"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, September 30, 2013

Private Prisons Do Not Perform Better Neither Do Private Schools

Efficiency is usually touted when advocating privatization of government functions. The government is wasteful and oftentimes, not really accountable. Free market does have competition on its side. A business that does not keep up with its competitors, a business that does not reinvent itself every so often, a business that does not embrace disruptive innovation, will simply not survive. Not all enterprises succeed. Only half of new firms in the United States survive beyond four years (Business Information Tracking Series, US Census Bureau). Even big firms such as Lehman Brothers Holdings, Washington Mutual, WorldCom, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, have either permanently closed or filed for bankruptcy. Woolworth has been dethroned by WalMart. Borders has closed its doors. This is competition. This is truly the arena of disruptive innovation. Without doubt, there are government functions that can benefit from private entrepreneurship. Even public basic education can, just not in a way some people think. The production of learning materials such as textbooks can potentially add quality while reducing costs if this is assigned to the private sector. Even the food served in a school's cafeteria could be possibly better. One must not confuse these services or goods, however, to public responsibilities.

Above cartoon copied from
Privatization: The Big Joke That Isn’t Funny
The last but not the least important suggestion to solve problems in basic education from Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error summarizes how society must view public schools:
SOLUTION NO. 11 Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.
The above is indeed a necessary reminder. Private enterprises are about cutting costs and maximizing profits. It is true that these objectives sometimes help deliver higher quality products to consumers. It is true that minimizing costs often leads to efficiency and less waste. It is true that private enterprises benefit consumers but privatization of government functions must delineate between goods and responsibilities. In addition, if what is desired is the efficiency that competition brings then privatization of government functions must allow for a free market and not a monopoly. Privatization, for example, of basic services such as sewer and water to a single company does not introduce competition. It should be obvious that a monopoly is likewise not a free market.

To illustrate why privatization of public schools is not a solution, the case for prisons maybe helpful. In the US, several states have enlisted private companies to house inmates. Privatization supposedly promises savings. After several years, there is now evidence. The state of Arizona, for example, has found out exactly what private prisons really are. The following are excerpts from a New York Times article, "Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings":

There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.” 
Such has been the case lately in Arizona. Despite a state law stipulating that private prisons must create “cost savings,” the state’s own data indicate that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons. 
The research, by the Arizona Department of Corrections, also reveals a murky aspect of private prisons that helps them appear less expensive: They often house only relatively healthy inmates. 
“It’s cherry-picking,” said State Representative Chad Campbell, leader of the House Democrats. “They leave the most expensive prisoners with taxpayers and take the easy prisoners.”
The key here to understand why this relates to public education is the statement made by Campbell: "It's cherry-picking. They leave the most expensive prisoners with taxpayers and take the easy prisoners."   Applied to education, private schools often cherry-pick via entrance examinations and tuition fees that are beyond the reach of the poor (even with government subsidies). To minimize costs, these schools do not enroll children who have special needs. These schools only enroll children who have been raised in households that have provided good early childhood learning. These schools can also minimize costs by reducing the teaching staff and replacing them with technology. Again, with highly motivated students who have very strong background, no one would really notice a difference between a computer screen and a teacher. This is no different from the privatization of prisons in Arizona.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Poverty Crushes Education

High taxes plus a government so big that it controls almost every facet of life can surely stifle creativity, innovation and consequently, economic growth. A free market economy often brings out the motivation necessary for people to perform at their best. Unfortunately, a society driven solely by private enterprise without any government control assumes that each and every member of society is discerning enough to make the right choices. One additional assumption is that everyone has enough information and skills to become a successful entrepreneur.

There is a great photo blog about the Philippines by Sidney Snoeck. It is called "My Sarisari Store". I grew up in a neighborhood in Manila where one may find more than one store within a residential block. These stores were small and they were usually selling groceries in tiny portions. For example, one could buy a cigarette stick from any one of these stores. The "sarisari store" was certainly my introduction to Philipine entrepreneurship. It was a store that only sold what people in the neighborhood wanted and could buy. Sidney Snoeck's blog provides bits and pieces of the Philippines, allowing its readers to see what they ought to see about the country. In addition to the photos, Snoeck writes once in a while. In one set of photos called "The Lost Children of Manila", Snoeck writes, "Photographers are not (only) here to promote the Philippines. They also have a social responsibility." Snoeck's photographs do provide images that we all need to see so that we do not get lost in romanticizing poverty:

In the "Reign of Error", Diane Ravitch uses the word "toxic" to describe poverty. And her tenth solution addresses the fact that there are social realities that harm learning in the classrooms:
SOLUTION NO. 10 Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.
There is segregation in the Philippines. It is not about race, however. It is based on socio-economic class. Thus, poverty deals a knock out combination on education. Poverty creates an achievement gap before formal schooling starts and schools that serve poor children are the ones often lacking in resources. Elite schools are limited to children of privileged families. Relying solely on market solutions to address poverty cannot succeed. An iron hand on markets is not advisable, but an obligation to protecting the poor, the most vulnerable of society, cannot be dropped. A free market economy as well as a healthy democracy requires an informed citizenry. Poor people often make bad choices. Their choices unfortunately have more severe consequences. Poverty does not allow for the right atmosphere required for proper choices and decisions to be made. Poverty crushes education. Basic education therefore must mitigate the harmful effects of poverty. Acknowledging that poverty harms education is a necessary first step in solving problems in basic education. The solutions are not cheap. Not taking actions, however, is more expensive. A healthy democracy is not possible with widespread poverty. And as Ravitch points out, addressing poverty is expensive, but is "not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Past, Present and Future

These three words are passages in time. However, without change, these three essentially look the same except for their timestamp. Lack of progress frequently happens. For this reason, there is the famous quote from George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Above copied from
The above photo copied from deviantart illustrates another nugget of wisdom on how one should treat the past, the present, and the future. How does thinking about time relate to basic education? If there is one feature that is great about Diane Ravitch's book Reign of Error, it is the fact that Ravitch is a historian of education. Her deep knowledge of history definitely enriches and guides her vision of public school education in the United States.

