"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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Another Year, Another Chance, Again....

This is a repost from 2013. It is disheartening that by simply updating the year, what this post says still sounds applicable.

The year 2015 is about to end. Another year has gone by. While it is usually the time to reflect on how to make things better, it is also en excellent opportunity to look back.

"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 

“Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.” - Brad Paisley

These two quotes crystallize the intersection between past and future. That point is always the day at hand, the present. This blog has gone through another year. This is a blog that shares findings from research on education as well as aspirations for the years to come. 

This past year is marked with data that emphasize the dramatic impact of poverty on education. Education is often seen as a way out of poverty. But in reality, education is seen by society as a way to get ahead. In pursuit of excellence, competition is nurtured. Collaboration takes a back seat. As a result, equity is often compromised, education therefore fails to fulfill the promise of serving as a vehicle for social mobility. 

Education is frequently seen through the eyes of an individual. Through these lenses, anecdotes and sound bites rule the world of education reform. Our opinions do make good stories. They are interesting. They may even have bits of wisdom. Unfortunately, these individual stories are usually exceptions to the rule. Thus, in spite of good intentions, measures drawn to uplift basic education fail because these are not based on good evidence. Actions taken are not transferable for these are learned from specific cases and are thus, are not applicable in general. Data that guide future directions must be obtained from good studies. This is how we should write a new book for education. 

2016 provides new opportunities. It is another chance to make a difference in education. It is another "blank page" for us "mortals to achieve immortality".

Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Time to Change Course Is Now

"The bat has to get rid of the large tree by echolocation or else it will bump and hurt its head." This statement is one of the the 775 errors Antonio Calipjo Go, an academic supervisor at Marian School of Quezon City, has found in a learning material for Grade 4 science published by the Philippines' DepEd. The book which is about 300 pages long has more errors than pages. It comes at a cost of 82 million pesos (about 2 million US dollars). 

Above copied from Wrecking Ball
Reacting to Go's expose, Dean Bacobo posted the following on Facebook:

The Senior High School years of DepEd's K to 12 are scheduled to begin in about six months. Surely, producing a decent science book for Grade 4 is a much easier task than adding two years at the end of high school. Yet, the grade 4 Science Learning Material is a clear testament of the gross incompetence of the Philippines' Department of Education. 

Sadly, DepEd's K to 12 is not the only legacy of the Aquino administration. There is the never ending fight against corruption which actually targets only the political opponents of the administration. There is that promise to be run over by a train if problems are not fixed by the end of this year. There is super typhoon Yolanda. Its extraordinary strength is sure to be remembered. Unfortunately, how bad Aquino responded to this disaster is likewise memorable. And, of course, the Mamapasano massacre....

DepEd's K to 12 is set to continue even beyond the Aquino's administration. Not providing students with the basic inputs required means condemning the children to learn not because of, but in spite of the government's help. Quality is not in the number of years. There is no point in adding two more years if learning materials are deeply flawed, classrooms are lacking, and teachers are grossly disenfranchised. Stopping DepEd's K to 12 before it becomes a total train wreck is one of the best resolutions at this time.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball

As another year winds down, it is only timely to pause and reflect on what this past fifty weeks or so have shown and taught us. Remaining critical of an ill-thought curriculum tests our perseverance and commitment to good basic education. It is frustrating. It does not make sense. Our criticism, however, must remain within cogent arguments. One thing this past year and so many other years have been showing us is that addressing challenges in education involves much more than the curriculum. Poverty can not be ignored. The number of poor families in the Philippines remains high. About a quarter of Filipinos live on one dollar a day. How poverty is inversely related to education outcomes must be kept in our thoughts.

A recent report card from the state of Iowa tells of the same story. Iowa's Department of Education has rated its schools based on the following criteria:

  • Proficiency: The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on reading and mathematics assessments.
  • College and Career-Ready Growth: The percentage of students who are making the year-to-year growth necessary to be ready for college and career training by the end of high school.
  • Annual Expected Growth: The percentage of students making a year of academic growth in a year’s time on reading and mathematics assessments.
  • Closing Achievement Gap:A measure that reflects a statewide goal of narrowing the gap in achievement for students with disabilities, students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and English Language Learners.
  • College and Career Readiness: The percentage of students who score at or above a level of performance on reading and mathematics assessments that predicts a higher probability of postsecondary success. (Middle/high schools only.)
  • Graduation Rate: The percentage of ninth-grade students who finished high school within five years. (High schools only.)
  • Attendance: The average daily attendance of students, which is the total number of days students were enrolled and present divided by the total number of possible attendance days.
  • Staff Retention: The percentage of teachers, school administrators and other licensed staff members who remained employed in a school over consecutive school years.

