Philippine struggle to make the grade in STEM education
Asia Pacific countries need to work harder to make STEM education attractive, say experts.
[MANILA] The Philippines, despite numerous attempts to improve its educational outcomes, has instead become an educational laggard, taking the ignominious distinction of getting low rankings in three different global evaluations that scored students’ performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
As the country grapples with an education crisis, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. – who admitted in a vlog that the Philippines is falling behind in sciences and mathematics compared to other countries – vowed in his first State of the Nation Address in July 2022 to improve Filipino students’ performance in STEM under his watch. This pledge came on the heels of the country’s poor performance in global and regional rankings, lagging behind many of its Asian neighbours. Calling himself a “frustrated scientist”, Marcos committed to making science an ”instrument of progress and prosperity”.
Appointing Vice-President Sara Duterte, his running-mate in the 2022 Philippine elections and the daughter of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, as the secretary of the Department of Education (DepEd), seemed to be in line with his commitment to renew focus on improving the performance and capacity of students.
Meanwhile, Arsenio Balisacan, who was appointed by Marcos as the economic chief, underscored the importance of promoting science, technology and innovation.
These statements make it appear that the country will pivot to science under the Marcos administration. Yet it comes in the context of a system plagued by long-running issues, including limited government funding, poor quality of teaching and curricula, and insufficient school facilities.
There are several significant hurdles in improving STEM education in the Philippines, if Marcos is to be successful in fulfilling his commitments.
While the Philippine Statistics Authority reported in its 2019 functional literacy, education and mass media survey that 91.6 per cent of the population have functional literacy – higher than the 90.3 per cent functional literacy rate in 2013 – it has received low rankings in three different evaluations that scored students’ performance in STEM within the past five years.
“We can’t find more young people in STEM careers if we can’t guarantee quality education that will equip students to comprehend and solve basic problems or calculations”
Raoul Manuel, Kabataan partylist
In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluated the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science, the Philippines took the second-lowest spot in science and mathematics, with Dominican Republic being the only country that ranked lower than the South-East Asian country. The Philippines also took the lowest spot in reading.
PISA is a programme of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is conducted every three years to assess whether 15-year-old students have acquired the knowledge and skills necessary for their social and economic participation.
The Philippines did not fare better in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which evaluated the performance of Grade Four students in math and science proficiency. It ranked the lowest among the 58 countries that were included in the study.
The Philippines also did not do well in the 2019 Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), which measured the capacity of Grade 5 students in reading, writing and mathematics. The country – one of six in the region that participated in the assessment, alongside Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam – performed below the regional average in all three areas.
Only ten per cent of Filipino students were able to meet the minimum required proficiency level for reading at the end of lower primary education. More alarmingly, nearly half of them belonged to the lowest proficiency band in writing literacy, and only six per cent were able to demonstrate proficiency expected of Grade Five students. Meanwhile, 41 per cent failed to meet the minimum proficiency level in mathematics expected at the end of lower primary education.
DepEd’s statement in response to the SEA-PLM results said that they will evaluate short-, mid- and long-term interventions to “further raise the literacy and numeracy skills” of learners. The statement also noted that the agency has made progress since the release of the 2018 PISA results.
Meanwhile, the country fell eight slots lower in the 2022 Global Innovation Index and is now on the 59th spot among 132 economies. While the report recognised the country as having a strong potential for transforming the global innovation landscape, it is noteworthy that the country-specific report indicated that education in the Philippines as a weakness, putting special attention on low PISA scores and pupil-teacher ratio at the secondary level. The report also noted that the number of graduates in science and engineering has gone down by four percentage points between 2019 and 2020.
While appointing Duterte – who is not an education degree holder but has degrees in respiratory therapy and law – as the education secretary on paper looks like the new administration will give renewed focus on education and STEM. However, she has yet to announce the agency’s plans on STEM and how much of its proposed Philippine peso (Php) 848 billion (US$14.8 billion) budget for 2023 will be allotted for that.
