President Michael M. Alba
Far Eastern University and Roosevelt College
I don’t know why our policy makers have not made much more of this opportunity. But the following prospect looms in our future: In the next 80 years or so, the Philippines will be in a demographic sweet spot. Specifically, the dependency ratio – defined as the number of young and elderly Filipinos divided by the number of their countrymen of working ages – is currently at 0.6 and falling (see chart). Barring major disruptions in the age structure of the population, such as those caused by wars, famines, diseases, or natural disasters, this ratio is projected to reach its trough at 0.5 in 2055 before rising again, but only to 0.6 by 2100 (based on the medium population-growth projection of the Philippine Statistical Agency, but the calculations are mine). In other words, between now and 2100, each Filipino worker on average will need to financially support a little over half a person.
The implication is: If in the next 80 years Filipino workers can find gainful employment, they will be able to save as never before, allowing the country to leverage the higher national saving rate to make investments that will put the Philippine economy on a higher growth trajectory. Imagine this scenario: If the country’s per capita gross domestic product (a measure of the living standard) grows at an annual rate of, say, 5 percent, it will be doubling every 14 years. Over 80 years, this living standard will thus increase almost six-fold, which will enable the Philippines to become one of the 25 or so rich nations of the world.
This potential to be on a high growth path over a long period of time due to a low dependency ratio (or, more generally, an economically beneficial population age structure) is called the demographic dividend. But, as mentioned above, reaping this dividend (or, better yet, maximizing this largesse) depends crucially on working-age Filipinos being gainfully employed, which in turn implies that the Filipino workforce must be globally competitive. How is this to be achieved? Surely, a necessary condition is an education system that provides universal access and delivers quality learning outcomes so that graduates will thrive in the world of work and live meaningful lives.
To summarize: the biggest challenge facing the country’s education system is how to improve access to affordable quality education so that the country can maximize its demographic dividend.
Elsewhere I have provided parts of my answer to this question (See Alba (2010) and Alba (2013a, 2013b, 2013c)). The gist of my recommendations is the following: In higher education (though, on second thought, the prescription applies to basic education as well), perhaps the most important to-do is for the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) [and the Department of Education (DepEd) in the case of basic education] to improve its regulatory capabilities (through training in the economics of regulation, among other things). Moreover, the focus of the regulation should be not so much on education financing (which, despite its extensive discussion in the human capital literature, is a peripheral market failure), but on the fact that education is an experience good (which is a market failure at the core of education). (Please see box.)
Education as an experience good (and its normative regulation)
In economics, an experience good is defined as a good or service whose quality is not known to the buyer or consumer at the point of sale; instead, its quality can only be discerned in the very process of consumption.
Consider a movie. When one buys a movie ticket, at that point the person cannot know whether he will like the movie. Moreover, its impact will depend on whether and to what extent he accepts the movie’s premises. Like a novel or play, a movie presents an imagined universe. If a person cannot suspend judgment on the altered set of rules and premises of this other world – if a person is unwilling to accept that, say, some people can be endowed with super powers like being able to fly on their own power, having superhuman strength, having lightning fast reflexes, etc. – then he won’t be able to enjoy the movie [presumably involving super-heroes and -villains]. Conversely, if the person is so into the imagined world – if he is a super fan who is well acquainted with it from other media like comic books or TV shows – then he is more likely to enjoy the movie and even notice many details that others would miss.
So it is with education: When a student starts school, she cannot know at that point how she will be affected by the experience. But given that education is an experience good, her schooling is likely to be more transformative the more deeply she believes in the school’s mission and vision and the more engaged and immersed she is in its program offerings, extracurricular activities, etc.
On the regulation of an experience good, the economics of regulation literature has this finding: The regulator faces a tradeoff between quality and efficiency as regulatory goals. That is, the regulator cannot pursue both goals at the same time: if it wants to improve the quality of the regulated good, this can be done only at the expense of (cost or operational) efficiency; conversely, if it wants to aim for efficiency, it has to let go of some quality considerations. More specifically, when the regulator sets price caps (for example, by disallowing fee increases beyond regional inflation rates) [or, more generally, implements fee-based regulatory contracts], it pushes the regulated firms to be cost conscious and therefore toward efficiency, away from quality. And when the regulator adopts a cost-plus scheme (for example, by having operational costs be funded by the government plus allowing regulated firms to collect fees for other activities), it pushes the regulated firms toward quality, away from efficiency.
[Aside: This is the uneven playing field that Philippine higher education institutions (HEIs) are operating in in today’s regulatory environment. Private HEIs are being incentivized to be more efficient as a consequence of CHED’s price cap regulation; state universities and colleges are being encouraged to improve quality as a consequence of their government-funded budgets and the revenue-enhancing measures they are allowed to do. Isn’t the more rational regulatory stance the following: already sensitive to the discipline imposed by the market, private HEIs should be pushed toward quality; and, being in the public sector and somewhat shielded from market forces, state universities and colleges should be pushed toward operational efficiency?]