Based on the above,, a school can be classified as one of the following: Exceptional, High-Performing, Commendable, Acceptable, Needs Improvement, and Priority, with Exceptional as best and Priority as worst. About three quarters of Iowa's high schools fall within the average ratings of either Commendable or Acceptable. Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant has collated and examined the results and cast these with eyes on poverty. Poverty is easily tracked within schools by looking at the number of children who qualify for reduced or free lunch. One of the figures McLeod presents convincingly the negative relationship between poverty and education:

Above copied from Scott McLeod's Dangerously Irrelevant
McLeod adds:
Zero of the 34 Priority schools have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and 30 of the 34 (88%) have more than half of their students who are eligible. In contrast, 27 of the 35 Exceptional schools (77%) have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and only 3 of the 35 (9%) have more than half of their students who are eligible.
A family of three in Iowa living on one hundred dollars a day is eligible for free lunch. This bar is certainly much higher than the one used in the Philippines to be considered poor, a hundred times higher! From the graph above, it is clear that as soon as a school in Iowa reaches 75% school free lunch, the best rating it could get is only "Needs Improvement".

Poverty is indeed the big elephant in the room when it comes to addressing problems in basic education. It is one major reason why DepEd's K to 12 is deeply flawed. The Philippines Department of Education and the Aquino administration have only made it more difficult for poor children to learn in schools. It is exasperating and infuriating.

Perhaps, 2016 would bring a better national leadership that actually understands better the plight of poor children in the country.  We could only hope.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas, Evolution and Creation

During the Christmas Eve mass I attended this year, the priest ended his homily with Linus' line: "That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." The priest highlighted in his homily what was unique about the Christian faith: "God is with us". Peanuts creator Charles Schulz deciding against the advise of the show's producer and lead animator made Linus quote straight from bible when asked by Charlie Brown about what Christmas is really about:

"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

There are indeed so many instances in Schulz' cartoon that are quite insightful about religion. Jean Tedrow has a Pinterest board called Peanuts Theology, a collection of cartoon strips that touch on matters of faith. Here is one:

Lucy in the above cartoon strip is talking about a religion that is purely moralistic. The first three verses of John 9 say something about this:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 
There is another time that Lucy raises something to think about:

Our faith is supposed to provide us deeper meaning in our lives. Unfortunately, our beliefs sometimes go against what we see. The scientific theory of evolution and the belief in creation are often perceived as opposing views. One reason behind this dichotomy is perhaps our tendency to take a position. And in this case, there are actually more than two positions possible. In a recent article published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Yasri and Mancy enumerate the following positions:

Above copied from Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
Yasri and Mancy are studying whether students (in their late teens) change their positions after receiving instruction on the theory of evolution. Initially, a significant number of students subscribe to Literal Creationism: All forms of life were first brought into being by a deity in more or less their present form at the same time. The results show that students do change their positions, but not their beliefs. The change happens because of a better understanding of the evidence as well as a deeper appreciation of the relationship or difference between science and religion. The majority of the students at the end of the instruction now hold the position of Agnostic evolution: Life emerged from non-living particles and then all current forms evolved from these earlier forms. A deity may exist, however, this is out of scope of evolutionary theory. Most of the students embrace the position in which science and faith are not in conflict.

Our beliefs could sometimes serve as real challenges to basic education. The study by Yasri and Mancy shows that this potential conflict must be taken into account. It is therefore important not to see things as black and white.

