Teacher and Student: Two Variables of the Learning Equation

Factors that decide learning outcomes can be divided into two: resources and the receiver. Resources such as classrooms, technology, textbooks and teachers are at the front end, and at the back end is the student. Research on education has shown two important conclusions. On the input side, teacher quality is a dominant factor. On the receiving end, poverty is. The worse combination is having ineffective teachers assigned to poor children. For an education reform to be successful, it must address both ends: teachers and poverty. The teaching profession must be elevated so that it attracts and retains effective teachers. Teachers must receive the support and professional development they need to perform their teaching tasks more effectively. These are challenging. Unfortunately, this is only one side. Much more challenging is addressing poverty. That is why if you hear someone that he or she has what it takes to solve problems in basic education, take it with a grain of salt.

Scherer of North Carolina University recently wrote "The Role of the Intellectual in Eliminating the Effects of Poverty: A Response to Tierney" in the Educational Researcher. Tierney, president of the American Educational Research Association, previously published in the same journal recommendations on what educators could do to eliminate the effects of poverty on education. The following are Tierney's recommendations:

  • Offer Courses and Curricula That Prepare Students for College-Level Work, and Ensure That Students Understand What Constitutes a College-Ready Curriculum by 9th Grade
  • Utilize Assessment Measures throughout High School so That Students Are Aware of How Prepared They Are for College, and Assist Them in Overcoming Deficiencies as They Are Identified
  • Surround Students with Adults and Peers Who Build and Support Their College-Going Aspirations
  • Engage and Assist Students in Completing Critical Steps for College Entry
  • Increase Families’ Financial Awareness, and Help Students Apply for Financial Aid
Scherer acknowledges that the above recommendations are indeed supported by evidence. Unfortunately, according to Scherer, these steps focus only on the resources side of education. What we put into education of course matters but there is another side and that is the learner. It is on this side that poverty creeps in as a truly menacing factor. Scherer therefore points to the "capability" perspective. This reminds me of what Bienvenido Nebres, S.J. said in an interview four years ago at Georgetown University:
...Overall, the really big challenge in the Philippines is how there is such a knowledge and cultural distance between the elites and the poor. If you ask me what our biggest role is, it is a bridge across those gaps. The biggest solutions will only come from our next generation of leaders who will have a better feel for the poverty in the country. People in power have tended to take simplistic approaches to the poverty – consider the businessmen who seek an improvement to our struggling public schools by adding two years to the curriculum. My point is, ‘700 thousand students drop out before grade six, and 1.2 million do not finish the current high school curriculum.’ Solutions like getting more computers or adding years of school won’t work for these student dropouts. Our challenge becomes connecting these leaders with the actual problems the poor have....

Through the student, nonschool factors which are equally powerful as the teacher inside the classroom enter the picture. This is where the socio-economic factors affect learning. This is where capability becomes a factor. "Solutions like getting more computers or adding years of school won't work for these student dropouts." Ensuring that students understand what constitutes a college-ready curriculum by 9th grade would not help those who drop out of school during the primary years. These are just examples that show how reforms on the supply side could miss what is important when it ignores what is on the receiving end. There are interventions that work but all of these require that the student is capable of benefiting from these measures. For this reason, focus on early childhood learning presents the best opportunity. Unfortunately, providing low quality preschool and kindergarten education only exacerbates the situation. Providing support to enhance interest in reading, the sciences and mathematics is crucial in the early years. Losing the students at these early stages preclude any benefit from later interventions.

Addressing what is on the receiving end obviously takes us out of education into a much bigger picture, the society. Problems in education are in fact symptoms of greater ills within society. That is why education is not a solution to poverty. It is the other way around. Solving poverty is part of solving problems in education. Equity is important for an educational system to thrive. Not doing so creates only pockets of excellence, which are mere facades. These pockets only look good when compared against very bad schools. Against universal standards these schools fail likewise. Lastly, equity in schools can only be achieved by an equitable society.

Above photo copied from Rally for Relief
As the Philippines celebrates its 1898 Declaration of Independence, it is perhaps time to reflect on what freedom really entails. It comes with responsibility. It must come with equity, a realization that albeit we are individuals, our interests must remain balanced by social compromises. If the Philippines is indeed a free nation then it must act as one.

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
- Mahatma Ghandi