Philippine basic education likewise has a lot to learn from its history. Niceto Poblador in "BASIC EDUCATION IN THE PHILIPPINES: Beyond Reform, Beyond Transformation" enumerates the various reforms the Philippine government has attempted over the past two decades, yet, these efforts have shown very little results, if there are any, to show. When Poblador wrote this article, the most current education reform then was the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA). BESRA focuses on decentralization of basic education. It is in fact in line with one of the solutions brought forth by Ravitch in Reign of Error:
SOLUTION NO. 9 Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.
Ravitch ends the chapter that talks about this solution with the following sentences:
Because public schools need the support of the public that funds them, they should have the widest possible community support. Community support means democratic governance. School districts should be governed by those who are willing to work diligently to improve them and by those who have the greatest stake in the success of the children and the community.
As noted by Poblador, the above principle is an ideal, but it faces serious obstacles given the current predicament of Philippine politics. Poblador writes:
BESRA will be strongly resisted by the System, and is doomed to failure. Here’s why: It will be strongly resisted by entrenched elements in the bureaucracy and by elements outside the system whose interests firmly lie on the status quo. Implementing a change of such magnitude will jeopardize sinecures and endanger personal (i.e., financial) interests. Effective implementation will require empowering lower-level administrators and stakeholders within the community. While decentralization has many advantages, its downsides are easily overlooked. For one thing, it will exacerbate parochialism and turfism which carry the danger that local issues and concerns will take precedence over the larger interests of society and of the community. Successful implementation requires extensive networking arrangements and joint, multi-sectoral decision making. In the past, consortium arrangements and other forms of collaboration and team effort have failed.
What should not be lost in the above argument is the fact that opposition to a decentralization of education really has nothing to do with any harm decentralization can do to the learning of children. The arguments are really about communities in the Philippines not having what it takes to run a school. The arguments are about insecurity, personal interests, and turfism.

On the other hand, the arguments for decentralization are about commitment and stake. At this point, it maybe helpful to return to Ravitch's last sentence, "School districts should be governed by those who are willing to work diligently to improve them and by those who have the greatest stake in the success of the children and the community." Philippine basic education in its current form can be described by schools being told what to do exactly by an office in Pasig City near Manila. The probability of finding someone who makes decisions in this office and at the same time has a child enrolled in any one of these public schools is very low. Reforms in Philippine basic education is decided by members of Congress and the current residents of the palace in Manila. Likewise, the probability that someone in these decision-making bodies has a child enrolled in any one of these poor public schools is probably zero, not to mention that most of these decision makers know very little about education. Reforms in education that will work cannot come without competence, commitment and stakeholding. Thus, it must come from the ground. Only then would the past may become distinguishable from the present and the future.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Professionalism in Education

One of the proposed solutions offered by Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error is the professionalization of education:
SOLUTION NO. 8 Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.
This solution requires a dramatic change in the attitude and culture of the entire society. Take, for example, a recent protest rally held by students, teachers and alumni of Quezon City Science High School (The following are copied from the Facebook page of the Quezon City Public School Teachers Association (QCPSTA)):

Quezon City Science High School Protest

Students, teachers, alumni filed charges, demanding the removal of corrupt Q.C high school principal

Teachers, students, and alumni of the Quezon City Science High School (QCSHS) held a protest today in front of the Dept. of Education's NCR Regional Office (DepEd NCR) to call for the ouster of QCSHS's principal, Zenaida P. Sadsad. Formal charges of corruption were filed to DepEd NCR against Sadsad for leaking the answers to QCSHS's Entrance Examination in exchange for money.

There are two things that allow for cheating, if indeed true, to occur: opportunity and motive. Without an entrance examination, there is nothing to sell, there is no opportunity. These probably are of much smaller scale than stealing billions in pork barrel funds. There maybe circumstances that make it tempting for a principal to devise a scheme to make additional money. After all, educators in public schools in the Philippines do not receive salaries that fit the responsibilities they shoulder. 

Addressing problems in education requires society to regard the teaching profession in its rightful place. It requires treating education properly. First, the obvious thing is that basic education should be "an education for all". More precisely, quality basic education must be provided to all. With this in mind, opportunities for cheating are reduced for it is not excellence that is measured, but equity. Second, one must reflect on how professional work differs from blue-collar work.  ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) provides a good list showing the characteristics that distinguish professional from blue-collar work:
  • Professionals are expected to attack nonroutine problems and to do so creatively.
  • Professionals are expected to consider a variety of perspectives when making decisions.
  • Professionals play a significant role in producing the knowledge and insights that move their profession forward.
  • Professionals hold themselves accountable for using best practices.
Professionalism does demand good salaries. Standards in teaching colleges can be set to a higher bar. Teaching exams can be made more difficult. Continuing teacher education can be imposed. But professionalism requires much more than these. It requires trust and respect. Teachers who are dictated exactly on what they should do inside the classroom are not being treated as professionals. We do not treat engineers, doctors and lawyers in the same way. Ravitch's solution number 8 is indeed a great challenge for it requires all of us to change.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tests and Their Proper Use

In medicine, there are various exams or tests. For example, blood tests are performed to measure the total amounts of fatty substances in the blood. These are important to gauge the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) since this correlates with a lower chance of heart disease and stroke. At the same time, measuring the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is equally useful since this associates with a higher probability of suffering from a heart attack or stroke. If one has very high LDL and very low LDL, lifestyle changes (exercise and diet) or statin drugs (these are substances that help lower the amount of cholesterol in the blood) may be prescribed. Early this year, Richard Knox of NPR News wrote "Doctor Groups Unite Against Unnecessary Tests & Procedures":

Picture above is a screen capture of
Education can certainly learn a thing or two from the medical profession.

Diane Ravitch's seventh proposed solution in her book The Reign of Error is described in Chapter 28, "Measure Knowledge and Skills with Care":
SOLUTION NO. 7 Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.
The situation in the United States can be described by a misplaced focus or emphasis on standardized tests. In No Child Left Behind, scores in these tests can decide the closing of a school. It is the "high-stakes" character that erodes the practice of testing in US public schools. Since scores in these tests mean a lot, teachers are also forced to focus only on subjects (reading and math) where students are tested, neglecting the other not tested but equally important disciplines in basic education.

The Philippines likewise has standardized tests. Unlike in the US, these tests are not "high stakes" although performance based evaluations of teachers established this year are partly based on test scores of students. Nonetheless, the main problem with education testing in the Philippines is how test scores are used to guide reform in education. Similar to medicine, assessments inform. It is correct to use test scores to identify the problem. Knowing the situation is essential in drawing the appropriate solution. 