The priest during this Christmas Eve's homily also talked about how religions had utterly failed in teaching us good from evil. Our faith should really be beyond following a list of what to do and what not to do. And in the realm of the physical world, one's faith should also be beyond history and the origin of species.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Duterte on Education, Politicians and Schools

Basic education is complex. Even those who are deep in education research readily acknowledge that multitude of factors affect education. A school principal is perhaps the administrator closest to the front line of learning. Richard DuFour and Mike Mattos write in "How Do Principals Really Improve Schools":
Today’s schools don’t need “instructional leaders” who attempt to ensure that teachers use the right moves. Instead, schools need learning leaders who create a schoolwide focus on learning both for students and the adults who serve them.
Principals are obviously not equipped with all the knowledge necessary to improve learning outcomes in schools. Principals also do not have the time and expertise to upgrade student learning. The best effort a principal can therefore make is to help create an environment that is conducive to learning.

The above likewise applies to politicians. Politicians are even less qualified to design a curriculum, prescribe how teaching should be done, and decide how and what subjects should be taught in schools. Similar to a principal, a politician could only help in setting up a culture that embraces learning.

A recent quip made by a presidential candidate in the Philippines has attracted so much vitriol. Rodrigo Duterte has suggested removing algebra from the basic education curriculum. Such suggestion, however, is not something new coming from Duterte. As shown in a news article from SunStar half a year ago, Duterte already "jested that Algebra subject should be taken out of the prospectus".

Above copied from SunStar
Taken out of context, Duterte's statement on algebra does seem ridiculous. Within the proper context, Duterte is really criticizing the government's imposition of a mandatory senior high school. Duterte has always been critical of DepEd's K to 12. In June of 2012, Duterte was quoted opposing the new curriculum.

Above copied from SunStar Davao
And up till June of this year, Duterte has maintained opposition to DepEd's K to 12:

Above copied from BusinessMirror
Duterte makes it clear to everyone especially journalists the need for discernment, to know when he is joking and when he is serious. It is actually not that difficult to figure out when to take Duterte seriously. One simply has to keep in mind what a person like Duterte in any government position can really do. This aspect is so evident in a video during which Duterte outlines his platform:

Embedded video from Joanna Allas

"I cannot do it alone" was his first statement.

Near the end of the video, when asked what he intends to do to improve education, Duterte responds:
To do this we must promote Values Education. Our government, TV-Radio and Mass Media, all the resources should be able to concentrate on educating our children, building character, and we must teach the values of hardwork, ethics, honesty, and cleanliness, self-respect and the molding of character, of self-reliance. The discipline that I started in Davao is now being enforced by the people themselves. I have proven that it can be done. 
We must be Innovative. If there is still a lack of classrooms, we can rely on technology… for example, big screens, for the meantime, to teach our children the education that they need.
Duterte mentions values and if one examines the list he gives, these actually resemble what Angela Duckworth calls "grit and self-control" (Duckworth Research Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania). Hardwork is the first value Duterte mentions. In the seminal paper on grit published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it has been shown that "grittier individuals had attained higher levels of education than less gritty individuals of the same age". Paul Tough gives a similar advice on how to help children, especially those born in poverty, in his book How Children Succeed.

Another item Duterte mentions in his education platform is the role of mass media. In this aspect, one could look at research on Sesame Street, for instance, as an example of a mass media effort on education. Charlotte Cole in "Why Count von Count Is Obsessed With a New Number" wrote:

Sesame Street will never be a substitute for school, but for many children there is a critical need for effective, affordable educational interventions that either supplement existing efforts or (for children living in under-resourced parts of the world) are the sole access to an intentional early childhood educational experience. That's why, for example, in 2008, researchers found that in Bangladesh the Sesame Street Difference translates into a full year of learning: when children four years old were exposed to Sisimpur (Bangladesh's Sesame Street adaptation) they performed at the same level on tests of reading and math as their five year old peers who had not watched!

