Three ways to help fix the learning crisis

Ronald u. Mendoza and steven walker

March 25, 2023 12:00am

The Philippines is in a learning crisis: Despite advances in getting more children into school, they aren't learning much in the classroom. According to the World Bank, over 90 percent of Filipino students are not able to read and understand age-appropriate text at age 10. Filipino students are also behind those in other countries: On standardized assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), the Philippines is at the bottom, especially on core subjects like reading, math, and science.The numbers are dismaying because research has shown that learning deficits compound over time. Failure to learn in early grades makes it harder for children to learn more complex subjects and skills in higher grade levels. Given that the Second Congressional Commission on Education has been enacted to review the country's education system, the time to take action on learning outcomes is now. It is essential to set students on the right path, ensuring children have foundational proficiencies in literacy, numeracy, and other transferable skills in pre-primary and primary education.

We recommend three evidence-based reforms to do so:

Invest more in preschool and early nutrition. Attending high-quality preschool improves students' readiness to learn, which often translates into higher test scores in the early years of schooling. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that on average, students who attended one or more years of preschool scored 30 points higher in reading compared to students who did not.

Investment in other early childhood metrics such as childhood nutrition during the first 1,000 days can also have positive effects on student outcomes, as malnutrition impairs brain development and students' ability to focus and participate in learning. Evidence has shown that improving child nutrition can improve students' performance in the early years, increase their later educational attainment, and even lead to higher earnings later in life. However, with both early education and nutrition interventions, starting early and ensuring the high quality of these approaches are key to achieving impact.

Focus on improving teacher quality. Global evidence has shown that teacher quality can be a strong predictor of student learning. In the Philippines, students have been shown to perform better when they feel supported by motivated teachers and where a higher proportion of master teachers are present. However, the number of qualified teachers is lacking and unevenly distributed across the country, with many having notably low subject matter knowledge. While no silver bullet exists, a review of the evidence around teacher effectiveness by IDinsight has identified important reform areas that can improve teacher quality, such as accountability incentives for teachers, classroom instruction and pedagogical support, and education technology.There are also calls for increasing the number and quality of in-service training for active teachers, which are currently lower than the OECD average and often delivered in trickled-down, standardized sessions disconnected from local needs. This must also include assessing the performance standards and benchmarks that have been established for teachers. Evaluating how these standards are being implemented and their suitability to local classroom needs can help provide evidence on how well teachers are being prepared for the classroom.

Prioritize remedial learning for foundational skills. For students who fall behind, opportunities to revisit and rebuild foundational skills are essential. The pandemic heightened the need for remedial learning, and while schools across the country have undertaken measures to support students' learning, many lack evidence-based solutions or support needed to implement context-appropriate interventions or share best practices.One approach that has worked in other countries is "Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL)." TaRL groups students within classes by learning level rather than age or grade, and has led to impressive improvements in test scores. With some research and the right teacher training and support, this approach can make a big difference in the Philippines. Given that the Philippines' demographic window is rapidly closing, it is prescient to prioritize education sector reforms in the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028.

Increasing investment in early grade and foundational learning is essential to improve primary-level learning outcomes and prepare Filipino students to thrive as the workforce of tomorrow.


Ronald U. Mendoza is the Southeast Asia regional director of IDinsight, and was formerly dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Steven Walker is a manager at IDinsight, with expertise in social inclusion and human development. IDinsight is a mission-driven global advisory, data analytics, and research organization.