Instead, she pushed hard for a non-STEM programme making the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which provides basic military education and training to first-year college students, mandatory once more. The programme became optional in the previous administrations following controversies such as corruption and bullying allegations, culminating in the death of a student. But like her father, former President Rodrigo Duterte, she is one of the advocates to reinstate mandatory training. Reinstituting ROTC is also included in Marcos’s legislative agenda.
Duterte also defended her controversial position to include Php150 million (US$2.6 million) for confidential expenses in the 2023 budget of DepEd. Confidential and intelligence funds are used for peace and security. An opposition policymaker has questioned this budget, saying that the surveillance activities that DepEd proposed they will be doing will be “redundant” given that there are existing law enforcement bodies in the country. They also said that the funds can be used for education reform, the salary increase of teachers or nonteaching personnel, rehabilitate classrooms, or purchase school equipment such as chairs.
In a statement, DepEd defended its position, saying that confidential expenses are allowed for all civilian offices and they will be using the funds to support “surveillance and intelligence gathering” for the “broader protection” of their students and personnel.
DepEd, as well as the Science Education Institute, did not provide information on their STEM education plans despite several attempts by SciDev.Net to get inputs from both organisations.
Meanwhile, Philippine Senator Alan Peter Cayetano disclosed during a meeting of the Committee on Science and Technology the proposal to slash the proposed 2023 budget of the country’s Department of Science and Technology of Php44.2 billion (US$771 million) by nearly half to Php24.1 billion (US$420.3 million) in the 2023 National Expenditure Plan, which is also slightly lower than what the science agency received in 2022.
“A focus on science and technology is what takes countries into the 21st century. Innovation translates to bigger and more efficient manufacturing and tech industries, generating more jobs and lifting all other sectors in the economy,” Cayetano said.
“When young people are made aware of the benefits and significance of STEM, they can see its importance. It will lead them to pursue STEM”
Lilia Habacon, Philippine Science High School System
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, who is the chair of the basic education committee, said in a privilege speech that he is sponsoring the Second Congressional Commission on Education (EDCOM 2 Act), which he said will assess and evaluate the current system to come up with recommendations directed toward educational reforms.
Gatchalian tells SciDev.Net that the aim would be to “strengthen focus on numeracy and literacy from Kindergarten to Grade Three because this will build foundational competencies”.
At the same time, it will also look into the capacity of the teachers. He cites a 2016 education note released by the World Bank and Australian Aid that indicates the “poor” performance of teachers in science and math. He also tells SciDev.Net that only a few or no teachers have been trained to teach all branches or areas of a subject.
“Science teachers, for example, were only trained to teach in one area of expertise rather than the different branches of the subject such as chemistry, biology and physics,” Gatchalian says.
In terms of policy support to promote STEM education, Gatchalian says that “deserving” students who are interested or show an aptitude for math and science can be provided access and adequate funding. The senator recently filed a bill that seeks to establish math and science high schools in provinces across the country.
Intertwined issues in education
Quality issues are not limited to basic education. A 2022 Philippine education situationer done by Aniceto Orbeta, Jr. and Vicento Paqueo of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) noted that there are very few universities in the country that are rated in the top 1,000 in the world.
The private higher education institution Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) was ranked as the top university in the Philippines, according to the Times Higher Education’s (THE’s) World University rankings. It fell under the 351-400 bracket, putting it ahead of the University of the Philippines (UP), which was ranked under the 801-1,000 bracket. The state-run university, which previously led the country’s universities in the rankings, dropped by at least 200 spots. The University of the Philippines released an official statement saying they are currently reviewing the indicators and data to gain insights on future measures and direction.
The recently released 2023 QS Asia University Rankings, on the other hand, shows that UP is the top university in the country, taking the 87th spot, followed by AdMU, which placed 134th.
Regardless of the order in which these two universities place in the Philippines, both, along with De La Salle University (DLSU) dropped in their rankings not just in the QS Asia University Rankings, but also the QS World University Rankings.
