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Science, not just English skills

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Amid the distraction created by the ongoing impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona are a couple of good news coming from the Department of Education that assures us that it has begun to realize the need to push science education in the Philippines.

On Monday, Education Secretary Armin Luistro allayed fears that the teaching of science has been dropped from the Grade 1 curriculum as he clarified that the new K-12 program, which adds two years to the current 10-year Basic Education curriculum, will not de-emphasize science education. He said science would continue to be embedded in Grades 1 and 2 subjects such as math, language and health education. Science as a separate subject will continue to be taught starting in Grade 3. Luistro said Science has not been taught as a separate subject in Grades 1 and 2 for more than 30 years now.

Some sectors were concerned that the Education department was dropping the teaching of science in the early grades, and would instead focus on developing the students’ English language skills to prepare them for an expected boom in business process outsourcing (BPO) or what we know as the call center industry.

There is reason to be concerned if indeed the K-12 program, which will be implemented starting the school year 2012-2013, would focus on developing the Filipino students’ English language skills, instead of their scientific and analytical skills.

But this doesn’t seem to be the case because late last year, the Department of Education announced that it has added 100 more schools to the 100 schools that offer specialized curriculum focused on Science in its effort to train more scientists.

Luistro said the 100 new special science elementary schools (SSES) consist of Special Education Centers (SPED) with programs for the gifted and talented child and selected regular schools that passed the SSES screening procedures.

“We feel that it is time to add more science-oriented schools in addition to the first SSES in 2007 which was composed of 57 schools and another 43 in 2009,” said Luistro. He said the stronger focus on science education is included in the 10-point education agenda of President Aquino to upgrade the quality of the basic education system.

SSES is designed to develop Filipino children with scientific and technological knowledge and skills plus creative and positive values that will make them catalysts in spurring research and development thrusts. It provides enriched curriculum for Mathematics and Science where gifted and talented learners are provided a venue and exposure to develop their aptitude and skills.

The need to focus on math and the sciences has become even more urgent in the wake of a report in 2009 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that the Philippines is lagging behind in the scientist-population ratio when compared to other countries.
The report said there are only 125 scientists and engineers per million people engaged in research and development in the Philippines. The UNSECO average for developing nation is 380 scientists and engineers per million population.

In 2008, there was a study that showed that the Philippines was in the bottom of 38 countries tested in the efficiency of their math and science education. The test was conducted among eighth grade students of the 38 countries (second year high school equivalent in the Philippines) to see how effective the current math and science education programs in these countries were.

The Philippines placed well below the bottom in both the math and science categories, beaten even by Thailand and Malaysia.

That same year, Sen. Edgardo J. Angara lamented that the Philippines was in the bottom third of the global competitiveness list of 117 countries, and he attributed this laggard status to the Filipinos’ general failure to keep up with the advancement in science and technology throughout the world.

It would be a big mistake for the Philippines to shift its focus from math and science to developing the students’ English language skills just to make the country more competitive in the BPO business. In fact, it would be a tragic mistake for the government to rely on the BPO industry for economic development just as it would be a mistake for the country to depend on the remittances of overseas Filipinos for long-term economic growth.

Both the BPO and remittance sectors depend on outside factors that are not under the control of the country. For example, President Obama is pushing a bill that would discourage the outsourcing of jobs by US companies. With the current economic problems being experienced by European countries, they can follow the example of the United States and try to bring back jobs in their own countries, thereby crippling the BPO industry in the Philippines.

While remittances from overseas Filipinos continue to grow, there is always the danger that the hiring countries would no longer depend on foreign workers once their own citizens being to develop their own skills, or would have to do away with foreign labor when their own economies are at a downturn. In the US, for example, which has tightened the door to new immigrants, a new generation of Filipino-Americans who would have no attachments to their homeland will arise, thus greatly reducing remittances to the Philippines.

Look at India and China. While they are the leading BPO providers in the world and two of the biggest remittance recipients, they continue to give serious attention to the teaching of math and science, which has led to their leadership in the computer industry and in the manufacturing sector. These two countries, which also are among the top countries in the math and science tests mentioned in the article, are producing the most number of highly paid computer experts and executives in Silicon Valley and in other computer capitals.

These two countries have also produced the finest doctors, medical researchers and engineers in the United States. It is no wonder that both China and India are among the richest countries in the world, and their economies are growing at a pace faster than any of the traditional industrialized countries, such as the United States and Germany.

The Philippines enjoys one of the highest literacy rates in the world. But the students’ literacy are not directed towards careers that will eventually bring growth and wealth to the country, such as in computers, engineering, agriculture, and scientific research. Instead, Philippine colleges and universities continue to produce mostly graduates in business and the arts.

Angara lamented that the Philippine educational system is not designed to meet the demand for technological skills. He cited a study of the Department of Labor and Employment showing that firms engaged in science and technology would generate 4 millions jobs in the next five years, but educational institutions can produce only 2.7 million graduates in these fields during that period.

Angara said the educational system could give the Philippines a competitive edge if it focuses on math, science, technology and engineering.

For example, education officials should lure back Filipino students to the prestigious International Rice Research Institute, which has produced great agriculture scientists for Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam but not for the Philippines. Thus, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam are raking in billions of dollars in agriculture while the Philippines, which has perhaps the best and most number of agricultural colleges, continues to lag behind.

Ultimately, it is agriculture and the manufacturing sector that will bring long-term positive effects on the country’s economy, and not the short-term BPO and remittance sectors.

The Philippines should redirect the Filipino students’ energy and enthusiasm in education to math, science, engineering and computer sciences, and feel the impact of growth in the years to come.

By Val G. Abelgas




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