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics' Learning Metrics Task Force recently issued recommendations for measuring learning outcomes. The report emphasizes that measurement must include the following learning domains:

Above captured from
Towards this goal, the following measures or indicators are recommended:

Above captured from
Measuring learning outcomes is important. This, however, is not the only step in reforming education. These assessments must guide education reform. Prior to the above recommendations, the Philippines has been participating in international assessments. The Philippines also has its own set of national standardized exams. This blog has highlighted the results from these exams in various articles. These exams are given at various stages in basic education. There is one near the end of primary schooling, which basically gauges how much students have mastered arithmetic and reading. The results have been dismal for years. Not performing well in these exams at the early grades point to problems in the first few years of elementary education as well as in the early childhood education (preschool and kindergarten). Yet, DepEd K+12 adds two years at the end of high school. This is no different from prescribing an appendectomy procedure after seeing high levels of cholesterol. We must not only measure the knowledge and skills with care, but more importantly, respond accordingly to what the measures say.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pork Barrel in Philippines Does Great Harm to Basic Education

Stealing public funds does harm to society. It destroys public trust. The government takes money from its citizens to support its social programs. These programs are often impossible if one simply relies on the generosity of private enterprises. In the United States, there is evidence that some of these programs do work and benefit the society as a whole. The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy has listed several intervention programs as "top-tier" or "near top-tier". Examples are:
  • Nurse-Family Partnership (A nurse home visitation program for low-income, pregnant women)
  • Child FIRST (A home visitation program for low-income families with young children at risk of emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems, or child maltreatment)
  • Success for All for Grades K-2 (A school-wide reform program, primarily for high-poverty elementary schools, with a strong emphasis on reading instruction)
  • Annual Book Fairs for High-Poverty Elementary Schools (Book fairs providing summer reading over three consecutive years, starting at the end of first or second grade)
  • Child Immunization Campaign With Incentives (Monthly immunization camps in poor Indian villages, combined with small incentives for parents to have their children immunized – e.g., $1 bag of lentils)
The above social programs depend so much on public funding. If instead of funding these programs, the United States allots pork barrel money to its lawmakers and the Office of the President in a manner that these politicians can choose which project to fund, difficulties as well as impropriety can easily arise. Even with honesty, the likelihood that a lawmaker in the Philippines is equipped with the required information to judge correctly whether a program deserves funding or not is really close to zero. Funding specific projects requires good studies. Identifying which social programs actually work is even a challenge in a developed country like the United States. 

The Philippines is likewise not endowed with unlimited public funds but poverty may come with some advantage when it forces the correct prioritization and decision to be made. On the other hand, poverty does exacerbate the ill effects of making the wrong choices or decisions. Poverty cannot tolerate wasteful spending but poverty should make obvious what interventions or social programs the government must take or make.
Above collection of photos copied from
Manny Olalia Quemuel's Facebook page
When the father of a poor family spends whatever little wage he makes into drinking, instead of clothing and feeding his children, such act will instantly receive condemnation from society. When a politician steals from public funds while the poor are denied of social services, it should be no different. Pork barrel in the Philippines is an ineffective way of addressing social programs. Worse, it is so susceptible to corruption and political patronage. Pork barrel therefore does great harm to social services like basic education.

In Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error, the sixth proposed solution is providing social services to poor children:
SOLUTION NO. 6 Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.
Basic education does not work by simply providing equal resources to all. There is an achievement gap brought about by poverty. Children in poor families usually do not receive the proper nutrition and medical attention they need. Children in poor families are less likely to engage in informal learning activities or trips with their parents. Children in poor families are less likely to have had books read to them by their parents. Children in poor families are more likely to have been exposed to emotional, physical and environment stress. Basic education must aspire for equity and not equality. Providing young children with the nutrition they need while in school is a program that should not require approval from a congressman. Such program attacks the problem at its core. Education can not be viewed as a solution to poverty. Instead, poverty must be viewed as a problem or hindrance in education. Medical and dental check-ups are also programs that can be incorporated in public schools. It is one advantage that poverty can provide. It does not require an "Einstein" to figure out what programs must be first priority. Yet, the obvious is often missed. 

When politicians steal from public funds that are meant to support social programs, we must place the photos of poor children in the Philippines right before our eyes. Hopefully, we will realize then the gravity of the crime these politicians are making. It is even actually worse than a father who goes drinking while his children are left without a meal. In the case of the father, at least, he presumably earned the money he used to buy his drinks.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Privatization of Basic Education Is Not a Solution

In a previous post in this blog, Lessons and Myths on Basic Education, the following myth was highlighted: Private schools are better than public schools.

Above figure copied from "18 Myths People Believe About Education"
If 37% of charter schools perform below and 46% perform as well as public schools then only 17% perform better. Why some people have the impression that private or charter schools perform better than public schools is due to not seeing the big picture.

Schools can provide the illusion of being superior by controlling its enrollment. By being selective, requiring entrance exams and interviews, for example, so that only the students who have strong background can enroll, schools can indeed appear to be doing a good job in education. This is what business looks like, ensuring that an enterprise only gets the best of the starting material. Having only those who are strongly motivated right at the beginning, having only those who already have a good vocabulary as well as number skills, and having only those children who have parents who are equally engaged in their children's education certainly provide an atmosphere more conducive to a successful education. The big picture, however, is that this practice then forces public schools to work with a more challenging student population, not to mention the fact that private schools may only seem performing well because these have been limited to motivated students.

Quality basic education needs to be delivered to all children. Otherwise, a democratic society can not function properly. It is this public benefit that works against privatization which often works on principles of profit or efficiency. Privatization can operate to achieve excellence but not equity. Only public schools can. Only a school that does not discriminate can. Only a school that neither looks at a parent's income nor a child's intelligence quotient can provide equity in basic education. Privatization can begin tracking of children, dividing them into groups as early as kindergarten. It splits society into at least two classes: the well-to-do and the needy. Ironically, in this system, schools with well-to-do children receive more while schools that serve children who are in need, schools that require greater support will receive less.

Equity is key to solving problems in basic education. Unfortunately, privatization often works against equity. Charter schools and private schools may help, as mentioned by Diane Ravitch in her book The Reign of Error:
SOLUTION NO. 5 Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.
These schools may help, but only if these schools work together with public schools. A charter or private school that works exclusively on children who have special needs, for example, can help lift some of the the enormous burden public schools have to carry. Obviously, a private school that selects only the children who are easier to teach does more harm than help to a public school system.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Classroom: Where Learning Is Supposed to Happen

I once taught a class that had 240 students. That class, of course, was still smaller than the freshman chemistry classes I had seen in state schools like University of Illinois. Still, I thought 240 was already frustrating. I did not even try to associate the face of each student to their name. That was mission impossible. Introductory classes like General Chemistry are usually large in universities. These classes, however, are divided into sections (20 students or less) which meet regularly every week as small discussion groups, each one under the supervision or guidance of a teaching assistant.