Duterte also mentions the use of technology to alleviate shortage in basic education. One can imagine that if there is a shortage of classrooms, it is very likely that there is likewise a shortage of teachers. In a previous post, "An Excellent Teacher for Every Student", the following is highlighted:
In the Philippines, the Bernidos of Jagna, Bohol have been working on a project called Learning Physics as One Nation (LPON) to address the lack of qualified teachers. LPON is quite similar to the models shown previously from Public Impact's Opportunity Culture: 
"Learning Physics as One Nation (LPON) is an initiative of the Fund for Assistance to Private Education, funded by the Department of Education of the Philippines, and designed to bypass the nation’s severe STEM teacher shortage. Project components include a specially designed Physics Essentials Portfolio of 239 learning activities to be independently accomplished by students during one school year, and associated 18 DVD volumes of video lectures by national educators. The materials are designed such that a command team can monitor student progress, and address questions from the field through e-mail, mobile phone text messages, Skype, and fast courier services. Initial assessment of student performance shows a positive trend. Thus, after field studies in over 200 schools, plans are to produce Learning as One Nation materials for all other STEM subjects following the LPON model."
Duterte's idea of solving some of the problems Philippine basic education faces is actually not that far from the vision of Magsaysay awardees, Ma. Victoria Carpio-Bernido and Christopher C. Bernido.

Duterte perhaps understands the proper role of a politician in basic education. In a speech that Duterte gave during an Education Summit, the issue he emphasized was this:
"Good leaders will not let drugs ruin even a tiny part of their society because drugs will surely fry the minds of your students."
To this, Duterte apparently added:
"If I will be in position, I will not be the one to kill. I will build rehabilitation centers in every barangay, town, and city to make the brains of addicts return to normal life."
Like principals, politicians are enablers. The best they could do is to ensure that a school is indeed a place for learning.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"No More Algebra" - Says Presidential Candidate Duterte

Comedy Central has a collection of jokes on the internet. One of the jokes listed is about a premed student asking a physics professor why studying physics is important:
As a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis, I had to take a difficult class in physics. One day our professor was discussing a particularly complicated concept. A student rudely interrupted to ask, "Why do we have to learn this stuff?"
"To save lives." The professor responded quickly and continued the lecture.
A few minutes later, the same student spoke up again. "So how does physics save lives?" he persisted.
"It usually keeps the idiots like you out of medical school," replied the professor.
Recently, a candidate for president in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, made the statement that Algebra be removed from the basic education curriculum.

Above copied from the Philippine Star
However, near the end, the news article says:
Duterte said subjects such as Geometry and Physics would remain in the curriculum, as these are practical and useful in one’s daily life.
Realizing that both physics and geometry require algebra, Duterte's earlier statement that algebra should be removed therefore does not make sense. A study on workforce and college readiness shows that algebra is necessary for both college as well as for students who intend to work after high school:

Above copied from
Ready for College and Ready for Work:Same or Different? 
The article also notes that Duterte had math anxiety and had failed in Economics. Yet, Duterte is suggesting to replace algebra with "business math". These conflicting statements are probably best deciphered with Duterte's own advice to journalists:

Above copied from CNN Philippines
Joking or not, one should recall that DepEd's K to 12 curriculum was part of the presidential platform offered by the current administration. It is disconcerting when politicians shoot from the hip on issues that require expertise and research. Of course, politicians do this because people expect them to solve every single problem. Education is not one of the challenges that one president can face.

To address problems in basic education, the president must begin by putting the right people for direction and policies. One of the earlier posts on this blog shares an opinion from Flor Lacanilao. It is an opinion that is in fact supported by evidence from other countries. I am reposting it here to remind us of what is necessary:

Suggestion to Solve Philippines' Basic Education Problems

by Flor Lacanilao

Studies on education abroad have shown that the best way to improve basic education is to improve first higher education. And the best way to improve both is to put only the right people in charge. Right people refers to those who have made major contribution to one’s field, as shown by properly published research works (that is, following internationally accepted criteria). At present, none of those in charge in higher and basic education has such minimum requirement.

For basic education, the above prerequisite will insure that (a) program components are based on tested studies abroad, (b) curricular changes are based on properly published studies of local problems, and (c) thay have undergone trial runs or verification at selected schools before nationwide implementation.

For more discussion, see “K+12 most likely to fail” (Inquirer, 17 Feb 2012) and “A critique of some commentaries on the Philippine K-12 program”.

[Dr. Flor Lacanilao obtained his Ph.D. (specialization in comparative endocrinology) from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as chairman of the Zoology Department at UP Diliman, chancellor of UP Visayas, and chief of SEAFDEC in Iloilo. Email florlaca@gmail.com]


My take on Duterte's statement:

Duterte is being sarcastic with his comments and the Philippine Star falls for it. Just a few days ago, Duterte said this to CNN Philippines, "...journalists from Metro Manila should undergo a briefing from Davao-based reporters to learn how to differentiate when he was joking and when he was serious with his statements." With this in mind, one could guess that Duterte did this to demonstrate how current policy makers in education have crafted the curriculum. Duterte's example is not far from how DepEd envisioned K to 12. Duterte's actual platform on education is this:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Does the Climate Change Plan of the Philippines Teach Students?

