As the Philippines faces a new year ahead, nearly two years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the community quarantines, the question in mind for millions of Filipino students, teachers, staff, and parents is: What is the future of learning going to be like?

This question, of course, comes fresh off a successful pilot run of limited in-person classes. But it’s also amidst rising worry over the more transmissible Covid-19 Omicron variant. It’s also particularly pressing as most industries in today’s economy continue to struggle to stay afloat — but perhaps none more so than the education sector.

The effects of this strain on public and private schools cannot be ignored. In the Senator Edgardo J. Angara Keynote Lecture of the recently concluded 2021 Philippine Education Conference (PhilEd), University of Minnesota Professor Paul Glewwe described education as “both an objective of economic development, and a means to attain other objectives.”

Better educated people, he pointed out, are healthier and more productive citizens. They are thus more able to participate in civil life, which is why education is widely considered a key determinant of economic growth. It’s also why events like the PhilEd Conference, a biennial event held last December 1-4 with a theme of “Reimagining Schools and Learning Beyond Covid-19,” continue to be crucial in steering the sector  from recovery towards resilience.

But the numbers are worrisome. Aside from about 400 private schools across the country that suspended operations in SY 2020-2021 since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, speakers and local industry experts who spoke throughout the conference pointed out that the pandemic only served to worsen existing crises in teaching and learning in the Philippines.

“Many of our problems existed before the pandemic,” explained Dr. Chito Salazar, president of Philippine Business for Education (PBEd). “The pandemic only exacerbated or highlighted the problems, especially… for the most vulnerable of our society. The kids who actually need a quality education system the most — because it is through that system that they would rise out of poverty — are the ones suffering from this learning crisis.”

Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, member of the Technical Advisory for Covid-19, explained that out of 100 Filipino children, 53 were experiencing learning poverty, or were being deprived of opportunities to learn and develop skills, even before the pandemic. Covid-19 only added 10 more to this number, which means that today, only 37% of Filipino children do not experience learning poverty.

Charting the road ahead

Speaking to an audience of educational leaders and practitioners across the country, Professor Glewwe’s keynote lecture covered different education policies, and how they may be effective in boosting student learning, particularly among developing countries. And while his team’s research has pointed to interesting ways governments and schools in countries like India, Argentina, Nepal, and Pakistan have sought to improve their education sector, finding what works for the Philippines entails more than just learning from these foreign solutions.

The key, Glewwe explained, is to conduct more rigorous evaluations of education policies — whether in terms of inputs, pedagogy, or governance — and produce more high quality research on education in the Philippine context to better understand how to address the unique needs and circumstances of our schools. Of the 127 high-quality studies reviewed by Glewwe’s team, only 2 were from the Philippines, which puts us far behind countries like India and China, which have produced over 20 and 30 studies of their own, respectively.

This is why, for Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, the key takeaway from the keynote lecture was the importance of research. “At the end of the day,” he said, “all of us will have very bright ideas about improving the education system.” But it is only through high-quality studies that we can be sure that the solutions put in place are effective.

Br. Armin A. Luistro, FSC, former Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary and Lasallian East Asia District Brother Visitor, agreed, explaining that though we can list down a thousand and one possible solutions, the way forward should only be through evidence-based solutions.

“The Philippine educational landscape is really different from one region to another, and sometimes, from one school to the next,” he pointed out. “The more focused the research efforts are, the more able [we] will be to respond to specific problems.”

This discussion set the tone for the four-day PhilEd Conference. Succeeding speakers, spread out across 13 concurrent sessions in the Teaching and Learning Strand, Standards and Competencies Strand, and Future of Schools Strand, similarly helped shed light on what current and developing research says about the state of Philippine education — and what it means for charting the course for the sector.

On teacher quality

Teacher quality has been a critical issue within the education sector, and Dr. Gina Gonong, Director of the Philippine National Research Center for Teacher Quality, started her session by citing some key studies exploring why.

Research has repeatedly shown that teacher quality is one of the most powerful factors in student achievement, more than class size, education spending, and other investments. Low performing teachers create a severe negative impact, especially during early education, and can set students back even with just one year of poor instruction. Conversely, students taught by highly effective teachers, usually measured through teacher preparation and certification, are better able to perform in areas like reading and math — subjects that, crucially, Filipino students perform poorly in, according to PISA 2015.

Some of the current initiatives to try and improve the quality of teachers include the strengthening of the Teacher Education Council through the amendment of RA 7744; further support for teachers, especially in linking pre- and in-service teacher education; and the establishment of the Philippine Professional Standards for Teachers, which is designed to help promote teacher agency and ensure career progression.

These are all fairly new initiatives, whose rollout is further challenged by the pandemic. For instance, Dr. Edison A. Fermin of the National Teachers College pointed out that 70% of teachers have said that the distance learning workload has had a negative effect on their physical and mental health, with additional training taking up more of their already overloaded workdays.