Obviously, students in higher education are very different from elementary school children. There is some degree of independence assumed from college students. There is no doubt that individual attention is necessary especially in kindergarten and during the early elementary years. One can also argue that even high school students as well as college students can benefit from individual attention. The environment is an important factor behind learning outcomes. Any school, no matter what the level is, becomes a second home to a student. On the teachers' side, elementary and high school instructors are spending their waking hours inside the school. A teacher's day-to-day life is likewise defined by the learning atmosphere.

An elementary classroom in Masbate, Philippines
Above photos copied from Masbate Talks Facebook Page
To support learning, a conducive atmosphere is very helpful. Learning does not easily happen by just providing a curriculum. The environment plays an important role in the implementation of any curriculum. Without a favorable setting, learning can become very difficult, if not impossible. The physical infrastructure is important. As for shelter, a house in a slum is significantly different from a decent apartment. Still, with the resilience of the human spirit, people survive in houses made of cardboard. Children still can learn in classes held under a tree or a bridge. It is in the absence of supporting social and emotional structures that failure becomes a sure thing.

Through this perspective, it is easier to appreciate the importance of class sizes in basic education. Assigning fifty students to a teacher in a first grade class harms both students and teacher. It is therefore no surprise that the fourth solution proposed by Ravitch in Reign of Error is about pupil to teacher ratio:
Solution No. 4 Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
Indeed, this solution may even be more expensive than building classrooms. Reducing the number of students in a class requires hiring more teachers. Building classrooms is a one-time expense. Employing teachers is not. Personnel salary takes a large portion of the DepEd budget in the Philippines. This is the case for all school systems. Doubling the number of teachers certainly requires a substantial increase in the budget. Not doing so, however, is much more costly. Lower graduation rates, costly interventions, disruptive and disorderly behavior, failure in curriculum reform - These can all come simply because of a teacher's inability to provide individual attention to all students. The choice is to either spend now so that class sizes are brought to a manageable size, or do nothing and simply watch schools fail and then spend later on all the ills a failing basic education system can bring to society.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Is a Good Education?

Even in higher education, there is the liberal arts curriculum. Although the specific subjects may differ from college to college, a liberal arts education is quite different from professional, vocational or technical curricula. Harvard takes pride in its liberal education and on its admissions web page, one can read the following:
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education 
A Harvard education is a liberal education — that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students' awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. It makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and critical of their presuppositions and motivations, more creative in their problem-solving, more perceptive of the world around them, and more able to inform themselves about the issues that arise in their lives, personally, professionally, and socially. College is an opportunity to learn and reflect in an environment free from most of the constraints on time and energy that operate in the rest of life.
Jesuit schools sum this up in a Latin phrase, "Cura Personalis", Care for the Whole Person:

Above copied from http://postmarq.tumblr.com/post/18392210430/marquette-cura-personalis
If this is an ideal for higher education, it must apply likewise to basic education. The introduction of DepEd K+12 raises the question on what the two additional years at the end of high school should be. Without doubt, what goes into these two years will likewise have an impact on higher education. Thus, questions have been raised regarding what general education courses should remain in college.

Nevertheless, a good basic education requires "Cura Personalies". Diane Ravitch makes this statement in the third proposed solution in her book Reign of Error. In the chapter, "The Essentials of a Good Education", Ravitch writes:
Solution No. 3 Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, georgraphy, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education.
Basic education is so much more than turning children into college or career-ready individuals. Basic education is caring for the whole person. Basic education is the investment made by society for its future. As Ravitch describes, "A citizen of a democratic society must be able to read critically, listen carefully, evaluate competing claims, weigh evidence, and come to a thoughtful judgment." Without such skills, a democratic society is sending election ballots to people who are not equipped to make an informed decision. There is nothing wrong with teaching skills important in domestic services (cooking, cleaning, laundry) in high school. But there is something wrong if these become the primary subjects taught in high school. 

Cura personalis must not be confused with religion or character education simply because the Jesuits have embraced this phrase. Caring for the whole reason requires all the general disciplines that encompass human knowledge and experiences. And it does include even physical education and recess.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Quality Early Childhood Education

The kindergarten curriculum of Philippines is guided and inspired by recent research and findings on early childhood education. That is the good news. Unfortunately, this is not the entire story. The Philippines is currently unprepared for a proper implementation. A curriculum (how and what to teach) can only be as good as its implementation. Quality matters in early childhood education. In this area, just having something is not necessarily better than nothing. Simply endowed with the correct vision is not adequate for only realization can make the difference.

A board member from the province of Negros Occidental in the Philippines was quoted in a news article saying:
What is also alarming is the fact that this is a nationwide dilemma of DepEd. Before they fully implement K to 12 they have to address further preparations for parents and students (adjustment) and prioritize budget for additional teachers.
Much of the above concern centers on the fact that a significant number of kindergarten teachers under the DepEd's K+12 program are volunteers receiving as little as 3000 pesos (about US$75) per month. On top of this, kindergarten classes can have as many as 25 pupils and facilities as well as resources are often lacking.

Sadly, this is still not the full story. Early childhood education research in developed countries usually pertains to preschool age (younger than 5 years old) and not kindergarten. The following is a slide I copied from a presentation made by Rosemary Geddes and John Frank entitled, "Measuring Early Child Development in Scotland: Introducing the Early Development Instrument":

It is clear from the above figure that in developed countries, early childhood education refers to years before kindergarten. The years 2-5 are marked with a higher sensitivity of the brain to learn language, numbers, social skills, and conceptualization. These are the years that Diane Ravitch refer to in one chapter of her book Reign of Error. These are the Early Years that Count (Chapter 23):
SOLUTION NO. 2 Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
Missing these years and simply applying these principles in kindergarten is actually playing catch up.

Society has dramatically changed in the past three decades. I did not go through preschool. In fact, I did not even attend kindergarten. Of course, early childhood education does not have to occur in a formal school setting. Mine happened inside our home. My case was purely anecdotal and might not apply in general. I might not have so many toys but one weird thing about our house then was it had a blackboard with pieces of chalk. Maps of the world as well as the Philippines could also be found on the wall, as well as portraits of national heroes and past presidents. So, right inside our home, I had math, reading, writing and social studies. Our house was a bit strange.

