The crisis in Philippine education began 120 years ago

A teacher conducts an elementary class in Albay. —PHOTO FROM PNA.GOV.PH

In the results of the 2022 Pisa study on the state of learning and equity in education worldwide released last Dec. 5, the average scores of Filipino 15-year-old students were about the same as those in 2018. 

There was no significant change in the rankings of students scoring below a baseline level of proficiency (Level 2) in math (84%), reading (76%) and science (77%). In other words, only 16% in math, 23% in science, and 24% in reading, barely passed. 

Pisa, or the Programme for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), measures students’ ability to use their knowledge and skills in the three learning fields “to meet real-life challenges.” 

The Philippines’ average scores, 100-plus points below the OECD average, placed it among the Last 10, or 76th out of 81 countries. Some observers claimed a slight improvement, the Philippines being at the bottom in 2018. But if the average score is the passing grade, everybody failed. 

In the 2018 tests, OECD cited two reasons for the miserable scores: the Philippines was among the lowest in expenditures for education, and it had a language problem as 94% of Filipino students do not speak English, the language of the tests, at home. 

In another international test in 2019, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for Grade 4 students, the Philippines also placed last among 59 participating countries. 

Results of the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics 2019 (SEA-PLM) showed that only 10% of Filipino students met the minimum reading standard expected at the end of primary education, and that 17% met the minimum mathematical standard. Thus, 70-90% of elementary and high school students failed the minimum requirements for science, math and reading comprehension. 

What about the results of local studies, such as the National Achievement Tests? Data from 2004-2010 show that the average scores in math, science and English were at or below 50%. If 70% is the passing grade, most students failed!

US-imposed medium of instruction

This is not a recent crisis in Philippine education. It emerged 25 years after the United States imposed an educational system using English as the medium of instruction in 1901. 

The first assessment of the educational system was conducted through a survey authorized by the Philippine legislature in 1925. It created the Board of Educational Survey (and commission) headed by an American educator, Dr. Paul Monroe. This commission visited and observed different activities conducted in schools nationwide.  

Here are the relevant findings (the first 112 pages contain a long summary):

  • Big learning gap. Grade 4 pupils (who might have been in school for five years) were at Grade 2 level and senior high school students at Grade 5 level!
  • High drop-out rate. As many as 82% of the pupils did not go beyond Grade 4; 12% were in the intermediate Grades 5, 6 and 7; and only 6% were in the four grades of high school.
  • “Failure was extraordinary.” More than half of the pupils were marked “failure” and were compelled to repeat the various grades—20% repeated Grade 1; 30%, Grade 2; 47%, Grade 3; 50%, Grade 4; 51%, Grade 5; 50%, Grade 6; and 50%, Grade 7. The result: overcrowding. Many high schoolers remained in school for two, three, or even four years beyond the normal period of attendance. 

The commission hinted at the failure of the use of English as the medium of instruction. It noted the 1921 Civil Service Records, which revealed that 98% failed the English composition exam. “Nobody passed the 1918 exams for messengers and third-class patrolmen. In the 1922 exams for junior teachers, 87% failed. Almost all teachers (95%) were not professionally trained for teaching.” 

In fact, the commissioners made this important observation: “Outside of the school, the only language used in any considerable way is the dialect. Not more than 1% or 2% of all the homes in the Philippines use English as the chief means of communication. Not only must the Filipino child learn to read, write, and speak this difficult second language, but he must accomplish it under untrained and partially educated teachers who themselves have never developed an adequate command of the language.” 

They knew exactly why the use of English was a total failure and yet they insisted that it was the best over any of the local languages because “it will be difficult to develop a common or national language out of the more than 100 dialects. If such a language were created, it would be an artificial product. Its use in the schools would be a far more artificial procedure than is the present use of English, for English is a living language.” 

However, the commission observed that “in arithmetic, Filipinos are at par with their American counterparts; grade for grade, Filipino children master the art of arithmetical computation as well as do American children.” If local teachers cannot teach in English, they must be teaching arithmetic in the local languages, proving these are more effective than in English. 

