Pasensya Na Lang

“It is said hard work never killed anyone but I say why take the chance.” – President Ronald Reagan

The Philippines stands at the pinnacle of some of the world’s worst categories. That is not easy to do.

The World Bank reports our country is last or next to last in reading, comprehension, math and science among 79 countries surveyed.

We have the most instances of bullying in the region.

The Asian Development Bank Institute confirms the ”low” learning in the country.

The Global Institute for Peace and the World Economic Forum rank us last among 134 countries in public safety based on peace and order and health.

Manila is consistently voted the traffic capital of the world.

Our War on Drugs has become the model for how not to fight addiction.

Marcos put us on the map of world dictatorships. Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes have become a synonym for profligacy and corruption.

Our COVID lockdown is the planet’s longest and our economy is predicted to be the last to recover in our region.

What is it in us that accounts for our record of failures? We are not more unintelligent, more poor, nor more indolent than other nations. Is it our culture, our race, political system, colonial history,  religion, geography, climate or all of the above?

Culturally we have low expectations and standards of excellence. The phrase “puede na” captures this acceptance of mediocrity. We prize form over substance, image over content. The WB report says our youth do not believe they can be better. Our next generation has lost hope and with that comes its willingness to strive.

As an economy we focused on the low lying fruit of property, consumer services and the God-given bounties of our country rather than on long term but difficult challenges like education, clean tourism, knowledge industries, exports, manufacturing and agriculture. We raped our natural resources without heed for sustainability resulting in the degradation of our geography, our environment  and our rural communities.

As a race we are reluctant to apologize for our mistakes. When we err we tell the aggrieved party: “Pasensya na lang”. This common refrain is neither a statement of contrition, an acknowledgment of failure nor a promise to do better, it is a demand to accept our deficiencies because life is what it is. There is no personal accountability. 

We do not take responsibility for our actions as a people so we do not expect our leaders to be accountable for theirs. We continue to elect to public office heirs of leaders who did us great harm in the past. We accept family dynasties as a political way of life. We do not expect criminals to be jailed. We give high marks to leaders who rule us badly. We easily forget so we return for more pain. It is akin to the Stockholm Syndrome where the hostages become enamored with their captors or battered spouses who cannot leave their partners.

Rather than man up for the deficiencies of her department, DepEd Sec. Briones chastised  the World Bank for releasing its report prematurely (The WB did apologize but did not retract its findings). She did not seek forgiveness nor promise to improve. Now we understand why the agency is as pathetic as it is.

Our political system reinforces this failure of accountability. We have three equal branches of Government – the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary – which theoretically are supposed to check and balance each other but in reality enhance the omnipotence of the Chief Executive. We have no institutionalized party system so Filipinos vote on personalities, entertainment value, and name recall rather than on character, programs and policies. Our Legislature and its pork barrel sway with whoever is in Malacanang. Supreme Court Justices have tenure but they are appointed by the President. Over time our highest tribunal gets packed with surrogates perpetuating a loyalty and a bias for the incumbent President. 

We are not a nation of big ideas. We do not think in strategic terms. We believe in marginal improvements not quantum changes. We do not dare to dream. We do not have a Lee Kuan Yew who took an island state with no natural resources and a small population and transformed it into a model of grit, progress, innovation and stability. We have not ever had a  President we can be truly proud of. We cherish martyrs over visionaries. Jose Rizal, our national hero, and Ninoy never led us, they just died for us. 

Some say our religion has something to do with who we are. Catholic countries like Spain, Italy and Portugal lag their northern neighbors and their “Protestant work ethic”. Similarly Latin American economies pale by comparison with their Asian emerging market counterparts, the non-Christian Tigers like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. 

Our American colonial heritage left us incomplete. The British enabled its colonies – now the Commonwealth – with a Parliament and an institutionalized party system that offers policy choices; and a working bureaucracy that survives political changes. Our political parties come and go. Our Government agencies are buffeted with every Administration so there is no long term planning and respect for civil service. This is the genesis of corruption.

Our island geography resulted in political fiefdoms, multiple languages and divergent interests. We have no common purpose. To this day Mindanao remains an outlier. Imperial Manila and its dominance of the Budget made for an over concentration of economic activity in the NCR and surrounding provinces (they today account for 70% of GDP) leading to unbalanced growth, urban density and poverty, and income inequality.

None of the above is arguably novel, uniquely insightful nor correct. It is possibly just another instance of self-flagellation which I can sometimes be guilty of. However this does not detract from the fact that we are as a nation trolling the bottom of the world in critical categories like education and income inequality. We will not automatically self-correct and will continue to slide down this slope of mediocrity unless we acknowledge our deficiencies and start dealing with them whatever they are. 

The task of reversing decades of degradation is overwhelming. There is no single point of failure. It starts with a political recognition but does not and cannot stop there. If we care about the future of our children we need to have a national conversation about who we are, where we are and why we are and how we go from there. 

Dumb & Dumber

“ Basic education is a human right, not a privilege.”

We are raising a generation of uneducated Filipinos.

A recent World Bank study showed:

  1. 25% of Grade 5 Filipino students do not have the reading skills of Grade 2 and 3 students elsewhere. In math this figure is 67%.

2. 80% of our 15 year olds do not understand concepts like fractions and decimals, a Grade 5 skill level.

3. 80% of Filipinos students fall below the proficiency levels for their grades. The Philippines ranked last in reading and second to last in math among 79 countries surveyed.

