Focus and Prioritize

"Despite the shortage in classrooms, Bañas said the region is 100 percent prepared to implement the K-12 program that seeks to reform the country’s educational system by, among other things, adding more years to high school. Out of 665 secondary schools in Bicol, 611 would offer senior high classes, Bañas said." It is really dumbfounding to see a news article end with these sentences when DepEd is clearly not a hundred percent ready for the coming school opening in the Philippines. The news article after all talks about the possibility of classes being forced to be held in multiple shifts, increased class sizes, and use of other space to conduct classes.

Above copied from the Inquirer

The above situation, unfortunately, is not confined to one region in the Philippines. The lack of readiness is undeniable.

Launching a program that is obviously short in resources only creates more problems in the future. The incoming DepEd secretary Leonor Briones when asked about the educational system in the country uses the interview as an opportunity to highlight the importance of alternative learning systems: 

"...there is a need for a system to include the elderly farmers and indigent beneficiaries who want to study primary and secondary education...."

It is true that efforts should be made in order to address the needs of those who have been failed by the Philippine basic education system. But equally true, the government needs to focus and prioritize so that additional failures are minimized in the future. Here are two past articles on this blog. The first one illustrates where focus and prioritization should be made. The second one shows from evidence-based research that failure to focus and prioritize leads to more serious challenges as the necessary interventions are often difficult and not guaranteed to succeed.

Malnutrition and Children's Learning

Incorrect prioritization not only leads to lost opportunities but also long term consequences. In every year that real problems are ignored, these not only linger, but also worsen. With lower infant mortality rates and higher fertility, the population of a country becomes relatively young. With this scenario, the future can indeed be bright with more productive citizens in the coming years. This demographic dividend, however, will fail to materialize if the necessary actions are not taken now. Each year adds to the age of a child. This can not be postponed simply because policies of public education and social welfare are not working. Failure in this regard has effects that can not be erased. Children who fall behind on important milestones in their physical development face long term impacts that are permanent and can not be rectified.

Young Filipino children working in a landfill (Photo courtesy of Manny Olalia Quemuel)
A new report from Save the Children published in May 2013, "Food for Thought: Tackling child malnutrition to unlock potential and boost prosperity", presents evidence that highlight the significance of the 1000-day window of pregnancy through early childhood. The report has the following infographic summarizing its major findings:

Above figure captured from "Food for Thought"
The effects of malnutrition in the womb and during the early childhood years are long lasting because this period coincides with a child's brain growth and development. The ramifications seen when a child is eight years old go beyond socio-economic background and quality of school. Children who were malnourished during their early years:
  • score 7% lower on maths tests
  • are 19% less likely to be able to read a simple sentence aged 8, and 12% less likely to be able to write a simple sentence
  • are 13% less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.
There is a limited window of opportunity to reverse the problem, as shown in the following figure:

One must keep in mind, however, that the window of opportunity to resolve the problem is limited. Priorities.... Food for thought....

The K to 12 program, according to DepEd, answers what elementary school children are failing to learn. The Philippines has performed poorly in the international standardized exams for Grade 4 pupils. Each year, the average scores of elementary pupils fail to reach the passing mark in national achievement exams. It is clear that basic education in the Philippines is not working that well even at the primary level. "Do not leave for tomorrow, what you can do today." This is as old as "First things first".

The video above talks about a valedictorian candidate from an elementary school. The principal is worried that even the top student from this primary school may find high school difficult. With the lack of learning materials and equipment, grade school children are not being prepared for high school. For example, there are more than six hundred elementary school students that share one computer. Most of the time, students see these learning facilities only in pictures. Even the libraries are empty. Thus, it is not surprising that most students do not pass achievement exams. Teachers emphasize that elementary schools really need better facilities. DepEd responds that this lack in elementary schooling will be addressed by the enhanced K to 12 curriculum.

The picture looks even worse when one considers the Quick Counts Data of DepEd on elementary and high schools. High school has less teachers, less classrooms, less desks. Take, for example, the case of Paete, Laguna. The town has three public elementary schools in its poblacion, but there is only one public high school and it is not as big as the three elementary schools combined. At the national level, the number of teachers in elementary schools is approximately twice the number of teachers in high school. If problems in elementary schools are not addressed at the earlier stages, one may guess that problems would only get worse in high school. And if problems remain in high school, we will do remediation in college. Do we know remedial education? The following is a good place to start:

The above reminds me of my years at the Ateneo. During my freshman year, students were placed in English classes. My English was deemed poor so I was enrolled in one of the lower sections. And in those sections, there was apparently a cap in the expected performance of students. Students could only dream of getting C's and D's. I got a D in the first semester and a C in the next. Only my grades in chemistry and math made it possible for me to stay in college.

If we are thinking about remedial education in high school, we probably should look at:

Both papers highlight evidence-based research. The Department of Education in the United States created in 2002 the What Works Clearinghouse with the goal of providing a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education. Mark Rohland of Temple University writes a description of this clearinghouse in the following:
So what does scientific evidence say about remediation? It is not yet clear what programs actually work but what is clear is that remediation is difficult work. It is difficult in college, it is difficult in ninth grade. 

Do not leave for tomorrow, what you can do today....