Yellow Pad

Can Philippine education learn from the experiences in Northern Europe? Conditions might be different, but basic lessons and insights can be found, considering that everyone follows some international standards or metrics.

Finland has consistently ranked among the top five countries that participate in the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) since the test was initiated in 2000. Under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA is administered world-wide to 15-year-old students to measure their skills and knowledge in mathematics, science, and reading.

What has Finland done “right” so that its educational system has become the world’s role model?

First, teachers are highly trained and respected in Finland, and for good reason. Becoming a teacher in Finland is a difficult process. Only 20% of high school graduates who apply to Finland’s teacher colleges, one of Finland’s most rigorous professional colleges, are accepted. All of those individuals graduated from high school in the top one-third of their class. Once accepted, potential teachers are given intensive training for five years and they must obtain a master’s degree before they can practice their new profession. This high level of training is steeped in the science of teaching which results in an elevated bar for teachers. It helps explain why teaching is one of the most respected and prestigious professional fields in Finland. Finnish teachers have the same prestige as medical doctors and a teacher’s pay does not lag far behind. Indeed, teachers’ salaries have gone up 50% in the last five years.

Second, in addition to the elevated teacher factor, Finnish schools thrive and stand out because of “educational equity.” In Finland, all children, regardless of their economic or social standing, have access to the same high quality of education from preschool onwards. Moreover, this equity-based learning is not simply about high grades. Finnish curriculum prepares kids for the real world, and teachers are given full autonomy in revamping the classroom syllabus. Given the high degree of respect teachers command, parents do not question their teaching management styles.

Although Finland’s ranking in PISA has slipped slightly in the last assessment, it remains the exemplar of progressive educational policy.

To justify their own comparatively poor performance on PISA, some countries say that Finland and Estonia are both sparsely populated countries with low poverty incidence. Thus, their excellent performance. The results of PISA, however, reveal that their performance is not influenced by student background. In fact, students with low socio-economic status scored higher in the 2016 PISA. According to the World Bank report in 2018, students from poorer households in China do as well or even better in math and science than average students in wealthier countries. Noteworthy also is Vietnam’s experience. Vietnam, a country whose per capita income is much lower than the USA, scored higher than the USA in science in the 2015 PISA.

The experiences of Finland and Estonia are instructive and should give us pause.

Filipino teacher training is a four-year course that includes an average of three months of on-the-job training in a public school. Education graduates then must pass the teacher board examination (LET) if they want to teach in a public school where the entry salary and benefits are easily 2.5 times the average salary in a private school. Thus, money appears to be the major reason why college students in rural areas take up education as a career. These students are simply complying with the wishes of their parents who believe that teaching in a public school is the quickest way out of the family’s financial woes. It is not unusual that many graduates who do not pass the LET end up working in a factory.

There are other reasons why education is chosen as a career especially in poor and rural areas: the course is only four years long, tuition is cheap (there are no lab expenses), entry is easier as there is no quota, no entrance admission test, and, as many would say, “you need not be a whiz kid to make it.”

As noted above, passing the LET is the key to entering and having a successful career in public school teaching. The results of LET, however, do not show encouraging figures on many levels. On the elementary LET of March 2019, less than 13% of exam takers passed. Of the total number of examinees, 26% were first-timers and 74% were repeaters. On the secondary LET only 26% of exam takers passed. Of the examinees, 18% were first-timers, and 82% were repeaters. The results in the previous years were no more encouraging. It should also be noted that graduates from universities located in Metro Manila made up the majority of LET passers. The data is revealing, especially when the most recent reports show that the Philippines has performed very poorly in international assessments compared with other Asian countries.

If we are to glean any nuggets of wisdom from the experience of Finland and Estonia, we must elevate the quality of our education colleges and the training of our teachers. Our schools must offer the same high quality of education regardless of student economic status or background. Otherwise, Filipinos will remain sorry onlookers as other countries prosper and perform well in the international educational arena.

Fortunately, there is some reason to hope that we can avoid such a tragedy. The Department of Education has adopted new measures to address some of the problems in our educational system. A new K-12 program was recently instituted to prepare our students for university work or other tracks they may choose after junior high school. In addition, mandatory preschool is required and is now available nationwide. Finally, teacher salaries have been increased, which may attract a higher quality of teacher college entrant.

Note that we participated in PISA in 2000 but only managed to get 400 points, below the average of 500. After the educational reforms were put in place in 2011, we participated in the PISA again in 2018. Results for 2018 PISA will be released in late 2019. Let us collectively hold our breath.


Ola del Mundo is the founder and School Director of Carolina Tanauan Intervention Center, a special school, and the Penleigh School (kinder to grade 6), both in Batangas, and the founder of the Penleigh Child Development Center in Sacramento, California. She has a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of the Philippines, Diliman.