these two initiatives can be implemented well and sustained, this will make a big difference in the long term.

But the key to turning these dismal results around has to begin with Reading and Writing.  This starts with preparation for reading in Kindergarten and Grade 1 to at-level reading proficiency in all grade levels after.  Here, reading does not mean in English alone (though this is the language of the PISA test as decided by DepED); reading in any language including the mother tongue will have a positive effect on test-taking whether for math, science or reading.

A 9-year plan

PISA not only provides us with a baseline of where we are today. It can also provide us with a benchmark target to aim for. This can be the Olympic target for our basic education system.

What should we be aiming for?

We should aspire to be at the world average within nine years (three PISA test cycles).  By 2018 scoring, this means raising our 15-year olds’ average score by 130-140 points over a nine-year period.  Objectively, this means bringing the reading level of our 15-year olds up by 3 levels (or one level per test cycle).

To realize this Olympic dream for gold, we need to start at the base (Grade 1) and scaffold a strong foundation building upwards to Grade 12. This will take time to realize results. In the next two PISA tests (2021 and 2024), we will still be doing remediation as our students are already in their late elementary years or junior high school.

But if we start at strengthening Reading at Grade 1 today (school year 2020-2021), by 2027, our Grade 1 students will be taking the PISA test and hopefully, we will be rewarded with much better results.

No quick fix

There may be a sense of urgency given the dire results.  But a problem as complex as this needs systemic, systematic, and structural reform to be long-term and sustainable.  This will take time and will demand patience and grit.

We need a clear strategy to address this problem and as in all strategy situations, we should ask ourselves four important questions:

  1. Where are we today? (Dismal PISA results.)
  2. Where do we want to be in 10 years? (At the PISA average or 3 reading levels higher than the 2018 scores.)
  3. How do we get there? (De-clutter the curriculum to allow students to deepen learning of featured competencies + Focus on building strong foundational reading skills + Improved teacher pre-service and in-service training.)
  4. How do you know you are on the right path and trajectory?  (Continue international testing (PISA, TIMSS) + Restructure the National Achievement Tests as a proper assessment tool)

Quality, not spending

The politician response to this situation will be, without doubt, to spend more on education. While it is true that the Philippines is still below the desired share of GDP spending for education (and below our neighbors’ education spending), we should make sure that the manner by which we spend reflects quality and not quantity.

The annual budget for the Department of Education has grown five-fold in a short 10-year period.  While this has helped the Department deal with material shortages, this Learning problem is less about a lack of resources and more about new ways to address the Low Learning situation. This is a concern about quality (how things are done).

The PISA results jolt us.  But if it does to us what it did to Peru years ago (Peru had dismal results in its first PISA test but used this to rally its education sector to perform better), then there is hope that the same can happen here.

But this cannot be a quick fix.  What is needed is not a one- or two-year effort.  What is required is a sustained undertaking spanning multiple presidential administrations.  That will be the true test of how focused we can be in reforming our education system and how serious we are in addressing this situation.

Juan Miguel Luz is a Fellow of FEU Public Policy Center

NOTE:  This essay is a revision of the same article published by Rappler (December 11, 2019) by the author.