"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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Setting Priorities

When I was in fourth grade, one day in the month of October, I decided that I could start walking from school to home instead of taking public transportation. The cost then was twenty five centavos per ride. Thus, in eight weeks, I would be able to save ten pesos, which would be enough to buy a new pair of pants, just in time for the holiday season. That need seemed urgent to me at that time since I was just about to earn the nickname "baduy"(someone whose clothing is out of style or uncool) from the other kids in the neighborhood. And I did manage to reach my goal, but when Christmas came, my parents decided that what I was able to save could be used to answer more urgent needs, such as food on our table. I trusted my parent's wisdom in setting priorities. I did end up with "baduy", but my parents did spend the money I saved on more important things.

We often live with limited resources. Setting priorities is therefore inescapable. The need for making decisions not only happens within a family, but also in a much larger context such as a community. Local governments, for example, shoulder several responsibilities. Basic needs such as clean and drinking water, peace and order, and waste management are examples. In addition, local governments are often tasked to improve the community's economy. To encourage growth in economy, tourism is often promoted. Local leaders therefore choose to launch projects aimed to improve the image of their community. Festivals are held. These actions are clearly based on reasonable objectives. Problems arise however when there is a perception that the basic needs are not being met. Unlike a family unit, a local government unit is much bigger. In the case of clean and drinking water, shortages may not be affecting everyone. In this case, the need for good data is evident. The need for data regarding water supply is obvious but data that inform on the effectiveness of various programs aimed at boosting the economy are equally imperative. After all, any government action takes time, effort and money so it is equally necessary to see if these festivals and beautification are indeed bearing fruit. As a child, I could take my mother's word since I trust that she knew best and she did. But with a local government, evidence is a must.

Drawing education policies and reform requires no less. Correctly setting priorities is simply dictated by the fact that resources are not limitless. A government clearly must understand the problem at hand and find effective solutions. Philippine basic education suffers at the very early stages of basic education. The Philippines did not do well in international standardized exams given to fourth- and eight-grade (2nd year high school) pupils. This only means that there are serious problems in the early years of basic education. To address this, the Philippines' Department of Education chose to add two years at the end of high school in its new K to 12 curriculum. This action is clearly not supported by evidence. Education policy makers keep insisting that the new curriculum is necessary to meet international standards yet they fail to see that the additional years do not really matter if students are not even mastering basic literacy and math skills.

Actions taken often define priorities. How seriously and thoughtfully one acts demonstrates what really matters. Unfortunately, education policy makers in the Philippines often do not have children enrolled in public schools. Therefore, unlike my mother, these leaders are unable to see the correct priorities in their own homes. There is no excuse, however, since education research is rich with evidence-informed guidelines. Take, for instance, the results summarized in The Cost-Effectiveness of Inputs in Primary Education:Insights from the Literature and Recent Student Surveys for Sub-Saharan Africa by Sebastian Fehrler, Katharina Michaelowa, and Annika Wechtler. As the title suggests, factors that can influence primary education have been examined in this work, and the last sentence in the conclusion really captures most of the findings:
Nevertheless, traditional inputs like school books still appear to be promising options to improve school quality. 
Wall charts and teacher manuals have also been investigated but their effects are not as robust as the availability of textbooks.

An elementary school pupil stands in front of a blackboard with wall charts serving as learning resources (Courtesy of Ibaba Elementary School)
With regard to textbooks, the actions of the Department of Education in the Philippines leave no doubt on how much priority is given to this resource. This blog has featured posts by Joy Rizal who has been writing about the textbook situation in the Philippines.The following are Rizal's articles posted on this blog:

Sep 05, 2013
As I reported before we have had a lot of issues regarding the DepEd Malabalay City
school district of Bukidnon, not delivering any of the promised second grade material for our children
to use in their classes....

Nov 10, 2014
The following are photos of exam questions posted by Joy Rizal on Facebook: Looking at the above,
a student cannot really tell which is grammatically correct: "Which set of numbers" or "Which set of number"....

Nov 07, 2013
The title as well as the main body of this post comes from Joy Rizal. Joy worries that with the
incompetence and corruption within DepEd and the rallying cause of improving basic education, 
DepEd can well serve as an excellent conduit for political patronage and corruption

Oct 20, 2014
It seems the ONLY things that DepEd has the ability to keep and insure will happen on time, according to schedule, are breaks and holidays....

Seeing how significant textbooks are in basic education, one should in fact wonder why the Department of Education in the Philippines fails miserably in this area. The poor performance in providing textbooks to students in the Philippines is truly a testament of how much or how little attention the government pays to improving the education of its youth. Clearly, the priorities are wrong.

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