In the rest of this essay, I describe some initiatives that are being implemented in the basic education departments of the FEU system of schools (outside of DepEd’s regulatory strictures) – innovations that hopefully can improve student learning outcomes, informed by the premise that education is an experience good, so that schooling becomes an engaging and immersive experience for students.
The goal is to produce (in its beau idéal) the grade-12 graduate who will thrive in the best higher education institutions. This implies, at minimum, that the basic-education graduate must have mastery of the very detailed DepEd curriculum and possess other attributes including values and behaviors that FEU (or Roosevelt College) would like its young charges to internalize. The way we have chosen to go about this is to adopt a constructivist philosophy of education and, in particular, the understanding-by-design (UBD) framework – the argument being that, ultimately, the essence of education is about the learner being able to draw out and construct meaning about herself and the world from what she learns.
An upshot of this “UBD stance” is that FEU (including Roosevelt College) is choosing to stand by the teacher – choosing to recognize that the teacher is the most important resource in the learning process, because they are the ones who determine whether successful meaning-making happens in their students. This is in stark contrast to emerging models where the teacher basically reads from or implements a script developed by an external learning provider, in effect diminishing her value in her students’ learning process. The ambition in FEU (and Roosevelt College) is for teachers in FEU-system schools to have rewarding careers (with good remuneration packages), that they attain content mastery in the subjects they teach (specifically that they are able to develop their own materials, instead of simply relying on textbooks by default), and that they metamorphose as effective and engaging coaches of learning for their students as espoused by the UBD framework.
Given these premises, the basic-education departments of FEU-system schools are starting to implement the following initiatives that will become part of their distinctions in years to come: a curriculum map, a data-intensive analysis of learning outcomes, and a technology-enhanced learning environment. The curriculum map is intended to ensure coherence between a student’s learning journey and her envisioned learning outcomes. The analysis of learning outcomes monitors that learning actually transpires in each and every student. The technology-empowered learning environment makes the learning process engaging and immersive for students who (unlike fogey school administrators like yours truly) are digital natives.
Curriculum map. The objective of a curriculum map is to produce the ideal graduate, specified in terms of the complete and exhaustive list of her competencies, values, and behavioral traits. Constructed by backward design, i.e., starting with the graduate attributes, the curriculum map must be able to show where each and every intended outcome is developed and fostered in a student’s learning trajectory.
Following Janet Hale (2008), the curriculum maps in FEU-system schools consist of four types. The essential map, which is common to all schools, is the DepEd curriculum plus a few hallmarks of FEU (such as the values of fortitude, excellence, and uprightness and an acquaintance with culture and the arts). The consensus map is the essential map plus aspects that stakeholders in a particular school consider important in their particular context. Teachers work with the last two maps: The projected map is a schedule of when connected sets of topics bunched in unit plans are intended to be covered in the school calendar; the diary map is the teacher’s reflections on how successfully (or not) the unit plans worked with the class as a whole and with particular students.
At the end of each school year, using the reflections in their diary maps, the teachers hold a workshop to do a postmortem on the curriculum map as implemented and to improve on it for the next school year. Teachers across subjects in a grade level evaluate whether the desired outcomes were attained and identify which strategies worked (or didn’t) with the batch and where there could have been better integration of the curriculum. Teachers of a common subject across grade levels exchange notes on how to better prepare students for the spiraling curriculum so that students in a lower grade level are primed for the challenges of the next level. For the rest of the summer, they then work to tweak their projected maps, revise their unit plans, and prepare all the materials they will use in the next school year.
Having a curriculum map provides at least two benefits: First, it sets out an explicit road map of the student’s learning journey that tends to be taken for granted. Second, it builds a culture of continuous improvement in the school.
Data-intenstive analysis of learning outcomes. It is claimed that, in today’s world, the most important currency is data. Technology has facilitated the creation, storage, and mining and analysis of information, all of which are being harnessed to improve the user experience of a service. (For this reason, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are bruited to be the most powerful firms in the world.) Leveraging on this development, FEU schools are beginning to make intensive and extensive use of data on learning outcomes (and relating them to student attributes) to point teachers to how each and every student can get the most out of her schooling.
There are grand plans afoot, which I am still not at liberty to divulge; one significant part, though, will be as an outgrowth of FEU’s adoption of Canvas, the fastest growing learning management system today. For the time being, to measure learning outcomes FEU schools are using the standardized achievement tests of the Center for Educational Measurement (CEM). A nice feature of the CEM achievement tests is that they are aligned with the learning competencies of the DepEd curriculum; a limitation is that it tests only for cognitive skills.
All students of FEU schools (including Roosevelt College) from grades 1 to 10 take the CEM tests in English, Science, and Mathematics twice – a pre-test at the start of the school year and a post-test at the end. (Because these are early days for Grades 11 and 12, tests for these grade levels are not yet available.)