My mother also completed an elementary teacher's certificate from the Philippine Normal College. Thus, she knew something about teaching young children  in spite of not actually working as a teacher in any school. She must have some rough idea at least of what and how to teach young children. My older sister (two years ahead of me) also went to kindergarten. At that time, she came home with some school work. I therefore had the opportunity to see what she was doing in school and oftentimes, I was likewise able to experience what she was going through. Except in my case, it was really all fun since I was neither being tested nor graded.

Quality early childhood education does count. It did for me and I have to thank both my older sibling and mother for it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Addressing Problems in Basic Education Inside the Womb

In Diane Ravitch's new book "Reign of Error", the first proposed solution comes in Chapter 22, Begin at the Beginning. With this suggestion, Ravitch illustrates a perspective that places education as a goal and not as a means. This is a very useful frame of reference since it does make the objectives a lot clearer. Trying to solve education problems while aiming to use education as a means to solve other problems can be very confusing. Do we improve education to solve economic problems or should we address first the economic problems that lead to poor education? The latter approach is more likely to succeed simply because it attacks the problem at its root.

It is seldom that we find both the Philippines and the United States of America in a table of "Top Ten", but here is one rare example. This table says what it says. It is different from test scores where doubts can be raised regarding the validity, appropriateness and accuracy of the test materials. What is worth nothing here is that there are no countries that perform very well in international standardized exams in this list. Finland, Singapore, South Korea, and Canada are not on this list. The correlation between learning outcomes and what happens inside the womb is indeed especially striking.

Preterm births, of course, are strongly associated with low birth weight (less than 5 lbs. 8 oz.). There are numerous studies that examine how low birth weight affects brain development as well as cognitive abilities. The following figure extracted from an infographic from the Urban Child Institute demonstrates how early intervention programs which include both parental counseling as well as early education programs can help:

The obvious thing that Ravitch points out in her book is that why should society wait for the problem and apply costly interventions when it is possible to address the problem inside the womb. Preterm births and low birth weight can happen due to a variety of reasons. But one common cause (which applies likewise to a rich country like the United States) is the health of the pregnant mother. For this reason, prenatal care which includes the following (Ravitch cites recommendations from the March of Dimes) is suggested:
The March of Dimes report has specific recommendations. They include well-constructed programs to improve nutrition, family planning services, and health education and to reduce substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and exposure to environmental pollution.
Preterm birth and low birth weight are problems. Trying to address these by changing curricula or adding two years of high school somehow misses the point. The problems at the beginning need to be solved at the beginning since later interventions are costly and oftentimes, ineffective.

Preterm birth and low birth weight affect basic education outcomes. There is ample research showing how low birth weight is associated with brain development as well as intelligence quotient (IQ). One example even manages to perform a near-experimental model: examining identical twins. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, by Raznahan and coworkers, first looks at identical twins to examine the relationship between birth weight and cognitive development. The study finds:
Here, we combine the power of a within monozygotic twin study design with longitudinal neuroimaging methods that parse dissociable components of structural brain development between ages 3 and 30 y, to show that subtle variations of the in utero environment, as indexed by mild birth weight (BW) variation within monozygotic pairs, are accompanied by statistically significant (i) differences in postnatal intelligence quotient (IQ) and (ii) alterations of brain anatomy that persist at least into late adolescence. Greater BW within the normal range confers a sustained and generalized increase in brain volume, which in the cortical sheet, is specifically driven by altered surface area rather than cortical thickness.
In simpler terms, the baby born with a heavier weight among the identical twin has a larger brain volume and a higher IQ. This difference persists up till the end of high school. With this in mind, it should now be clear why Ravitch writes the following in the chapter Begin at the Beginning:
...This is an excellent place to begin a genuine program of social reform. The research is clear . The need for action is clear. The short-term and long-term benefits are clear. There is a widespread consensus on how to address and remedy the problem....
It is clearly wrong to think that a spiral curriculum, an inquiry-based approach, mother tongue based - multilingual education, no fomal subject of science in the early years, and adding years to high school can address problems in education the Philippines faces if some of these problems are due to preterm birth or low birth weight. It is likewise a fallacy to think that education is the best weapon against poverty. Evidently, the effects of poverty on education need to be mitigated first.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to Solve Problems in Education

This blog now averages about 1500 views per day. It has more than 600 posts and the number of visits from the Philippines has now reached a total of 300,000. It has been more than a year and while trying to condense this entire blog into its most salient points, I came across Diane Ravitch's new book "Reign of Error". (Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (Kindle Locations 6029-6030). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The book is notably and strongly supported by data and research.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Throwing Everything at Education

Schools should teach good manners and right conduct. Schools should teach financial skills. Schools should teach family planning. Schools should teach that plunder is wrong. Schools should teach children what people in public office should be doing. More importantly, schools should teach children properly so that they do not grow up stealing taxpayer's money. Schools are expected to solve every problem society faces. Perhaps, it is one reason why schools fail. How about just being able to answer the following question? Provide conditions and reagents necessary for the following chemical reactions to occur:

We are throwing all sorts of national problems into the classroom as if the solutions lie within the corners of one small room occupied by a teacher and a group of students. As a result, learning goals become equated with an advocacy. In so doing, the actual goals of education are lost and battles are waged between beliefs. Children end up not learning how to read, write and do math. Children end up not knowing how to reason, relate and represent. Education is gravely compromised. 

