Going full blast on learning

Recent policy pronouncements have centered on a “pivot to learning.” This is a welcome development, especially in the face of mounting global evidence that points to learning’s importance over mere schooling. Data shows that it is not enough to send kids to school; learning can spell the difference in a person’s quality of life: earnings, health, and overall wellbeing. It’s high time we put the focus on learning.

Philippine education: a story of improved access

Over the last decade, the country has put and kept more learners in school, and many more completing basic education than ever before. The net participation rate in 2017 is 87.4%, up from 81.6% in 2015. The 2017 dropout rate is 2.5%, down from 3% in 2015; and completion rate is 93%, up from 84% in 2015. There has also been an upward trend in the number of Filipinos with technical vocational certifications and college diplomas in recent years.

In terms of equity, the shift to a K-12 system and complementarity programs like the 4Ps and early childhood care and development have led to more youths in the poorest 20% enrolling in higher education levels. According to the World Bank’s latest Philippine Economic Update, only 40% of 17-year-olds in the poorest 20% were in school versus 90% of the richest 20% in 2014. This jumped to 60% in 2017. A dramatic increase can also be seen in 20-year-olds of poorest 20% in higher education: where only 3% of them enrolled in post high school in 2014, just shy of 20% were enrolled in 2017.

To really move the needle…

This access success story needs to be coupled with improvements in quality. The learning challenge is huge. The National Achievement Test scores have consistently been lower than national targets. The latest publicly available data (AY 2016-2017) shows that less than half of our elementary and high school students were proficient in math, science, English, and 21st century skills.

This has impact on global competitiveness and wellbeing. In the recent World Bank Human Capital Index, the learning gap of 4.4 years has kept us with a middling rating of 0.55 – meaning that on average, a Filipino needs an additional 4.4 years of learning to catch up to global standards.

More recent policies however continue to focus on access. The Universal Tertiary Education and Tulong Trabaho Acts were designed to put more people through college and tech-voc. How these will improve equity and higher education quality remains to be seen.

Investments need to boost learning

What does it mean to put learning first? Concretely, this means investments in teachers, learning spaces, and data.

We need teachers that teach well. This requires a combination of high standards for entry into the profession and high expectations, coupled with competitive professional development and welfare. We need to screen for the best and brightest and make sure they are motivated to stay in the teaching profession and enable learning.

It is difficult to learn in an uncomfortable and congested classroom, or during “shifts” that start too early or end too late. We need to build learning spaces – not necessarily classrooms – that encourage creativity, spur curiosity, enable real-world interactions, and nurture good citizenship – skills needed to thrive in the 21st century economy.

Lastly, we need good, reliable, and actionable data on how well we have fared in our efforts to improve learning. These data insights should then guide future resource allocation and policy priorities.

We must not rest easy because of our success in improving access to education. We still have ways to go when it comes to what truly matters to the lives of every Filipino – learning.

Originally published on Business World 26 June 2019 issue.

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