The pre-test scores once submitted by CEM are processed by section in each grade level of each school and for each subject. Specifically, the proportion of the class that answered correctly is measured for each DepEd competency. These reports are then given to the teachers to enable them to adjust their projected map, since less time should be allotted for topics that the majority of the students already know and more should be devoted on those that they don’t.
Toward the end of the school year when the post-test scores are available, more intensive statistical analysis is undertaken. First, (again by section in each grade level of each school and for each subject) the pre-test and post-test proportions of the class that answered correctly in each DepEd competency are overlaid on the same chart. The expectation is that the post-test proportion is 0.6 or higher, meaning that at least 60 percent of the students in the class possess each of the learning competencies. Considered a good outcome is if the pre-test proportion correct is less than 0.5 and its post-test counterpart is 0.6 or higher. Frowned on is if the post-test proportion correct is the same or lower than its pre-test version, implying that no learning or even unlearning occured. The school administrators then hold conferences on these results with each teacher to maker better sense of the outcomes.
Second, the distributions of the post- and pre-test scores are compared using kernel densities (or histograms, the width of whose bars are narrowed to a point so that the bar chart looks like and has the features of a probability density function). What we’ve learned in FEU thus far from these comparisons is the following: As may be expected, when the density functions are overlaid on the same chart, the post-test score density is located at the right of that of the pre-test scores. In other words, post-test scores are generally better than the pre-test scores, which means that learning does occur. But then, the right tail of the post-test score density tends to extend much farther out than that of the pre-test scores, while the left tail of the post-test score density tends not to move to the right by much. This means that the more motivated students are able to significantly improve their learning outcomes, but not so their less motivated peers. For this reason, I have insisted on a “no child left behind” policy: teachers have to give extra attention to the less motivated, less able students, since the more motivated ones can actually learn on their own without much prodding – they only need to be given more challenging work using, say, an adaptive-learning technology.
Third, regression analysis is undertaken to analyze the determinants of the learning outcomes, operationalized as the difference between the post-test and pre-test scores of each student on the same subject. Regressors include student and family-background attributes as well as teacher and section factors. Among other things, the results are used to identify students who perform (at least one standard deviation) above or below their predicted capabilities, and the underperformers are counseled that they can actually do better.
A technology-empowered learning environment. The latest development in school-campus design organizes the school layout so as to foster an environment conducive to learning – not only in classrooms, libraries, and study halls, but also in a range of other spaces such as quiet nooks for reflection and alone-time to hubs that encourage peer and student-teacher collaborations and interactions. Moreover, as students nowadays are digital natives, it is almost a requirement that the entire campus be wired for internet connectivity and empowered with technology-enabled learning tools or apps.
The technology program of FEU consists of the following components: an aggressive upgrading of the information-technology infrastructure (which aims, among other things, to bump up internet speeds in each campus to about 200 mbps and to use cloud services extensively), adopt both enterprise software and education-technology applications, and train teachers to become more education-technology savvy. Specifically, the campuses are being wired for fast internet access. The FEU system has signed on to Canvas (which currently is the fastest growing and possibly the best learning management system in the world), and will be rolling out its extensive use as its learning platform starting SY 2016‒2017. Some campuses are pilot-testing McGraw-Hill’s adaptive learning technology, while others are adopting tablets (such as iPads) and are in the process of doing away with textbooks. And teachers are being trained to use Apple apps to enhance the learning experience in classrooms. (But an even more recent development is that Microsoft, Philippines, has reached out to FEU on its new education-apps portfolio. As “Microsoft is the New Apple,” according to a New York Times article, FEU has obliged.)
To sum up: If the Philippines is to maximize its demographic dividend, it must improve its education system a.s.a.p. so as to provide quality education to the majority of young Filipinos. One set of reform initiatives has to do with improving regulatory capabilities in both CHED and DepEd. The other needs to focus on learning outcomes and making the schooling experience immersive and engaging for students who are digital natives. FEU is doing its darnest (including in thought leadership on these issues) to make significant contributions for the country’s progress and the Filipino people’s well-being.
Alba, Michael M. 2010. “Basic education: All’s still not well.” In In Search of a Human Face: 15 Years of Knowledge Building for Human Development in the Philippines. Quezon City, Philippines: Human Development Network.
Alba, Michael M. 2013a. “A normative regulatory framework for CHED: Part 1: The types of economic goods.” Tambuli (The official publication of Far Eastern University) 13 (1): 3 – 4.
Alba, Michael M. 2013b. “A normative regulatory framework for CHED: Part 2: Market and government failures in higher education.” Tambuli (The official publication of Far Eastern University) 13 (2): 3 – 5.
Alba, Michael M. 2013c. “A normative regulatory framework for CHED: Part 3: Design elements and issues.” Tambuli (The official publication of Far Eastern University) 13 (3) : 3 – 5.
Hale, Janet A. 2008. A Guide to Curriculum Mapping: Planning, Implementing, and Sustaining the Process. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.