Take the case of mother tongue based - multilingual education (MTB-MLE). In itself, this is a very significant part of any education reform. To implement this correctly, there are so many prerequisites. Focusing on learning and not ideology requires a careful and prudent approach, not a haphazard, unplanned, unsystematic, unmethodical, disorganized, disorderly manner. I think I may have used all the adjectives that appropriately describe the Philippines DepEd's K+12 curriculum. More than a year ago, I wrote in this blog, "Mother Tongue Based - Multilingual Education : The Strategy?"
DepEd's K to 12 is an example of a gargantuan reform that is founded on a set of promises made by President Aquino. Yet, it even includes additional elements that are not in the original campaign platform and some even runs contrary. No formal subject of science in the early years runs contrary to the promotion of science education. Dilution of the high school curriculum to include instruction that is better learned at home or other venues likewise contributes to congestion of the curriculum and a decreased emphasis on science. The spiral approach, not included in the promises, by itself is already gigantic. Both size and scope of DepEd's K to 12 come from various interests that have been blended and combined into one enormous package. By doing so, DepEd's K to 12 has something to offer to everyone who has a say or influence on how Philippine basic education should be reformed. It does not matter whether some elements may be disagreeable, as long as there is one element to which an influential group strongly subscribes. Each element has its own set of followers with zeal, who would be willing to turn a blind eye to the other elements. There are people who think that 12 years of basic education is a must. DepEd's K to 12 caters to this set since these people do not care if the other elements of the new curriculum are wrong as long as it involves two additional years. There are educators who are completely convinced that a spiral incursion through disciplines is the way to go. As long as this element is present in the new curriculum, everything is acceptable. DepEd's K to 12 thus caters to various sectors by providing each one with a piece of the pie. And since everything goes, why not add a new grading system. This may attract additional support and steer the discussion away from the real problems such as shortages in resources as well as poor salaries and working conditions of teachers. These interests become united into one since conviction behind one element is so strong that compromises are easy enough to swallow. "At least, we are getting what we want, never mind the entire picture," describes the underlying justification. Some who have advocated intensely for mother tongue education are no exception.
Thus, to those who think DepEd's K+12 is "castrated", perhaps, it is time to rethink and seriously ask the question: "Did we throw everything at education, and in doing so, did we totally compromise education?"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Duplicitous Take on Evidence Based Research on Education

It happens in medicine. There are conditions in human health and disease that currently have no cure. It is easy then to fall victim to duplicitous claims that help convince people to try unproven methods. These claims are often touted on the internet where anyone can easily publish information, data or anecdotes. Unfortunately, the situation is far worse when it comes to education. 

Take, for example, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. This law embraces testing as the cure for all the ills plaguing public school education in the United States. Within the text of the law, the phrase "scientifically based research" is found 50 times. Yet, there is no scientific study out there that specifically pinpoints lack of accountability as the main culprit behind poor performance in US schools. On the other hand, with more than ten years of NCLB, evidence points to a lack of progress in learning outcomes suggesting the ineffectiveness of accountability as an education reform mechanism. Currently, the US is shifting into a standards driven reform. This seems to be a repeat because it is likewise difficult to find a good scientific study out there that strongly supports curriculum reform as a solution to current challenges in US public education.

The Philippines faces a similar quagmire. Republic Act No. 10533, the "Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013" makes the following claims regarding the K+12 curriculum:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Technology and Mental Well-Being of Children

"We are taking a BYTE out of our new Apple iPads! We are hungry for learning!" This statement accompanied a post on Facebook by a daycare in Nashville. The post was a photo of toddlers with their eyes glued on IPads, as reported by The Atlantic in "Discovering That Your 18-Month-Old Is Using an iPad in Pre-School". One of the parents who discovered the use of IPads decided to pull their son out of the preschool. Like most parents, I likewise question whether screen time benefits or harms young children.

My son finds images of cheetah for his homework project using Google
I did not grow up with these gadgets. The only screen available then was the television. But even with a television, one would be hard pressed to find programs that would be of interest to young children then. When I was in high school, there was an animation that caught the interest of a lot of children, Voltes V:

It was shown every Friday afternoon and each episode was half an hour long. I was among the young minds captivated by the show. I remember being very sad when Philippines president Marcos banned it. In addition to Voltes V, there were the other shows Mazinger Z and Daimos but Marcos likewise stopped the airing of these other shows. 

In medicine, before a drug is approved, it undergoes rigorous clinical trials. Part of the experiments evaluates how effective the drug is, but another important investigation evaluates its safety. The same must apply to what we provide to children. With regard to time on a screen (television, videos, video games, internet, social media, smart phones, and tablets), it is necessary to examine not just the benefits but also the harm technology might bring to our children. One aspect that is hypothesized to be crucial is the length of exposure to these activities. Thus, it is only prudent to ration the time we allow our children to watch television or videos, surf the internet, play video games, read and write emails, participate in chat sessions, and browse social media. But exactly how much is too much - this is the important question to address.

Research addressing this question is challenging. Each time the well-being of a child is involved, serious ethical considerations are present. Well designed experiments are often impossible to perform especially when risks are high. Hence, studies in this field usually settle with statistics and correlations. One example of such study is "Electronic screen use and mental well-being of 10–12-year-old children" published in the European Journal of Public Health: 

In the above study, the well being of 10-12 year-old children is evaluated using the following indicators:
  • little interest in doing things
  • little appetite
  • loneliness
  • crying easily or wanting to cry
  • had difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep
  • feeling sad or blue
  • feeling the future seemed hopeless.
Electronic screen use is divided according to the following types:
  • watching TV/DVD/VCR
  • playing Internet computer games
  • playing computer games not on the Internet
  • using Internet communication or ‘chatting’ channels
  • ‘other’ computer use.
Children are divided according to the average time spent in front of the screen for each of the above activities. The participants are 10-12 year-old children in Iceland. The study, as described in its abstract, is an analysis of cross-sectional, population-based data of 10–12-year-old children from the 2007 Youth in Iceland school survey (n = 10 829, response rate: 81.7%, boys: 50.5%)

All mental well-being indicators strongly associate with all types of electronic screen use. Four hours or more on any one of these screens results in a child being two to four times more likely to say "yes" to all of the above seven mental well-being indicators. The strong correlation is impressive as it holds across all types of screen use and across all mental well-being indicators. Of course, as the authors note in their conclusion, these are only correlations and not a clear demonstration of a cause and effect relationship. It is likely that children who have poor mental well-being resort to longer screen use. Still, the strong association between poor mental health and screen use exists. With this in mind, it is clear that rationing exposure to screens is indeed prudent. This rationing should not be limited only to the times spent inside a child's home. When screens are increasingly permeating classrooms and libraries in schools and preschools, these exposure times likewise need to be counted.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading, Reading and Reading....

