Politics

Coronavirus deepens Philippine learning crisis

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By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

NATIVIDAD ARAGO, 74, worries about the future of her seven-year-old grandson, who has barely learned anything in his two years of online classes amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“He still doesn’t know how to read,” she said by telephone. “I’ve been helping him with his learning modules, but I can only do so much.”

Her grandson, who is now in second grade, was one of hundreds of thousands of Filipino students who were forced to study at home after schools were shuttered in 2020 amid lockdowns.

This generation of students worldwide now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14% of today’s global gross domestic product, because of coronavirus-related school closures and economic shocks, according to the World Bank.

“This new projection far exceeds the $10-trillion estimate released in 2020 and reveals that the impact of the pandemic is more severe than previously thought,” it said in a January blog posted on its website.

The pandemic and school closures not only jeopardized children’s health and safety with domestic violence and child labor increasing, but also affected student learning substantially, the multilateral lender said.

In low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in learning poverty — already above 50% before the pandemic — could reach 70% largely as a result of the long school closures and the relative ineffectiveness of remote learning, the World Bank added, citing an earlier report.

“Unless action is taken, learning losses may continue to accumulate once children are back in school, endangering future learning.”

This could erode the quality of Philippine manpower, which experts said is now struggling to compete with foreign labor in the global market.

“There is a lot of anecdotal feedback that employers, despite high unemployment, have a hard time hiring because people don’t have the right skills or skill level,” Francisco Alcuaz, Jr., executive director of the Makati Business Club, said in an e-mail. “There are many reasons behind this.”

Policy makers are backing calls to review the country’s 10-year-old curriculum called the K-12 program, which extended the basic education cycle to include two more years in high school.

Almost a decade after the program, which complies with global standards, Filipino students hardly excel as shown in major assessments.

“The Philippines has certain competitive advantages when it comes to its working population being skilled,” Chris Nelson, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce Philippines (BCCP), said in an e-mail. “However, challenges to retaining this advantage may arise if the government will not pursue immediate actions to strengthen the education system.”

In an assessment of 15-year-old learners across 79 economies conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2018, the Philippines ranked last in reading comprehension and placed second to the last in science and mathematics. 

Majority of Filipino learners in Grade 5 also did not meet the proficiency level expected in reading, writing, and math, according to the 2019 Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics.

Meanwhile, 24% of 3.6 million Grade 4 to 6 students were frustrated readers while 1% were nonreaders, according to the Philippine Education department’s post-tests for school year 2018 to 2019.

Mr. Alcuaz said there’s a link between malnutrition and poor cognitive ability among children that he said should be treated as an emergency.

“As many as a third of five-year-olds aren’t getting proper nutrition,” he said. “It may affect brain development and learning ability.”

Childhood undernutrition cost the Philippines $4.4 billion or 1.5% of its growth output in 2015, according to the World Bank.

“We need the president to be an education and nutrition president,” Mr. Alcuaz said. “We need to declare and treat these as emergencies. Without proper nutrition, it’s hard to get an educated workforce.”

Even before the pandemic, the Philippine education sector faced challenges including overcrowded classrooms and a teacher shortage triggered by low wages.

Vice-President Sara Duterte-Carpio, who as Education chief has ordered full face-to-face classes by November, should address these problems.

Antonio L. Sayo, vice-president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECoP), said the government should ensure that the education sector meets the demands of emerging industries.

“The current economic structure is now dominated by the service sector at 40%, with manufacturing and agriculture making up about 30% each,” he said in an e-mail.

More high schools should offer science and mathematics-oriented curricula, Mr. Sayo said. “We have dwindling students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and that should be addressed so we could attract investments in manufacturing where we have more value added.”

‘DRILL’Mr. Sayo said the Philippine government should also push its national policy on educational qualifications, which now include the Recognition of Prior Learning, a process that assesses one’s knowledge and skills — honed through formal and informal learning.

“Under the Recognition of Prior Learning, many of our overseas Filipino workers who returned can pursue their degrees by giving credit to their experience, particularly in manufacturing and construction,” he said.

The government should likewise have a clear policy on the medium of instruction to be used in elementary and secondary schools, he added.

Rene E. Ofreneo, former dean of the University of the Philippines’ School of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the best way to master reading, arithmetic, and science is to use the language understood by students.

“You learn English as a secondary language, not as the primary one,” he said in an e-mail. “If you try to drill English immediately, the processes of understanding the basics are weakened and you produce low-quality graduates with poor understanding of science and technology.”

English proficiency and a high literacy rate have made the Philippines one of the most attractive destinations for outsourcing, which accounts for a tenth of its economic output.

But Mr. Ofreneo said the Philippines can do more for multinational clients than just providing a pool of English-speaking talents with an American accent.

The government should have long recognized that the business process outsourcing sector is being subjected to automation, “making call center operators vulnerable to job displacements.”

“The BPO business or offshored information and communications technology businesses are bound to have a global workforce involving different nationalities across the globe,” Mr. Ofreneo said.

“The Philippines should adopt India’s approach amid the changing landscape by reducing reliance on call center or customer service operations and focusing on higher value-adding programming services, which require more science and technical know-how.”

Experts have been urging the government to help third-party service providers prepare their workforce for a shift to high-value demand or non-voice services.

In 2021, the information technology and business process management sector contributed $29.5 billion to the Philippine economy, higher than $26.7 billion a year earlier.

The country needs more workers who are digitally literate to boost the industry’s economic contribution, Mr. Nelson said.

“Upskilling the Filipino workforce particularly to adapt to digitalization is key to addressing the threats to the Philippines’ manpower.”

“I hope my grandson will learn more now that he’ll be going to school again,” said Ms. Arago, the grandmother. “That’s for his own good. I want him to have a good future.”