Freeze or Fight?—Ma. Mercedes T. Rodrigo, Ateneo Laboratory for the Learning Sciences

The South East Asia – Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM) Programme is a UNICEF and SEAMEO partnership that aims “to improve the region’s capacity to measure learning outcomes, use data, and allow peer exchange on policies and practices.” Its flagship effort is the SEA-PLM Assessment. Formally launched in 2014, the study attempted to measure the outcomes of Grade 5 students in six participating countries: Cambodia, Lao PR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Vietnam. 

The 2019 report provides a profile of students in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics.  In it, Philippine students scored poorly. Only 10% of Philippine students were performing at or above the minimum reading standard prescribed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  72% of Philippine students were at the lowest levels of writing literacy. This meant that they could only express simple ideas with limited vocabulary. In mathematics, only 17% of students performed at expected levels.

These findings corroborated earlier findings from the 2018 PISA study. The Philippine national report showed that Filipino students scored far lower than their Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) counterparts in reading, mathematics, and science. Filipinos averaged 340 points, 353 points, and 357 points in these subject areas respectively, as opposed to the OECD averages of 487 points, 489 points, and 489 points.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw an educational system that has long been in crisis into further turmoil. The Department of Education (DepEd) had to delay the opening of classes from June to October in order to prepare a variety of materials—educational TV, print-based modules, interactive games—that would enable students to study from home. Local government units began distributing tablet PCs and learning packets.  Telecommunication companies gave zero-rated mobile data access to DepEd Commons, the online repository of all these learning materials.  Despite these preparations, DepEd was repeatedly criticized for errors in their modules, ill-prepared teachers, and slow response times. 

Then, to heighten the crisis even further, the Philippines was struck by 2020’s strongest cyclone, Typhoon Rolly, followed by Typhoon Ulysses. Both storms caused major flooding, massive damage to property, electrical, water, and telecommunications outages, and loss of life.

It is no any wonder, therefore, that certain circles have clamored for an academic freeze.  In the first half of 2020, a petition on called for the cancellation of the 2020-2021 academic year, citing lack of Internet access, lack of elearning hardware, and questionable pedagogical practices. At the time of writing, the petition had over 360,000 signatories. After Typhoon Ulysses, some university faculty called for an early end to the semester while some students called for an academic strike to coerce the government to respond more aggressively to both COVID and the natural disasters.

Yet is an academic freeze the solution? As it is, all students in all countries will suffer learning losses this school year. Does this mean we should stop fighting?  Given that the Philippines is already so behind in its academic outcomes, wouldn’t a freeze cause even further harm? 

Research from the OECD suggests that income increases by anywhere from 7.5% to 11.1% with each additional year of schooling. Conversely, losing a year of schooling leads to fewer learning outcomes overall, the diminishing of skills already learned, and a weaker foundation upon which future learning can build.  Ultimately, this will lead to more limited economic opportunities for individuals, an estimated 5% to 17% annual lifetime income loss, and a poorer human capital base for countries overall. 

The Philippines’ educational systems response to COVID-19 and the recent natural disasters is far from perfect, but we cannot give up. We are already so far behind. We have to keep trying to move forward, difficult as it is, because to abdicate the effort is to lose what little ground we already have.

by Professor Ma. Mercedes T. Rodrigo