IN less than two weeks, students will return to class for the new school year, and it is not an exaggeration to say that most students and parents are looking at it with a great deal of apprehension after nearly two years of disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, a recent global study on education by the World Bank is only going to increase those worries.
The report, “The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update,” was published by the World Bank at the end of June, but had not received much public attention until this week.
We'll cut to the chase, because this is a crisis situation: the report has found that the Philippines is among the worst countries in the world for “learning poverty,” and what is even more alarming, this sad state was the situation prior to the pandemic.
“Learning poverty,” the report explains, is a combination of two factors. The first is “learning deprivation,” which is the percentage of primary-age students who are in school, but read below the minimum proficiency level for their age. The second is schooling deprivation, which is the percentage of primary-age children who are out of school; these children are assumed to also be deficient in reading skills. Putting the two factors together results in a percentage of primary-age children who are experiencing “learning poverty.”
The report focuses on reading, because without basic competency in reading, a student will fall behind in other basic education subjects as well. The study also used the latest available data prior to the onset of the pandemic, in order to establish a sort of pre-pandemic benchmark for each country's educational state; for the Philippines (along with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam), the study used the Grade 5 reading results from the SEA-PLM 2019 assessment.
The findings for the Philippines are frankly terrible; even though the country has a relatively low percentage of children (5 percent) out of school, learning poverty here is at 90.4 percent. Even though 95 out of 100 school-age children in the Philippines are actually in school, 90 out of those 95 are deficient in learning. To put it in a different perspective, countries with similar scores to the Philippines include Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger. Among Asean countries — although Brunei and Singapore were not assessed — only the Lao People's Democratic Republic has a worse learning poverty score than the Philippines.
There are a couple of caveats, at least as far as the Philippines is concerned. The country is not necessarily being singled out for the poor quality of its basic education. The World Bank stresses that learning poverty is a global problem, with an overall average of about 76 percent, and expresses fear that the disruption of education due to the pandemic has almost certainly made the problem much worse. The report also notes that the Philippines has taken action to try to improve education with the publication of the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan, which streamlined the K to 12 curriculum into essential learning competencies for the 2020-2021 school year. However, the impact of that, for better or worse, is not yet known.
The last time the World Bank produced a report critical of the Philippines' education system under the Department of Education (DepEd), which was in 2019, the reaction of the then Education secretary Leonor Briones and other government officials was to publicly take offense at being made to look bad, rather than to address the issues. That was not a helpful reaction then; it would be a totally unacceptable reaction now.
While it is certainly challenging for the DepEd, particularly led by a new and inexperienced secretary in Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, to simply organize and launch a new school year in what (we hope) is our first “post-pandemic” year, the evident deficiency in the quality of education must be treated as the emergency it is, and confronted head-on. With the pandemic already having set our young learners' education back by a year or two, there is no time to waste to protect the country's future competence and opportunities.
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