Teachers’ role

But there was no follow-up study or investigation on these data. The bottom line was the teachers were blamed: “For the most part, the teachers now employed in the secondary schools are professionally untrained, inexperienced, and dissatisfied.”

Who were training them, in what language? Therefore, the education crisis or learning poverty today, in the 21st century, started at the beginning of the 20th century—120 years in the making, and ongoing!

Our political leaders must have recognized the problem because a national language provision was included in the 1935 Constitution. The Institute of the National Language, or Surian ng Wikang Pambansa, was established in 1936. It recommended a national language based on Tagalog—a consensus by the commission’s multilingual members, and not a dictate of “imperial Manila.” 

Unfortunately, it was the Department of Public Instruction before and after World War II and the teachers themselves who defied the Constitution, preferring to use/develop English instead of the national language, perhaps unaware or ignorant of the unequivocal findings of the Monroe commission. 

When I entered primary school in 1959, the “entrance tests” were in English. We were punished (spanked with a ruler or pulled by the sideburns), even fined five centavos (a lot of money for poor kids), for speaking in the local language or mother tongue, Kapampangan. 

Juan wonders if the Department of Education (DepEd) and teachers are also unaware of the results of international and local research on language in education after the war, which proved that local languages are more effective than English. 

In a study of Philippine education in 1946, Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) cited the lingering language problem, according to “A Brief History of Educational Assessment in the Philippines” by Carlo Magno of De La Salle University and research/studies summarized by Ricardo Ma. Nolasco in 2008: 

“The First Iloilo Experiment was undertaken from 1948-1954 using Hiligaynon as medium of instruction in Grades 1 and 2. The tests showed Hiligaynon-taught children outperforming English-taught children in reading, math and social studies.

“Other related programs that can be mentioned are: the Second Iloilo Language Experiment (1961-1964); the Rizal experiment (1960-1966); the six-year First Language Component-Bridging program (FLC-BP) on ‘transitional’ education in Ifugao province; and the literacy projects of the Translators Association of the Philippines (TAP), responsible for developing literacy materials in more than thirty languages.” 

Local languages

Starting in the late 1990s, DepEd under Andrew Gonzales, a linguist, conducted regional lingua franca (common local language) experiments which concluded that “[the] lingua franca has effectively helped children adjust to the school setting and learning tasks such as being able to read and write, solve math problems, understand science concepts and principles using the first language at home and eventually English as a second language.”

DepEd also cooperated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics with the long-running educational program in Lubuagan, Kalinga. The classes taught in the mother tongue scored nearly 80% mastery of the curriculum while the control class (taught in English and Filipino, the current curriculum) showed just over 50% knowledge of the curriculum. 

“The results provide crucial evidence that mother tongue instruction strengthens the learning of English and Filipino and does not hinder the learning of content, contrary to claims by pro-English advocates,” it said.

Unesco continued its pioneering research on multilingual education using the mother tongue as primary medium of instruction, proving it to be more effective than a foreign language, according to a 2010 paper by Jessica Ball.  

Lastly, if you think “low reading comprehension” in English (and Filipino?) among primary and secondary students is only based on the Pisa results, there are the language proficiency tests conducted among college students and employees. Only University of the Philippines (UP) students scored a near-passing grade (70%), 67-77% in English, but 82-83% in Filipino. Students from other schools in Manila failed in English, scoring 33-48%, but passed the Filipino tests, 71-78%. 

The employees—unspecified if they were all college graduates—failed English at 56% but passed Filipino at 82%. 

Thus, Filipino students may pass the Pisa tests in Filipino, so why does DepEd insist that they take the tests in English? 

Another country with a similar problem is India, whose students spoke local languages at home but took the 2009 Pisa tests in English. India also miserably failed, placing second to the last, or 72nd out of 73 countries. It decided to stop participating and to prepare for the 2021 tests (postponed to 2022 because of Covid-19) by selecting students/schools who will take the tests. An Indian official was quoted as saying: “We have requested the authorities, and question papers for students will be both in Hindi and English for the convenience of Indian students. Teachers and students will also be trained according to the test patterns.” 