I often ask the following question in a final exam in General Chemistry: "Why does natural gas (mostly methane, CH4) have the least amount of CO2 produced per energy content?". Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the major greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activity. As the amount of CO2 has reached the milestone of 400 ppm this year, countries have began making pledges called “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC's).

Above copied from NOAA
There is a pledge tracker on the internet that displays what countries have promised so far. There is an entry from the Philippines made on October 2015:
A reduction in emissions of about 70% by 2030, relative to a business-as-usual scenario, on the condition of international support. 
One can compare the above with what Thailand submitted:
An unconditional 20% reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to business-as-usual levels. This could increase to 25%, conditional upon the provision of international support. 
Although the Philippines is offering a much greater reduction, the promise is conditional. Thailand offers a 20% reduction without any condition.

How the Philippines intends to reduce emissions by 70 percent is actually not clear. Not surprising, only a few days after the Philippines' pledge, doubts have been raised.

Above copied from Climate Home

Returning to the final exam question I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the type of fuel used determines the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for every unit of energy output. The U.S. Energy Information Administration provides the following table

How much carbon dioxide is produced when different fuels are burned?

Different fuels emit different amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) in relation to the energy they produce when burned. To analyze emissions across fuels, compare the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy output or heat content.
Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels:
Coal (anthracite)228.6
Coal (bituminous)205.7
Coal (lignite)215.4
Coal (subbituminous)214.3
Diesel fuel and heating oil161.3
Natural gas117.0
The amount of CO2 produced when a fuel is burned is a function of the carbon content of the fuel. 

Seeing that coal is the worse fuel when it comes to greenhouse emission, it is understandable why a recent article by Inday Espina-Varona in UCANews is strongly questioning Philippines' sincerity.

Above copied from UCANews
These climate change plans are for the coming generations. These are for our children. The world is a large classroom and what a country does teaches its children.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Word Search in DepEd's K to 12 Learning Module

Whether word search puzzles have an educational value is not supported by evidence from research. Word search puzzles focus mainly on how words appear, doing nothing about what the words actually mean. In Through The Eyes of Students: High School Students' Perspectives on Character EducationMichael Romanowski highlights a thoughtful comment from a student:
"...They are teaching us how to be nice to people so they give us a word search. You don't learn how to be nice people by doing a word search...."
Dr. Joanne Meier likewise addresses the question, "Are word searches a waste of instructional time?" in ReadingRockets: 
We were recently told by an administrator that research shows that crossword puzzles and word search puzzles have no educational value. We have been forbidden to use them in our classes. As teacher of English Language Learners, we have found that both of these are valuable tools to use with our kids. Do you know of any research that would support our position? 
My answer:
Your question is an interesting one! I know of no research that supports the use of word searches with students as a means to student achievement. That makes sense to me, though...few skills that translate to reading and writing are developed through their use. I guess one could build an argument that there are some near-point (i.e., copying) skills being used, but the relationship of near-point skills to reading isn't very strong.
Crossword puzzles, however, seem entirely different, especially if students are not provided with a bank of words to use with the puzzle. I think an argument could be made for vocabulary development through their use. You might want to see if your administrator could elaborate on his or her concerns about crossword puzzles.
German teacher Jay P. Kunz finds some pedagogical use for word searches. He hypothesizes that such activity may help students become familiar with foreign words. An example is provided by Kunz in which German words for colors are hidden in a grid of letters:

Above copied from
Jay P. Kunz. Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching GermanVol. 35, No. 2 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 148-153
Nonetheless, even Kunz' work does not provide evidence that word searches help in student learning.

