What ails Philippine education

The below-average test scores of most Filipino students in Mathematics and Science that have been reported in various international assessments are all ultimately attributable to a reading comprehension problem. Our students simply can’t grasp the meaning of what they’re reading, or relate this to what they know, even when they may be able to utter the correct sounds.

This is so, mainly because the language in which they are taught and tested, particularly in grade school, is foreign to them. It is vastly different from the language they speak at home. I am referring here not just to English, but also to Tagalog-based Filipino, the national language. It is not uncommon to find teachers who are also not proficient in the language they use in the classroom.

This state of affairs has been repeatedly highlighted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or Unesco. Our own educational experts have known about this for some time. But our policymakers refused to acknowledge it until just a few years ago. They thought that to drop English as the language of instruction would be tantamount to giving up the one thing that American colonialism bequeathed to us—a head start in the mastery of a global language.

Today, we are indeed known as a country where English is widely spoken. While this is an advantage to foreign tourists, it has not exactly made us a preferred tourist destination.

Less known is what the stubborn insistence on English as the favored language of instruction has cost us. The damage is incalculable. It has distorted the learning process. Because of it, many of our people are unable to read and write, understand basic scientific concepts, or perform simple calculations. It has given us college graduates who are fluent neither in English nor in Filipino. It has widened the cultural divide between the well-off classes and the poor.

Yet this situation has been effectively concealed by the ubiquity of English as a medium of communication in our national life.

It is this problem that the Department of Education (DepEd) under then Secretary Armin Luistro sought to address with the introduction of the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education approach to learning. The MTB-MLE was the banner program of Republic Act No. 10533 or the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013, which ushered in the K-to-12 Basic Education Program.

The plan was simple enough: “Learners begin their education in the language they understand best — their mother tongue — and develop a strong foundation in their mother tongue before adding additional languages… With the end goal of making Filipino children lifelong learners in their L1 (Mother Tongue), L2 (Filipino, the national language), and L3 (English, the global language), learners are more than prepared to develop the competencies in the different learning areas.”

It is the implementation that is not easy. It requires sustained investment in time, resources, and creative effort. Teaching modules and competent teachers are not produced overnight. The evaluation of outcomes needs to be undertaken at every phase of the implementation so that calibrated adjustments in the program can be promptly made.

I distinctly recall that the preparation and publication of teaching modules in the different local languages other than Filipino was one of the key challenges. This, plus the training of MTB-MLE teachers, was something that needed to be carefully planned for. I wish the DepEd concerned itself more with doing its work and issuing periodic reports on the progress of this vital experiment than with demanding apologies from multilateral institutions for not informing them beforehand whenever the latter issue reports reminding us of the enormity of the educational challenges before us.

I understand that the present plan provides for the use of the mother tongue only until Grade 3, but studies have demonstrated the advantages of using it as the basic language of instruction for at least six years. Carefully documenting the actual outcomes of this momentous shift could give us a better idea of what works best for our children.

But the theory is unassailable. It is not too difficult to understand why a child learns how to read and write faster when taught in a language that is already spoken by the child at home. The sounds of the words themselves evoke familiar meanings, making it easy to integrate them into the child’s existing fund of knowledge. Most children draw enormous delight from seeing how familiar words heard in the family are rendered in writing.

Learning is fun, and always ought to be. But one can imagine how quickly the acquisition of essential literacy is at once transformed into a traumatic process when it is burdened by the mediation of a totally strange language. It demoralizes students and prompts them to drop out. The pernicious effects often persist beyond high school; they are palpable even among graduate students, who must wrestle with courses conducted entirely in English.

Those who have the misfortune of going through the pains of this dysfunctional learning process inevitably test low in examinations that assume a certain level of reading comprehension — whether these exams are in science, mathematics, or literature. These students are not stupid. They are just miseducated, hampered by a foreign language that precludes them from making sense of the world around them and making use of their own experiences.