Unfortunately, India decided not to participate in the 2022 test because of the pandemic. 

The Philippines should have followed India’s plan of taking the tests in the national language, not English, and perhaps, with only Metro Manila students participating. 

Pro-English advocates will cite Singapore, a consistent Pisa topnotcher. But English is already the lingua franca in Singapore. Most Singaporeans speak English at home; it has become their mother tongue. 

Besides, the biggest empirical evidence for using the mother tongue is that all those on top use their own language in taking the tests. Insisting on English is insanity (in the way, as Albert Einstein said, it’s insanity to insist on doing the same thing over and over again, and expect a different result).

Teaching method

The other problem of our educational system, which has been given little or no attention, is the teaching method of lecture/rote memorization. The 60- to 90-minute lecture has been the standard practice of teachers, who write key words or sentences on the blackboard, which the students diligently copy (and memorize). 

From personal and group experiences, unless the teacher is a good explainer, and is exuberant and witty, our minds wander and, after a few minutes of the lecture, some even fall asleep. Paying attention is made even more difficult by not comprehending the language of instruction, English. Worse, the teacher may not be fluent in it. 

And remember that in grade school, the same teacher may be talking the whole morning about everything from science and arithmetic to good manners and right conduct! Paying attention to a single person for one hour is hard enough, but the whole morning, or day? 

Mind-wandering is normal, and estimated to occur 10-60% of waking hours, according to “Attention Matters: How Orchestrating Attention May Relate to Classroom Learning.” Further, the consensus appears to be plus or minus 15 minutes for attention span, although that’s still arguable based on meta-studies. This is why the popular YouTube lectures, TED talks, are limited to 18 minutes (“The Science Behind TED’s 18-Minute Rule.”) 

So what do teacher and students do the rest of the hour, day? Enough research/studies have been done to compare the traditional lecture method with “active” or “dynamic” learning methods. A large-scale study by Carl E. Wieman of Stanford University indicates that “lecture methods” are less effective than “active learning methods.” 

Teaching through lectures results in lower student performance compared to active teaching methods. The average failure rate for traditional lectures is 34%, and only 22% for active methods that include problem-solving exercises where students are divided into groups and interact with each other rather than with the teacher (who may serve as guide or moderator). 

Dynamic learning

My first formal introduction to dynamic learning methods was at the Asian Institute of Management, where students are gathered into teams of 5 to 10 and solve problems themselves. Instead of lecturing for hours, teachers give a “background” lecture for 10 minutes only. This is called the “canned-discussion group,” borrowed from Harvard. 

The dynamic system of classroom learning appears to be exactly what Chris and Marivic Bernido, the husband-and-wife team of educators /physicists, did in Jagna, Bohol. The teacher spends about 15% of her time lecturing—or 15 minutes of an hour—and the rest is focused on student-driven activities. 

The results speak for themselves. Graduates of the Bernido school are in the top 10% in science and math achievement tests, and a significant number have passed the UP College Admission Test. 

The “Montessori method” incorporates active or dynamic methods in the classroom, which is why it is effective. Students form small groups or teams (5-10), and discuss lessons, solve problems and make decisions themselves, with more learning actually happening between students than between teacher and students in the lecture method. 

This can probably be explained by the surprising finding by child psychologist Judith Harris: that children learn more from other children than from their parents or teachers. “If adolescents didn’t want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children,” she said.

Harris realized that once you granted that fact, all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing began to unravel. Language is a skill acquired laterally. What children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home. She wondered whether this was true more generally: What if children also learn the things that make them who they are–that shape their characters and personalities–from their peer group?” 

Harris’ book “The Nurture Assumption” was endorsed by leading psychologists who said that “in the social-science business, [it] is a bit like writing a book on basketball and having it endorsed by the starting five of the Chicago Bulls.”

That children do/can learn more from other children their age is perhaps the result of thousands (millions, if hominins are included) of years of education without schools—when children educate themselves. Perhaps it is “hard-wired” in the brain. That’s why lectures and a foreign language don’t work.

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