By Rene R. Raya

PISA is not the leaning tower, but rather it stands for Program for International Student Assessment. TIMSS stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. In the 1999 TIMSS involving second-year high school pupils, the Philippines landed in 36th place in both Math and Science out of the 38 countries that participated in the assessment test. In the 2003 TIMSS, we again landed among the lowest in both Math (34th of 38 countries) and Science (43rd of 46 countries). In 2008, we ventured to participate in the TIMSS and ended last among 10 countries for both Advanced Math and Science.

Being last or among the lowest in international large-scale assessments is not something new to us. These embarrassing results must have been the reason why the country opted out of TIMSS. It took a bit of time to rejoin TIMSS and other international assessments with a clear policy directive issued early on by the current Department of Education (DepEd). That was a daring move that merits recognition for having stepped forward to say that education quality is the biggest challenge, which in fact has been plaguing the system for decades.

The results came one after the other, starting with PISA, and we feasted on the outcome. While some looked beneath the surface to understand the results, others mocked the system for producing the “mythical 80% poor learners.” It is as if we suddenly discovered that alas, education is in crisis! The DepEd has remained unfazed despite all the criticisms for the dismal performance of our students.

There is value-added in participating in international large-scale assessments to complement our own national assessments and to locate our students against established global benchmarks. Surfacing the anticipated (poor) results guides us and compels us to do the reforms. Looking at TIMSS 1999 and PISA 2018, a span of two decades, we become aware that the problem of achieving quality education is chronic and cannot be addressed overnight.

Notwithstanding the good intentions and efforts of successive DepEd Secretaries since 1999, education quality must have stagnated through the years. Pointing fingers at anyone does not help. The DepEd would rather have all hands on deck to collectively work out solutions. It has, in fact, invited a broad range of stakeholders to look at its reform agenda towards enhancing teacher quality, improving the learning environment, reviewing the K-12 curriculum, and promoting stakeholders’ collaboration. These are good points to build on, or even to pound on.

When I first read the 1999 TIMSS report, I noted that the country’s per capita spending level on education was the lowest or among the lowest of the countries that took part in that exam. If I remember right, Thailand then was spending about six times our spending level; Malaysia, even more; not to mention Singapore which always topped these learning assessments.

In my simplistic mind, I argued that if we were to spend at the same level as Thailand — that was then equivalent to what we were spending for Philippine Science High School students — then easily our science students would probably land among the top raters. In one forum many years back where I empathically argued about this proposition, the well-known education economist, Dr. Edita Tan, stood up to tell me that I got that wrong. She said that it would take more than financing to address the quality issue. And henceforth, I believed her.

Identifying and addressing the barriers to access to education may be easier and more straightforward to do. But understanding the science behind quality education is much more complicated.

For one, present schooling has to compete with attractive activities that technology has made accessible to children like online gaming and virtual dating. During my time, we skipped classes to play billiards, try our luck with pinball machines, and watch movies in Cubao or in the more exciting ones along Recto and Avenida Rizal. One challenge, therefore, is how to make schooling interesting, inspiring, and encouraging, more caring and collaborative, less punitive.

Unpacking quality may not be as simple as running a multiple regression and identifying the most significant variables. Yes, a bit of data science will certainly help, plus a good feel of the ground. And touching base with learners and education stakeholders can go a long way to understand the metrics behind quality.

It will still be a long way to go, but we are not starting from scratch. Those with beautiful minds, those who have done their homework, can learn from a plethora of studies, some written as far back as the American colonial period like the 1925 Monroe Commission study on the effectiveness of Philippine education.

Perhaps what we need is less of inquiry, for we have already identified what the binding constraint is, but more bold and decisive actions to move quality of education forward.

Rene R. Raya is the lead policy analyst of the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education, Vice-Chairperson of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, Co-Convenor of Social Watch, and Trustee of Action for Economic Reforms. He has also served as independent consultant to various United Nations agencies and international organizations.