4. Our dismal performance stems from unfamiliarity with the medium of instruction, English, in math and science.

5. 40% of our students were frequently bullied, a rate five times higher than in 79 countries. In S.E. Asia, our 15 year olds reported the highest rate of “feeling unsafe”.

6. 20% of Filipino students were “stunted” from malnutrition.

7. Filipino students had “a low growth mindset”. Only one third believed “they can become more intelligent” versus 63% of students elsewhere. 

Rather than apologize to the Filipino people DepEd Sec. Briones asked the WB to apologize for releasing the report without prior notice. She claimed the results were based on “outdated assessments” without suggesting ways to improve it. Malacanang called the report “alarming and very disturbing”. I guess Briones did not get the memo. This is not the first report of its kind.

Our state of education is not a failure of this Administration alone, it was long in coming. The quality and real wages of our teachers have been steadily dropping forcing many to migrate or become maids in foreign countries. We have 7,000 classrooms in disrepair and a backlog of 20,000. In a 2017 world ranking of 1,012 Higher Education institutions (HEIs) only UP made it (39th). COVID exacerbated the problem: Last year 3 million kids missed class and another 20 million missed an education. Economic hardship decimated our 1,710 private HEIs swelling the 237 already overcrowded state schools.

Our education problems are structural, economic, management and nutritional in the very young.

On the structural we have a two-tier model with a few good schools catering to the rich. Then there is everybody else. 

Financially, our Constitution mandates the Dept. of Education have the largest allocation of the National Budget, this year P550 billion. That we are where we are means either the Budget is insufficient, we are spending money incorrectly or, as I suspect, the DepEd is corrupt not necessarily at Briones’ level but all around her. A forensic accounting is in order. Senate and House chairs on Education Win Gatchalilan and Roman Romulo, where are you?

Our failed education does not stem from poverty because we rank worse than others with much lower per capita GDP.

Improving our educational system is a generational endeavor. We must think broader, deeper, longer and smarter. Here are some thoughts:

1. Management revamp – We need DepEd leaders that have the vision, energy and ability to execute. Organizationally the DepEd should be divided into its educational, its operations, and its infrastructure components. The first will deal with learning and quality control, the second with human resources, money, administration and technology; and the third with building the facilities.

The educational part should be headed by an educator. Operations should be run by someone with management and administrative experience; infrastructure by one who can roll out the classrooms. The latter is currently outsourced to the DPWH which has its own big ticket priorities. As a result outlying areas never get the classes they deserve.

Historically our DepEd Secretaries invariably come from the education sector. Yet most of our problems are in management, HR, finance and capacity building which educators are not trained for. He/she needs to understand how teachers, students, curriculum, technology, infrastructure, and organizational processes come together.

2. Teacher upgrades – True to it priorities this Administration raised the salaries of the military but stranded teacher compensation. A new soldier is paid more than a new teacher. At the same time a re-education of our teachers is in order especially in English, math and science, the tools of the new knowledge world.

3. Technology – Classrooms must be complemented by a technology infrastructure.

4.. PPP in Education – We have Private-Public Partnerships in infrastructure, why not in education which is arguably more vital than roads and bridges? Business has a vested interest in an educated labor pool. Multinationals report Filipino management trainees are 2-3 years behind their Indian counterparts in maturity and skill sets. We might establish charter schools between LGUs and the private sector that can offer technical and custom designed curriculum. The U.S. is rolling out two-year community colleges on the theory that a dedicated vocational course is better than a mediocre 4 year liberal arts course. Google hires high school students who are Google certified. The PPPs could be funded by the recently raised LGU Budget allocations and property taxes. 

Private schools and corporates must share their processes, money and thinking with the public system. They could help public school teacher training by leveraging their faculty and infrastructure in the off-season and off days.

A model for a charter school is Mano Amiga Academy, a local initiative whose goal is to provide indigents with an education as good as that from Xavier and Ateneo (

5. Early learning – Studies show education starts in pre-school. The U.S. is investing in early learning which will also release many parents into the workforce. We should consider likewise.

6. Social integration – Our educational system is dividing this nation educationally and socially. Rich kids do not mix with poor kids creating an effective caste system. We need platforms where they can bridge the social divide at an early level. Like the forced integration of blacks and whites in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, private schools should integrate rich and poor children through a mandated scholarship quota for indigents. This is how private schools can give back to the community for all their tax perks.

7.  Student loan program – Student loans will admittedly have high defaults but if structured properly – repayment based on ability to pay, direct collection from employers, etc. – is no less wasteful than other Government subsidies. The Agriculture Reform Loan Program has default rates of some 50%. Student loans will mean better opportunity for our young, less stress on state universities, more employment and better pay for teachers, more investment in facilities, viable private schools, and greater economic equality.

8. Bullying – Bullying is a main cause of poor academic performance and teen age suicides worldwide. Why bullying is prevalent in the Philippines yet rarely discussed even among school administrators and decision makers speaks to some cultural trait that needs addressing legally and socially. Parents for one should be accountable for the sins of their children.

The Philippines faces an education winter. The World Bank calls it a “silent pandemic”. Last year we spent some two trillion pesos on COVID related endeavors and only a quarter of that on learning; yet the education damage is worse than the virus because it is permanent: An uneducated 18 year old will invariably remain so. A nation of dumb kids at the bottom of the world intellectual and job chain is not only a disgrace, it is a surrender to mediocrity and the single largest existential threat to this country. Yet we do little about it.