This is the message one might take from a working paper recently released by the Center of Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. The study entitled "Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading" analyzes cognitive test scores at age 16 for a nationally representative cohort of people born in Britain in 1970 (the 1970 British Cohort Study). Using a multivariate general linear model that also takes into account test scores at ages 5 and 10, an in-depth examination of the progress in a child's cognitive skills can be made from near the end of primary school into secondary school. These years are probably distinct from the early childhood years during which parental as well as socio-economic factors strongly influence learning outcomes. In fact, with this model, only the parent's educational attainment remains significant while economic indicators become irrelevant. The likelihood that a child further improves from age 10 to 16 now relies a lot more on what the child does. And it is reading, reading and reading, as shown in the following figure from the paper:

Above figure copied from
Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Realigning Pork Barrel to DepEd's Budget

With visible resentment towards pork barrel, there is a proposal in the Philippine Congress to realign the 2014 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to the Department of Education (DepEd). Rappler reports that DepEd is apparently not as eager as the legislators making the proposal. DepEd secretary Armin Luistro is quoted in the report saying:
"While it's great to say thank you and accept that offer, I also would want to make sure that this is done in a way whereby we can assure ourselves [and Congress] that our absorbing capacity will allow us to spend the budget that they will add."
Philippines' DepEd Secretary
Brother Armin A. Luístro
Luistro also made the comment (Translated into English by Rappler): "When you were speaking a while ago I was thinking: If I'm dreaming right now, I hope I don't wake up anymore."

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Classroom That Is Conducive to Learning

One graduate student was so impressed when he sat in the first General Chemistry course that I taught at Georgetown. The lecture was among the first ones early in the morning. There were more than 150 students enrolled and the classroom was noisy while students were finding their seats. Morning greetings and chats about what happened the night before filled the room. While waiting for the scheduled time for the lecture, I was sitting in one of the chairs in the front row. When the moment to begin the lecture arrived, I stood up. At that precise moment, my graduate student could hear a pin drop. I did not have to say a word. All I did was I stood up and the room was quiet.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lessons from Poverty

Returning to my high school years, I remember an instance during which I was riding a jeepney with a classmate. This classmate realized how poor my family was and commented that my poverty was probably providing me with life's important lessons like resilience, perseverance and correct prioritization. Suddenly, poverty sounded like an advantage for me. I have not read the book by Sherman Alexie, "The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian", but I came across the following quote from this book:
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
Which view is correct? The past two articles in this blog, "The Poor's Lower IQ" and "Poor People Cannot Think Clearly" describe scientific studies that demonstrate how poverty impairs cognitive function. Sherman Alexie is perhaps closer to the truth.

I did grow up poor so my own life experience can address the question although this is not really a scientific way. It is only anecdotal and my experience is not necessarily universal. The studies that indicate detrimental effects of poverty center on worrying about financial matters. Thus, the effects of poverty on intelligence requires first of all an awareness of being poor. When I was in first grade, I did win first prize in a Math contest at Centro Escolar University but I was not really that smart. My parents managed to hide their poverty from me. As an elementary student in a private school, I was wearing a uniform different from those of the kids who are attending public school. I was also not spending so much time with children in wealthy families so I could not really see what I was missing. Though we were poor, my parents managed to hide completely their financial worries from me.

I realized we were poor much later on. First, there was a school transfer when I was in fourth grade. I enrolled in a parochial school in Quiapo that was charging a lower tuition. Then, there were projects in a home economics class that required students to pay for the materials. It was then that I noticed that my parents were worried whenever I brought news home that I needed money for a particular project. It was only at that point that my mind really became aware of our financial situation. My family was also forced to transfer to a dilapidated house. It was only at this time that poverty started to occupy my young and limited consciousness. I became conscious of not having as many clothes as other kids. Going through high school with a couple pair of pants with increasing number of patches with years makes poverty quite obvious. Even one of my high school teachers noticed that I was wearing the same pair of pants for several days.

But I did manage. Was I more resilient? Did I really develop perseverance? I could not really answer that question. If I do, it would only be my impression, not really based on evidence. There is a paper published in 2012 in the journal Educational Researcher that offers a possible explanation. The paper, "The Longitudinal Effects of Residential Mobility on the Academic Achievement of Urban Elementary and Middle School Students", studies the effects of school transfers. The study however involves schools in which seventy percent of the students are eligible for free lunch, indicating that most students in these schools come from poor families. Moving while remaining poor usually indicates necessity and not an opportunity. This is usually disruptive. Similar to my case, the event can easily become a catalyst to poverty awareness. Another paper in the same issue of the journal, "Early Reading Skills and Academic Achievement Trajectories of Students Facing Poverty, Homelessness, and High Residential Mobility", provides similar findings. The concluding paragraph of this paper is quite illuminating:
Homeless or highly mobile (HHM) students clearly face academic disadvantages compared with peers who are not poor and compared with peers who experience poverty but are not HHM. Understanding how first-grade achievement functions as a foundation of future achievement can inform efforts by educators and policy makers to promote early educational success for children at risk. Interventions to improve the academic achievement of HHM and other low-income students must begin early, emphasizing the skills that support learning in kindergarten and the early elementary years. These school readiness skills involve early academic skills, such as counting and naming letters, and also self-regulation skills that enable children to focus attention, follow directions, and get along with teachers and peers (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Early education programs that focus on school readiness skills and involve families likely will have the greatest potential to support academic resilience among high-risk children (Heckman, 2006). Students who begin first grade lacking these important learning skills may require intensive and specialized interventions to accelerate learning, with sensitivity to the issues faced by families who may not have the fundamental supports afforded by economic and residential stability.
Since the above papers were published in December 2012, my parents were clearly not aware of these findings. Yet, how they shielded me from poverty during my early elementary years and worked hard to provide me a quality primary education probably contributed significantly to my education.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Poor's Lower IQ

This blog pauses and borrows some "words of wisdom" from Paris Hilton, "Stop Being Poor":