The 2022 situationer said that the low quality in higher education can be blamed on the low quality of basic education and inadequate qualifications of teaching personnel with only a handful of faculty members holding graduate degrees.
Progressive youth partylist member Kabataan Raoul Manuel tells SciDev.Net that problems in basic education prevent the Philippines from properly equipping its youth in STEM. He says that longstanding issues in basic education, including classroom shortages, meagre compensations for teachers, and lack of educational resources deprive students of quality education.
According to the PISA 2018 country-specific report, the Philippines had the lowest expenditure per student among all PISA-participating countries and economies and is 90 per cent lower than the OECD average of US$89,000 per student.
“The country must go back to the basics and improve the teaching of science and math in the basic education level,” Manuel says. “We can’t find more young people in STEM careers if we can’t guarantee quality education that will equip students to comprehend and solve basic problems or calculations.”
The education situationer also pointed out that the Philippines has an underdeveloped research and innovation system. It cited a 2020 survey that said that STEM training in higher education is heavily focused on getting students to pass board examinations and less on research and innovation.
“If we refer to Philippines’ performance in maths and science in TIMMS around 20 years ago, we were already doing very badly. For those of us who have been paying attention to these results, we’ve been dropping decades ago”
Allan Bernardo, De La Salle University
There are currently only 174 researchers per million inhabitants in the Philippines, which is nearly half the Department of Science and Technology’s target of 300 researchers per million population. Even with the higher end of the target, this is already behind countries within South-East Asia alone: Singapore has 6,730 researchers per million people while Malaysia has more than 2,200 researchers per million.
For marine biologist Jean Utzurrum, there are additional barriers that may prevent researchers from the global South, including the Philippines, from having their research published in scientific journals. These include language barriers, high publishing fees, and little incentive to write manuscripts that may wind up rejected by journal editors. She also tells SciDev.Net that multiple responsibilities can prevent researchers from writing.
“Being underpaid and/or overworked in a country where there are cultural expectations to fulfil familial obligations means that researchers have little to no time to write a manuscript,” Utzurrum tells SciDev.Net.
“The Philippine education sector needs to exert more relevant effort not just to make the Filipino youth interested in STEM but also to lead them to pursue STEM careers,” Philippine Science High School (PSHS) System executive director Lilia Habacon tells SciDev.Net.
“We need to expose them at a young age to how STEM makes a difference in the lives of people in the areas of medicine, engineering, research, technology, and innovation,” Habacon also says. “When young people are made aware of the benefits and significance of STEM, they can see its importance. It will lead them to pursue STEM.”
As the 2022 PISA evaluation is underway, Habacon says that the issues with the educational system need to be resolved alongside the impact on learning brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whatever the results of PISA 2022 with regard to the status of Filipino learners in mathematics, science and reading, the government needs to address the root cause of the previous dismal performance, aggravated by the learning loss during the pandemic,” Habacon says. She tells SciDev.Net that there were some children who qualified in the PSHS system but did not pursue their scholarship because of the pandemic, as well as proximity issues and other personal reasons.
For their future
Students Claire, Jane, Melissa and John* are enrolled in the STEM Senior High School track in a public high school in central Manila. As the four are in the process of preparing their college applications, they are concerned about what to pursue post-high school.
Claire believes that the education system in the Philippines has to be improved by the government even as she appeals to political leaders to listen to the concerns of teachers and students should they introduce educational reforms.
For John, the major concern is the difficulty of finding a job after finishing the K-12 programme despite the fact that the programme has been packaged as helping students become job-ready.
“K-12 is supposed to prepare students for work but it is not enough to land a job after graduation from Senior High School,” he says. “I hope the government can coordinate with companies so that Senior High School students and graduates can be hired.”
John says this is also an issue of youths who want to become working students so that they can earn to support their education.
Jane says that income potential directly affects career choices of students and whether they will choose to stay in the Philippines. “Opportunities should be made available for students after graduating,” Jane says, pointing out that many Filipinos, particularly those in the medical field, opt to leave the country because they earn more overseas.