In the Philippines, with the introduction of DepEd's K to 12, new learning materials have been produced. One of these new resources is a learning module on Household Services:

The module basically supports instruction on how to become a maid. The module not only provides information on this subject but also assessment tools. The following are supposed to inform the student of his or her prior understanding of household services:

There is clearly no relationship between the above word search and a student's knowledge about maintaining a professional image. The above is indeed a glaring example of an utter waste of time and resources.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Poverty Breeds Corruption

In the same way education is considered as a solution to poverty, it is common belief that removing corruption is a cure to poverty. In fact, the current president of the Philippines used the slogan, "Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap" (Without corrupt officials, there are no poor people). Now that elections are coming soon in the Philippines, the fight against corruption is once again a theme of choice by politicians and their supporters. On both national and local levels, candidates are measured on whether they have the right moral values. Competence is sometimes hardly mentioned.

I came across a debating site on the internet and found that someone already pointed out that poverty, for instance, in the continent of Africa was not due to poor governance, but to bad government policies.

Stijn Meijer wrote:
Many experts claim that poverty in Africa is caused by bad governance: implementation of development policies is simply impossible, because many political systems in Africa are corrupt. But is this really the core of the problem? The answer is no. In Southeast Asia for example, a lot of governments have been known for being at least as corrupt as governments in Africa. Yet these Asian countries are making great economic progress.
So, the gap between Africa and the other continents isn’t due to the poor implementation of development policies. The main reason why Africa lags so much behind is that African governments just make wrong policies. In Southeast Asia, governments have decided to invest money and effort in the development of rural areas: improving the productivity of smallholder agriculture. They have built dams, irrigation systems and infrastructure. By doing this, the cycle of poverty in Southeast Asia has been broken. It has even led to a basis in the development of urban and industrial areas. By creating a development in agriculture, the poorer people in a society are directly involved in the development of a country. Policies in Africa are nowadays focused too much on the rich and less on the poorer people. But this Western approach isn’t working for Africa. In fact, the rich people have become even richer, although the poor people become poorer and poorer.
Meijer was citing Asian countries as examples to support the argument that corruption was not the cause of poverty.  Walden Bello in 2010 wrote an article for Foreign Policy in Focus entitled Does Corruption Cause Poverty? In the article Bello wrote:
Indeed, in Thailand and elsewhere, clean-cut technocrats have probably been responsible for greater poverty than the most corrupt politicians. The corruption-causes-poverty discourse is no doubt popular with elites and international financial institutions because it serves as a smokescreen for the structural causes of poverty, and stagnation and wrong policy choices of the more transparent technocrats.
Wrong policies can create more poverty. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A recent report in the journal Science illustrates an example of a policy that is promising and yet has delivered the opposite. In Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses, Harvard and MIT researchers found that courses designed to address inequities in education due to socio-economic class, are in fact achieving the opposite. There was hope that courses offered online by these premier institutions would reach a broader audience. Instead, they found that only the rich benefited from these massive open online courses (MOOCs).  The authors therefore concluded:
Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.
Harvard and MIT, and the United States in general, can perhaps afford to make such mistakes. The Philippines, on the other hand, cannot. DepEd's K to 12 is an excellent example of a policy that does not address the needs of the poor. It is a wrong-headed reform that makes problems in basic education worse. Sadly, opposition to the policy is not as widespread as it should for poverty also mutes opposition. It is not corruption that keeps people poor. Wrong policies do.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why Rote Learning Is Important in Mathematics

More than a year ago, this blog shared findings reported by a group of researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine. The study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience talked about evidence from brain imaging that showed the transition from procedure-based to memory-based problem-solving strategies. More recently, Wendy Lecker at the Stamford Advocate pointed out that current reforms in math education were not in line with what brain science had been informing us.

Above copied from the Stamford Advocate
The last sentence of the excerpt above is clearly stated. Rote learning and memorization at an early age are critical in developing math skills.

In the previous post of this blog, "How Do Children Learn Math", the following part of a figure from the paper in Nature was highlighted:

Above copied from
Qin S., Cho S., Chen T., Rosenberg-Lee M., Geary D. C., Menon V. (2014). Hippocampal-neocortical functional reorganization underlies children’s cognitive development.Nat. Neurosci. 17, 1263–1269. 10.1038/nn.3788

As children mature (in fact in a period of just about one year), brain imaging shows a significant transition from counting to memory retrieval as a strategy to solve addition problems. This trend continues into adolescence and adulthood. It is the way the human brain develops.

