Monday, September 12, 2011

Poverty and scarcity are no barriers to quality education

September 12, 2010 20:01:00
Christopher C. Bernido M. Victoria Carpio-Bernido
Philippine Daily Inquirer 

(The following is excerpted from a paper delivered at the Ramon Magsaysay Award lecture series.)

POVERTY and scarcity are proverbial constraints invoked to account for mediocrity in the education and training of the youth.

On the other hand, as physicists, we know that in the study of natural phenomena, the presence of strong constraints and boundaries in a physical system often leads to more exciting effects and, at times, even unexpected new phenomena.

Thus, when we decided to run the Central Visayan Institute Foundation (CVIF), we viewed the small high school as a microcosm of a longstanding nationwide educational crisis.

From our first day in 1999, we went for 100-percent immersion in the routines and challenges of daily school life, but with a 100-percent open mind for low-cost but effective solutions.

We could not discount the possibility that, far from being barriers to quality education, poverty and scarcity might just lead us to zero in on the core of the learning process.

The teacher problem

Let’s look at the [teacher] problem and take physics as an example.

In the Philippines, according to studies of the Department of Science and Technology, the percentage of qualified high school physics teachers dropped from 27 percent in the 1990s to a mere eight percent by 2003.

In the website of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (Seameo), accessed in 2010, the number is a more dismal four percent.

This has been attributed to massive migration of science and mathematics teachers to advanced countries, which can offer five to six times the basic salaries of public school teachers in the Philippines, with benefits for accompanying families. Add to this the big difference between the quality of life and delivery of basic services in the advanced countries and in poor developing countries.

Thus, in spite of the big-budget massive training programs of science teachers, the numbers have deteriorated to alarming levels!

The usual remedy clearly has not worked. Any additional training of teachers makes them more marketable globally, and it has become increasingly naive to expect high levels of altruism and patriotism. The more painful realization is that Filipinos are paying off loans incurred to train teachers for other countries.

Our solution: Rethink the role of the teacher in the learning process, and institute a program that would not be strongly dependent on teacher qualification, ability and personality, but at the same time should foster the professional development of the teacher.

This we implemented through the parallel classes scheme and activity-based features of the CVIF Dynamic Learning Program (DLP).

From the CVIF DLP experience, we also derived the strategy for the Learning Physics as One Nation (LPON) project launched in 2008 by the Fund for Assistance to Private Education with funding from the Department of Education (DepEd).

The LPON project answers the question: Can high school students learn essential physics topics effectively even if their classroom teacher has little or no physics training?
An assessment of the project after the pilot year of implementation indicates a positive response to this question.

LPON materials have been made available to over 200 private schools in all regions of the Philippines. These include a specially designed Physics Essentials Portfolio of 239 learning activities to be independently accomplished by students during one school year, and associated 18 DVD volumes of video lectures by national educators.

The materials are designed such that a command team can monitor student progress, and address questions from the field through e-mail, mobile phone text messages, Skype and fast courier services. The LPON prototype bypasses the need for qualified teachers and yet effectively prepares the students for college-level physics.

With assessments of student performance showing a positive trend, plans are to produce Learning as One Nation materials for all other science and math subjects following the LPON model.

The textbook problem

The DepEd has been working hard to reach the 1:1 textbook to student ratio. However, the quality of the textbooks is highly questionable. Indeed, which would be better, no textbook or a bad textbook?

Our solution: For public schools, pick a select team of experts that could conceptualize and design concise Learning Activities to be accomplished by students in class.

As in the CVIF DLP, only one copy per class is needed since the students will copy by hand the material from the board or from the screen. For schools with enough textbooks, teacher-made learning activities can be based on the textbooks and other reference materials, depending on the topic.

The science lab problem

This problem leads us to questions at a more fundamental level. Being theoretical physicists, we believe that, at the high school level, there is no need for expensive lab equipment to be able to learn scientific processes and methods of analysis.

For example, the simple pendulum can be used to demonstrate the scientific method of experimentation, analysis and inference-making. Moreover, the pendulum is a good model to highlight basic principles such as conservation of mechanical energy and simple harmonic motion.

Our solution: Strategically select cheap and simple experimental set-ups that demonstrate fundamental principles of science.

Interestingly, the National Research Council of the United States released the comprehensive “America’s Lab Report” in 2006 which questioned, among others, the benefits derived from the usual science lab education that has been implemented since the turn of the 20th century.

Tests of effectiveness

Have our solutions worked? For our school, we have seen marked increase in proficiency levels of our students, especially in science, math and reading comprehension. This is seen from their performance in college admissions tests and the National Career Assessment Examination (NCAE).

The number of students who annually pass the University of the Philippines College Admission Test has increased to about 10 percent of the graduating class on average. This is high compared to schools similarly situated, and relatively comparable even to schools in the cities.
In the 2009 NCAE, 27 of the 115 CVIF senior students obtained an overall General Scholastic Aptitude (GSA) score in the range of 90-99 percentile rank. This means that 23 percent of the CVIF DLP students belong to the top 10 percent in the country. Of these, two students got a percentile rank of 99 and three 98.

This is a far cry from the single student who scored in the 90-up percentile range in the national exam in 2001. For the different categories in the NCAE, there were 26 CVIF DLP students (out of 115) who got a percentile rank of 90-99 in science, 21 students in math, and 26 in reading comprehension.

These numbers are remarkable considering the economically disadvantaged background of most of the CVIF students. Moreover, the students are given lectures/discussions only 1/4 or even 1/5 of the allotted classroom time, and were not given homework in their four years of high school.

Based on available data, we note that in the NCAE 2007, the CVIF mean percentage score (mps) for general scholastic aptitude was 8.7 points above the GSA mps of schools in the area for the same year.

In the NCAE 2009, the GSA mps of CVIF was 23 points above the national mean, which has remained relatively stationary (with fluctuations? 5) for years.

Continuing to raise the bar, we have started to benchmark with international SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score ranges. We have stepped into the lower bounds of SAT scores in math for admission in good American universities such as the University of California system. However, improvement is still needed in other areas.

A wealth of insights

After over 10 years of immersion in basic education, while continuing our work in physics research and mentoring, we can definitely say that the lack of human and material resources that we suffered from proved to be the key to discovering fundamental principles in the learning processes that young people undergo.

Indeed, poverty and scarcity have bestowed a wealth of insights that we continue to benefit from, even as we study with excitement the many new results coming in from research in the neurosciences.

With deeper understanding of how the brain really works, we are expecting a profound transformation of educational systems and institutions within the early part of the present century.
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