On improving the curriculum

But as for what teachers should teach, Dr. Diosdado M. San Antonio, DepEd undersecretary for Curriculum and Instruction, talked about the agency’s curriculum review, which concluded last March. The process, he explained, is based on a variety of assessments from intended curriculum to attained curriculum — including teacher surveys, national tests, and suitability of graduates — and aims to promote 21st century skills among 21st century learners.

“We all know that the nature of education is changing,” Dr. San Antonio explained. “The learners are now designers of their own knowledge, realities and interests; Teachers are innovators, designers of learning resources, and guides; and Assessments are varied and less traditional.”

These changes are why updates to the K-12 curriculum made sure to lessen overload, promote foundational literacy and numeracy skills, intensify values formation, and ensure holistic learning. It also put great emphasis on development of 21st century skills. “Traditional subject matter will no longer suffice,” he pointed out, and further highlighted new normal skills, like learning and innovation skills, communication skills, life and career skills, as well as information, media, and technology skills.

On supporting learners

Drawing from studies on Covid-19 transmission risk in schools, Dr. Ong-Lim highlighted the importance of setting up system-wide solutions, especially vaccination and ventilation.

Vaccines decrease the risk of severe infection and hospitalization, which can not only save lives, but also help prevent learning loss for infected students or teachers. For ventilation, schools can ensure fresh air in classrooms through open (or, in some cases, newly installed) windows, carbon dioxide monitors, central fan and exhaust systems, as well as MERV13 filters.

To improve the delivery of effective government assistance and subsidies (GAS) to basic education learners, DepEd Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn M. Sevilla explained that the department continues to collaborate with institutions like the Asian Development Bank, Commission on Audit, and the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, as well as independent researchers, for regular program assessment. This has helped the DepEd with crafting action plans for improving the GAS programs, including those provided for by the GASTPE law, or the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education, and ensuring that learners are able to continue their schooling even during a pandemic.

For TESDA, or the Technical Education And Skills Development Authority, Deputy Director General for Policies and Planning Rosanna A. Urdaneta discussed the demand for digital skills in the new normal. Pursuing an area-based and demand-driven technical vocational education and training (TVET) means rigorous skills mapping and providing expanded benefits to scholars, like the recently introduced New Normal Assistance fund.

Towards long-term solutions for reimagining education

In the panel discussion for reimagining Philippine Education, Dr. Salazar highlighted a statement by Unicef. “We should not go back to what was. Even before school closures brought about by the pandemic, far too many children were being left behind. That is why it’s time to protect and reimagine education systems.”

In the same vein, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, pointed out that the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable in terms of disasters, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons — with the pandemic only the latest, and arguably the worst, of these disasters. The path forward, then, is to ensure that learning will continue despite these calamities, and the education system will be able to transition from distance learning to in-person, and back, as needed.

To address the learning crisis, Dr. Salazar suggested convening an education commission, which should facilitate deeper analysis of possible systemic changes. Adding to this, Sen. Gatchalian also highlighted the complementarity principle between public and private schools. As the government focuses on the needs of public schools, it can also harness the innovativeness and flexibility of private schools, which, he pointed out, can contribute a lot to transforming education.

A huge part of supporting Filipino students is focusing on their learning very early on. Responding to PISA 2015 findings, which ranked Filipino students last in reading and second to last in math and science, Rep. Romulo suggested emphasizing reading comprehension at the K-3 level. That’s because the success of the current distance learning setup, which should be used in times of crisis, relies on students reading and using modules from home. This only means that reading skills will be even more crucial in the years ahead.

But according to PBEd’s Dr. Salazar, the problem starts much earlier than even the K-3 level. Studies have shown that malnutrition between the ages of 0 and 5 have a profound impact on student achievement years later. And so, he explained that there is a need to focus on other key inputs to education wherein the local governments, the Department of Health, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development can collaborate with the education sector.

Aside from children, future-proofing the education sector must also involve the welfare of teachers. For Rep. Romulo, it’s important to streamline teacher functions so that they may focus on teaching. “Right now, teachers also serve as admin staff, as guidance counselors,” explained, and solutions for this need to be part of the road ahead.

Schools, too, stand to gain from proposed legislation like the Public Schools of the Future bill, which provides a 10-year digitalization roadmap — crucial for building resilience with or without a pandemic.

“If anything, this pandemic has accelerated some of those reforms and turned them into reality,” said Sec. Nograles. “We should keep this momentum going.”

And with this in mind, the different sessions in the 2021 PhilEd Conference highlighted today’s crisis as one that presents an opportunity to rebuild the system. And we must do so in a way that is equitable, effective, and resilient.

For educators and industry leaders interested in learning more, the presentation materials from the 2021 PhilEd Conference can be found here.