Lecker also brings us back to a Wall Street Journal article by Engineering professor Barbara Oakley who wrote:
"True mastery doesn't mean you use crutches like laying out 25 beans in 5-by-5 rows to demonstrate that 5 × 5 = 25. It means that when you see 5 × 5, in a flash, you know it's 25—it's a single neural chunk that's as easy to pull up as a ribbon. Having students stop to continually check and prove their understanding can actually impede their understanding, in the same way that continually focusing on every aspect of a golf swing can impede the development of the swing."
Lecker then offers the following explanation on why we have become obsessed with this wrong way of educating children:
"Maybe the fad to force kids to explain every simple math procedure grew out of our selfie and Facebook culture; that tendency to document every mundane life experience. It certainly did not emanate from a true understanding or concern for how math skills develop."
In my opinion, it is fine to make available opportunities for children to explain their math. What is definitely wrong is not to provide or even worse, discourage rote learning.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christmas Is Around the Corner

With shorter days, longer nights, and colder weather (if you happen to live in the northern hemisphere), nature seems calling us to return home, giving us an opportunity to reflect and nurture our inner self. Decorations can surely lift our mood. Decked halls are meant to bring out that holiday spirit especially during a winter solstice. A giant inflatable Santa Claus standing on one of the roofs near Georgetown University is certainly a welcoming sight to see in the morning from the Key Bridge. It is Christmas.

Oliver Wainwright was perhaps not trying to outdo Scrooge when he wrote "Santa's real workshop: the town in China that makes the world's Christmas decorations" in the Guardian about a year ago. Nonetheless, the article did raise some questions regarding how to decorate for Christmas.

Above copied from Oliver Wainwright's Guardian article
Since we are in a time conducive for reflection, we might as well think about Christmas decorations. One time, I spent the holiday season with my PhD mentor and her family. As I was helping decorate the tree, she told me that each ornament that she placed on a tree meant something. With each piece she hanged, she was reminded of where it came from.

With this in mind, what decorations out there would be better than those produced by our young children? Public elementary schools in Fairfax county have School Age Child Care (SACC) programs. The school my children attend has one of course and their walls definitely say that Christmas is just around the corner.

My PhD mentor surely taught me more than chemistry.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Adding Fractions and the Spiral Curriculum

Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions are inherently difficult. Hugues Lortie-Forgues, Jing Tian, and Robert S. Siegler explore the challenges of fractions in their recent review article, Why is learning fraction and decimal arithmetic so difficult?, in the journal Developmental Review. In a doctoral dissertation presented to the Educational Leadership Program of the College of Saint Elizabeth, Elissa Mains Scillieri seeks the answers to challenges in elementary school mathematics education from the teachers themselves. Among the findings from this survey by Scillieri is that grade school mathematics spirals thereby making it difficult for both students and teachers to focus and gain a deeper understanding.

The survey covers a school district in New Jersey. Scillieri draws her conclusion from the data she obtained from teachers about the curriculum. Scillieri presents these findings in the following graphs. The first one answers the question of whether fraction concepts are emphasized in elementary education.

Above copied from Elissa Mains Scillieri, Elementary mathematics: Not so elementary
Seeing that dealing with fractions is well known to be problematic, it is surprising that only one out of four teachers says that this topic is emphasized. The second graph relates the results when the question is phrased in general terms. If fractions are not emphasized, this question basically inquires whether other topics have been covered in greater depth.

Above copied from Elissa Mains Scillieri, Elementary mathematics: Not so elementary
Obviously, based on these results, classes hop from one topic to the next without requiring mastery or deeper understanding.

Another finding that is quite striking is presented in the graph shown below.

Above copied from Elissa Mains Scillieri, Elementary mathematics: Not so elementary
A clear majority of teachers feel that the elementary mathematics curriculum covers a wide array of topics. The spiral curriculum tends to jump from one topic to another.