Brain drain is a concern, especially for health professionals. The Philippines is the top country of origin for foreign-born nurses and top tenth country of origin for foreign-born doctors working in OECD areas.
Jane points out how the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the plight of medical frontliners in the country, serving as the front line of defence against the disease but receiving little compensation for their efforts.
Melissa points out the need for assistance beyond free or subsidised tuition.
“Even if you say the tuition fee is free, STEM students still have various needs beyond notebooks and pens. If you need to do research, you need WiFi and a gadget,” she says. “I don’t see that many computer shops now because the thinking is everyone has internet access at home but that is not the case. Connectivity is also an issue. Not everyone has internet access. It is very hard to achieve your dreams because you need sufficient support.”
The education situationer noted that a household survey done by the Department of Information and Communications Technology in 2019, just one year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, showed that only 18 per cent of households had internet access while only 24 per cent had computers at home. It also reported that only 17 per cent of the poorest decile of the population enrolled in higher education institutions, as opposed to 49 per cent of the highest decile.
Melissa also mentions experiencing barriers to particular interest in pursuing a STEM-related career: while she is interested in taking up nursing as her pre-medicine (pre-med) course, she says that most scholarships only offer biology and medical technology. “Why isn’t nursing included as a pre-med course? I wish they would also offer spots for nursing.”
“The country must expand access to degree programmes in STEM, which are among the most expensive options in higher education because they charge higher tuition and other school fees for laboratory courses and internships,” Manuel says.
Issues are ‘not new’
While various education reforms have been introduced to try to address these issues – the latest being the K-12 programme – these issues continue to persist, as discussed by a paper released over a decade ago.
Allan Bernardo, distinguished university professor and university fellow, DLSU, tells SciDev.Net that the performance of the Philippines in international large-scale assessments of educational outcomes is not new nor recent”.
“If we refer to Philippines’ performance in maths and science in TIMMS around 20 years ago, we were already doing very badly (i.e. in bottom three). For those of us who have been paying attention to these results, we’ve been dropping decades ago,” Bernardo tells SciDev.Net.
Bernardo says that there is no single cause to the problems, but numerous interrelated factors that have not been addressed in decades, including access issues, lack of good learning resources, inadequate teacher training in pedagogies for effective facilitation of learning, and inflexible curriculum guides.
Besides these issues, psychosocial factors can also affect student performance, says Bernardo, who co-authored research funded by the DLSU’s Angelo King Institute for Economic and Business Studies, with support from the National Academy of Science and Technology to look into students’ perceptions of maths and science in relation to their aspirations in Philippine society.
“Poor-performing students in math and science have more negative experiences in the classroom and social environment,” Bernardo says. “They tend to report feeling a low sense of belonging, have higher self-reports of being bullied, and perceive lower cooperation among students.”
Bernardo says that their research also indicates that students may not see science and math as relevant to future aspirations. “These kids are thinking about their future and looking at their communities and the country at large (where anti-science anti-intellectual discourses are becoming stronger), and they’re thinking, ‘I don’t really need to learn math and science’,” he says.
Results of their research show that poor Filipino students who have parents that have “low status occupations” also expect to have low occupations when they reach adulthood. They have low motivations and ascribe little importance to work hard in school for their future.
This finding is in line with the Philippine-specific PISA 2018 report, which said that only 31 per cent of students in the Philippines holds a growth mindset. Growth mindset is the “belief that someone’s ability and intelligence can be developed over time”.
In contrast, the fixed mindset is the belief that skills and intelligence are innate and cannot be honed even with training. People with a growth mindset tend to have a greater passion for learning and are more likely to make an effort to reach their full potential.
Isy Faingold, chief of education, UNICEF Philippines, said the low number of students with a growth mindset may also explain why there are students that feel intimidated by STEM.
“With a 2018 PISA study showing a disturbing number of Filipino students displaying very low growth mindset (believing that their intelligence cannot change much), it is not surprising that students would feel intimidated by STEM subjects and shy away from pursuing it as a learning/career path,” Faingold tells SciDev.Net.