Above photo copied from
Seeing that the one and only comment below the photo on Pinterest says:
Paris Hilton wore a "stop being poor" T-shirt. Just in case you guys were wondering how bad IQ rock bottom is.
This blog, Philippine Basic Education, must have lost its intelligence. I shared the previous post, Poor People Cannot Think Clearly, on Facebook using its first paragraph as a snippet:
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said, "Only taxpayers should be allowed to vote", and science might just be on her side. The senator from the Philippines made this statement during a press briefing on September 4, 2013. In the statement, the senator equates nonpayment of taxes to extreme poverty. In this dire situation, a poor person is extremely vulnerable to patronage politics. Votes or support can easily be bought even with token amounts. As a result, "taxpayers are being ruled by the choice of the nontaxpayers". Science may be supporting Senator Santiago's proposal to not allow poor people to vote.
Then, I realized that I must add the following since a significant number of Facebook users read only the excerpt. Some even "like" the post without actually reading the entire article so I decided to add the last three paragraphs to make sure that the message from the blog regarding the issue of the poor in society is not misunderstood:
Being poor and therefore financially worried is equivalent to losing a full night of sleep. 
On basic education, this study has serious implications. Child labor alone demonstrates that a student may not have all the cognitive resources a normal child has. Poor children likewise are exposed to financial worries when schools impose projects that children can not afford. Selling raffle tickets for fundraising, parties requiring new clothes, learning materials that need to be paid - These can easily become formidable financial concerns for a student. These worries capture the attention of a child leaving less room for learning. 
The appropriate solution is one that addresses the situation correctly and responsibly. It is wrong to deny schooling to children who are already working. It is wrong to tell students not to attend school anymore if they have financial worries. Similarly, not allowing the poor to vote is likewise an inappropriate response. Perhaps, the good senator from the Philippines is also not thinking clearly given the attention and frustration over massive corruption the country currently faces.
The propensity to bash the poor seems widespread among those who are vocal in various social media. Paris Hilton does not have a monopoly on "Stop being poor". One of the world's wealthiest woman, Gina Reinhart had this to say a year ago to poor people in Australia:
"Spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working."
The results presented by Mani and coworkers in the journal Science, which was highlighted in this blog's Poor People Cannot Think Clearly, are very significant. In the same issue of the journal, Kathleen Vohs, Professor of Marketing and Land 'O Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing at the University of Minnesota offers her perspective in "The Poor's Poor Mental Power". She starts her article with the following sentences:
"Few people wish to be poor. Many find it puzzling that those in poverty seem to get stuck in that state, even when there are opportunities to improve one's lot...."
In her perspective, Vohs offers a psychological explanation on why the poor while facing financial worries performs poorly in cognitive tests. She attributes the loss in mental functioning to a depletion in self-control. Vohs presents the following figure demonstrating the view that self-control is a limited resource:

Above figure copied from
The Poor's Poor Mental Power
Kathleen D. Vohs, Science 30 August 2013:969-970.
It is easy to relate to this view. "Going the distance", for example, makes fasting and abstinence much more difficult. Abstaining from something pleasurable for a day is more difficult than abstaining only for an hour. Moreover, self-control is a general resource. Thus, if one is asked not to smile for some period of time, that same person has less self-control later in the day on something totally unrelated like not eating chocolate. With this in mind, Vohs writes:
The limited-resource model of self-control points to the following state of affairs for people in poverty. Resisting urges and controlling one's behavior drains self-control resources. The poor must resist and control more than others because they have less money, food, and expendable time. Such limited supplies demand trade-offs, and hence many decisions. And, there is a snowballing, adverse effect of engaging in self-control on subsequent self-control capacity. Altogether, these processes spell a dwindling supply of self-control with few chances to recover.
Sadly, those who are bashing the poor seem to be the ones who have likewise lost a bit of intelligence. There are those who claim to have had the experience of successfully climbing out of poverty. That claim sometimes sadly comes with a resentment towards the poor, not fully recognizing the conditions and challenges the poor faces daily in their lives. It is true that some have "stopped being poor". However, this is more of an exception than a rule, otherwise, social mobility would not be one of the pressing challenges of society. Bashing of the poor perhaps only illustrates another human trait that is limited, compassion.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poor People Cannot Think Clearly?

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said, "Only taxpayers should be allowed to vote", and science might just be on her side. The senator from the Philippines made this statement during a press briefing on September 4, 2013. In the statement, the senator equates nonpayment of taxes to extreme poverty. In this dire situation, a poor person is extremely vulnerable to patronage politics. Votes or support can easily be bought even with token amounts. As a result, "taxpayers are being ruled by the choice of the nontaxpayers". Science may be supporting Senator Santiago's proposal to not allow poor people to vote.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago
Above photo copied from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miriam_Santiago
In the August 30, 2013 issue of the journal Science, an article on the relationship between poverty and thinking was published. The article, "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function", authored by researchers from Harvard and Princeton, has the following abstract:
The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.
Although the science may seem in agreement with the senator's view, that is, the poor has difficulty making the right choice or decision, the paper does NOT make the same recommendation of taking away the right to vote from the poor. Instead, the researchers maintain that policies that recognize and appropriately respond to this condition must be drawn. The last thing a poor person needs is to be further marginalized by society.

The study demonstrates in two different experiments how significantly financial worries can impair the cognitive ability of individuals. The first experiment involves shoppers in New Jersey. Participants are introduced to various scenarios that typify a financial problem. Some are shown difficult situations. A costly automobile repair ($1500) could be one example. These are called "Hard" scenarios while others are shown much easier situations. A cheaper repair ($150) is an example. These scenarios aim to trigger the participant's own financial concerns. The participants then take two exams that measure cognitive function. In one experiment, getting the correct answer even comes with a financial reward. Yet, even with incentives, those who are financially worried do not perform well:

Accuracy on the Raven’s matrices and the cognitive control tasks in the hard and easy conditions, for the poor and the rich participants, when incentives were provided.
Mani et al., Science 341 (6149): 976-980
The differences seen above disappear when the participants are provided scenarios that are not financially related. In the second experiment, sugarcane farmers in Tamil Nadu, India perform much better in cognitive exams when the exams are administered at post-harvest.

The authors write in their discussion of the findings:
The data reported here suggest a different perspective on poverty: Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor. 
How large are these effects? Sleep researchers have examined the cognitive impact (on Raven’s) of losing a full night of sleep through experimental manipulations (38). In standard deviation terms, the laboratory study findings are of the same size, and the field findings are three quarters that size. Put simply, evoking financial concerns has a cognitive impact comparable with losing a full night of sleep.
Being poor and therefore financially worried is equivalent to losing a full night of sleep.

On basic education, this study has serious implications. Child labor alone demonstrates that a student may not have all the cognitive resources a normal child has. Poor children likewise are exposed to financial worries when schools impose projects that children can not afford. Selling raffle tickets for fundraising, parties requiring new clothes, learning materials that need to be paid - These can easily become formidable financial concerns for a student. These worries capture the attention of a child leaving less room for learning.

The appropriate solution is one that addresses the situation correctly and responsibly. It is wrong to deny schooling to children who are already working. It is wrong to tell students not to attend school anymore if they have financial worries. Similarly, not allowing the poor to vote is likewise an inappropriate response. Perhaps, the good senator from the Philippines is also not thinking clearly given the attention and frustration over massive corruption the country currently faces.