To appreciate this in specific terms, one may browse, for example, at the mathematics curriculum of Philippines' DepEd K to 12. This curriculum is an example of a spiral approach in teaching that jumps from topic to topic in the course of every year. For instance, if one simply keeps tab of when fractions are taught, one finds a coverage of fractions in first grade. After learning how to count and develop some rudimentary number sense, first grade pupils are introduced to the fractions 1/2 and 1/4. After this brief excursion, the students then proceed to study shapes, patterns, measurements and simple pictographs. Students encounter fractions again in second grade. This time, fractions are presented as dividing a whole into parts. Then the students work on straight and curved lines, symmetry, more patterns, more measurement and more pictographs. In third grade, students learn about odd and even numbers then they go into fractions that are either less than or greater than one. Equivalent fractions are also covered. Then, students receive more instruction on symmetry, patterns, measurement conversion, and bar graphs. It is in fourth grade that students learn how to add and subtract fractions.

As enumerated by Hugues Lortie-Forgues, Jing Tian, and Robert S. Siegler in their recent paper, dealing with fractions has inherent difficulties. On top of the difficulties exclusive to fractions, the arithmetic of fractions also requires fluency in the arithmetic of whole numbers. Take, the addition of two fractions, for instance, as summarized in the following scheme:

It requires multiplication (b times d, a times d, and c times b) and then addition. Below is an example of how this is applied:

One can see that 1/5 is really being multiplied first by 3/3. 3/3 is equal to one so going through this multiplication should really yield an equivalent fraction, that is, 3/15 is the same as 1/5. The other fraction is being multiplied by 5/5, which is also equal to one. Thus, the result, 5/15 is a fraction equivalent to the original one, 1/3. Seeing this, it then becomes reasonable to keep the discussion of equivalent fractions connected to adding fractions. But in DepEd's K to 12, these two topics are encountered a year apart.

Scillieri further captures the lack of focus and wide breadth of topics by comparing and contrasting against the curriculum of countries whose students do well in international standardized math exams.

Above copied from Elissa Mains Scillieri, Elementary mathematics: Not so elementary
Other countries simply master whole numbers in kindergarten to second grade while fractions are taught starting only in third grade. First things first and it is focused.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Education Does Not Cure Poverty

DepEd is quick to advertise its new curriculum in terms of being decongested, discovery based, holistic, and learner-centered. However, when it comes to employment, DepEd is in fact cautious in promoting K to 12. In one of DepEd's official pages on the internet, DepEd makes it clear that the "Senior High School cannot guarantee employment". Unlike sound bites, employment is something the public could easily relate. Employment is so tangible unlike other promises that require deeper examination and reflection. One either gets employed or not. It is straightforward.

  • SHS cannot guarantee employment; but it creates the following opportunities:
    • Standard requirements will be applied to make sure graduates know enough to be hirable.
    • You will now be able to apply for TESDA Certificates of Competency (COCs) and National Certificates (NCs) to provide you with better work opportunities.
    • Partnerships with different companies will be offered for technical and vocational courses. 
    • You can now get work experience while studying; and companies can even hire you after you graduate.
  • Entrepreneurship courses will now be included. Instead of being employed, you can choose to start your own business after graduating, or choose to further your education by going to college.
The above  is copied from DepEd's answer to frequently asked questions on the additional years of high school (SHS) in its K to 12 curriculum.

Education does not guarantee employment. Education cannot guarantee employment. Education does not cure poverty. Education cannot cure poverty. Matt Bruenig in a recent article on Demos nicely summarizes this fact:
"Poverty is really about non-working people: children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, and the unemployed. The big things that cause poverty for adults over the age of 25 in a low-welfare capitalist society—old-age, disability, unemployment, having children—do not go away just because you have a better degree. These poverty-inducing circumstances are social constants that could strike anyone of us and do strike many of us at some point in our lives."
My father became seriously ill when I was just about to start college. Circumstances such as this cause poverty. Even without an illness, people could lose jobs. Unemployment is more than often not due to lack of skills. Improving the educational attainment of everyone usually leads to companies just requiring higher credentials. Fast food restaurants for instance can now prefer to hire those with college education to flip burgers.

The United States still stands as the most influential market in the world. Opportunities abound. Yet, in this scenario, the striking inability of education to address unemployment and poverty is very evident. Matt Bruenig elegantly captures this fact in the following graph:

Above copied from Matt Bruenig's Why Education Does Not Fix Poverty

And to this graph, Matthew Iglesias of Vox offers the following insight:
"We have massively improved the educational credentials of people living below the poverty line."

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.