Bernardo tells SciDev.Net that educational policymakers need to have a deep understanding of what skills, knowledge, and competencies are needed now and in the future.
“I am not convinced our decision makers understand that in a deep and principled manner, especially when pronouncements seem to emphasise other education goals like instilling discipline and developing citizens who are not critical thinkers,” Bernardo says.
He adds that “talk and mere gestures” should not be the only ways in which science and math can be brought to the national discourse, saying that resources from both the government and the private sector should be allocated strategically to make a difference.
Primary education expenditure per child of primary education age is at US$569, which is 83.5 per cent below the average for East Asia and the Pacific and 29.5 per cent below the average for lower middle-income countries, according to the World Bank.
STEM education in Asia
Asia as a region is a mixed bag in terms of its performance in STEM education.
Countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia did not perform well in PISA 2018. On the other hand, Singapore is one of the best-performing countries worldwide in the evaluation, ranking second only to China across all three categories (science, math, and reading). Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have also had good standings in the World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings, penetrating the top 200 universities in the world. Brunei and India were also able to have one university each penetrate the World University Rankings, while Malaysia was able to have two of its higher education institutions placing within the top 150 universities.
Other countries in the region, however, did not fare as well.
“Countries and official UNESCO Member States in Asia and the Pacific are currently at varying stages of implementing STEM in their education systems. Five of the top ten high performing economies in the PISA 2018 are located in Asia, and we may already observe that students in these contexts perform well in STEM-related subjects,” Faryal Khan, programme specialist for education at the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, tells SciDev.Net.
“On the other hand, if we examine the STEM education policy environments across the region and how some countries have developed STEM initiatives, we may also observe emerging challenges in STEM policy, curriculum design, context and the training programmes undertaken by STEM teachers,” Khan continues.
While India, a major country in the region, has its own initiatives to promote STEM education, there are inadequacies that came to the fore when close to 20,000 Indian medical students were found stranded in Ukraine when Russia invaded the country in February.
Currently, there are over a million Indian students enrolled in universities outside the country, the vast majority of them studying medicine or other STEM subjects. The trend of Indian students going abroad for higher studies has been steadily increasing and a RedSeer report projects that 1.8 million Indians will be spending annually US$85 billion on education overseas by 2024.
UK immigration statistics show that nearly 118,000 Indian students received a student visa in the year ending June 2022 — an 89 per cent increase over the previous year. With this India has overtaken China as the largest nationality on sponsored study visas in the UK.
Differences in perceptions
“Countries like Singapore and Viet Nam show what is possible, including for disadvantaged populations,” Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the OECD Secretary-General, tells SciDev.Net.
Schleicher notes that one difference among these countries that are performing well in education is the “deep belief that every student can learn”.
“These systems have advanced from sorting human talent to developing human talent,” he says. “They realise that ordinary citizens can have extraordinary talents.” This is in contrast to some countries that segregate students into different tracks or perceived skills.
Schleicher also notes that top-performing school systems also encourage teachers to be innovative.
“Countries like Singapore and Viet Nam show what is possible, including for disadvantaged populations”
Andreas Schleicher, OECD
“Top school systems select and educate their teaching staff carefully, and they provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice, and they encourage teachers to grow in their careers,” he says.
As with the Philippines, teachers’ ability in STEM is also an area of concern for Indonesia and Thailand.
“The teaching capacity of the science teachers is the main factor that may affect Indonesia’s performance in STEM courses,” says R. Ahmad Zaky El Islami, assistant professor in science education at Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, in the province of Banten.
El Islami says that the capacity of STEM teachers in Indonesia still needs to be improved. He also says that the frequent curriculum changes confuse teachers.
“Whatever the government policy about curriculum in Indonesia, it should be focused on the teacher training on implementation of STEM education,” El Islami says.
Nonetheless, El Islami is optimistic about the future of STEM in Indonesia, given its history of innovation, citing the development of the first Indonesian aircraft by a local scientist in 1995 as an example.
“Based on history, Indonesia can give more contributions to the real world if science teachers are able to capacitate the students’ skills and abilities in relation to STEM,” El Islami.
Chatree Faikhamta, an associate professor of science education at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, also raised the importance of teacher quality in Thailand.
“Teachers’ understanding of STEM is varied, particularly in terms of degree of integration of STEM disciplines,” he says. Engineering in particular is an area of concern among teachers since it is “very new for science and mathematics teachers”.
“Some research studies indicated that teachers still face difficulties in their implementation of STEM activities in their classroom such as time constraints, students learning, designing STEM lessons,” Faikhamta tells SciDev.Net.
Faikhamta also says that students, while generally interested in STEM subjects, are not familiar with hands-on activities that are required in STEM.
El Islami and Faikhamta are team members of MII-STEM, a project in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam that is looking into developing a modelling-based curriculum for science teachers.
“It is not just a question of how many courses are taught or made available to learners, but how we might expand the concept of STEM in response to the ever-changing education and economic landscape to make STEM even more adaptable and relevant to education systems and youth throughout the region”
Faryal Khan, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education
Khan says that beyond opportunities, STEM education in Asia also needs to be widened to make it more responsive to growing needs.
“It is not just a question of how many courses are taught or made available to learners, but how we might expand the concept of STEM in response to the ever-changing education and economic landscape to make STEM even more adaptable and relevant to education systems and youth throughout the region,” she says.
Broadening opportunities also means ensuring that the education is inclusive to accommodate all students, according to Khan.
“Currently there is a growing need for us to pay greater attention to each country’s rural and geographically disadvantaged groups to ensure that they have access to STEM education as readily as their urban peers,” Khan says.
“Students who are interested in STEM can excel regardless of their geographic location if the government equitably allocates its resources to promote scientific innovation across regions rather than concentrate its resources in selected, relatively more developed areas only,” Manuel says, echoing Khan’s recommendation.
Khan also recommends teaching science, mathematics and reading in the mother tongue of the students.
“UNESCO has been advocating for multilingual education based on the mother tongue from the earliest years of schooling. Research shows that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for fostering inclusion and quality learning, and it also improves learning outcomes and academic performance,” Khan says.
Manuel shares the same sentiments.
“Primary-level learners in several other countries use their mother tongue when they start counting, reading and grasping foundational concepts in various subjects, but in the Philippines, students are forced to learn the basics using languages that they do not usually use at home or in daily conversation,” Manuel says.
Khan also emphasises the importance of increasing the interest and participation of female youth in STEM education. Results of a Philippine baseline study indicated that male youths have more confidence across science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The difference is particularly high with engineering, with 63 per cent of males saying they are confident as opposed to 49 per cent of females. The same study showed that 73 per cent of male youths planned to take STEM in university as opposed to 59 per cent of females.
“A general condition of gender inequality through the region is also proving a significant barrier,” Khan says. “For a multitude of social, cultural and psychological reasons, girls and women are often found to be at a distinct disadvantage in pursuing STEM education and subsequent work,” she says.
Educational finance is another area that needs to be looked into. “We need to increase levels of educational finance to enable transformations of education systems that advance STEM education. Political will in support of inclusive, high-quality STEM education, and high-level commitment to competency-based educational objectives, will be enabling factors,” Khan says.
Manuel also has a similar recommendation for the Philippines.
“Students must have access to well-furnished laboratories in their campuses, as well as necessary technologies and infrastructure such as reliable Internet connection across the country,” he says. “This demands greater funding into the public school system.”
*Names have been changed to protect the students’ privacy.
By Melanie Sison with additional report from Ranjit Devraj. This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk and was slightly adapted from the original version first published on SciDev.Net on 5 December 2022: https://www.scidev.net/asia-pacific/scidev-net-investigates/philippine-struggle-to-make-the-grade-in-stem-education/