I'm currently taking a break from finalizing the documentation of a Department of Education (DepEd) workshop that our office co-sponsored last week. Having recently joined an NGO that focuses on education, I'm still learning quite a lot of stuff about Philippine and Southeast Asian education. It is definitely a complex issue, and somewhat overwhelming given the myriad of perspectives that one has to take into account.
The workshop last week was on decentralization of the DepEd. We had participants from various parts of the country and from all levels (national, regional, division, district) who had one or more things to say about the plan to practically overhaul the management system and decision-making process of the country's largest bureaucracy. With such an eclectic mix of perspectives (not to mention personalities) the discussions easily went wayward, which was a nightmare for anybody documenting such a workshop.
An interesting but short discussion revolved around the dismal performance of the Philippines in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) of 2003. The results showed how the country is being surpassed by its neighbors, even by Indonesia. I sensed a feeling of resignation from the participants (educational decision-makers at that) when this data was raised. During the discussion, it was revealed that in other countries the test questions for the TIMSS were in their native language. Whereas in the Philippines the questions were in English, which is the same language used in teaching Math and Science in all schools.
A participant shared a local research that compared the teaching of Math and Science in Tagalog, English, and a mix of both. Findings of the research show that the language used in teaching is immaterial to the achievement rate of students. Instead, students perform better if the questions were in Tagalog. Another participant said that a research also showed that students taught in English (he did not mention the subject unfortunately) tend to be passive in class. In the end, the body did not adopt a certain resolution (thank goodness), instead they called for more research on the matter.
When I was in college, UP was experimenting with the use of Tagalog in teaching Math and Science for its pilot school in basic education, the UP Integrated School. When I took Math 1 (it's a fucking college subject for those who are not good at the higher Maths), I was under a professor who was a member of that research team. To my surprise, she took the liberty of teaching Math in Tagalog. Being a non-native Tagalog speaker (my mother tongue is Surigaonon), I met the language with amusement, especially when it came to the more technical terms. She called "sets" as "pangkat", "add" as "dagdag", "subtract" as "bawas". I had long been learning Math in English and during her lessons I was focusing more on how she could translate say "probability" into Tagalog than the actual lesson itself.
When I was in high school (like three years ago), Economics was taught in Tagalog. It was as a form of torture to non-Tagalog speakers courtesy of the National Curriculum (obviously made in Manila). I did not have any idea what our teacher was talking about and the language used in teaching it certainly did not help. Honestly, I could not remember anymore what her term was for say marginal utility. How I passed that subject was beyond me. When it was time for me to take Economics in college (this time in English), it seemed that I was learning the subject from scratch.
One of the main arguments of the proponents for teaching Match and Science in Tagalog is that students could better understand the lessons if done that way. A limitation of this recommendation however is the lack of Tagalog words for so many technical terms. The Philippines is certainly not like other countries that have conveniently come up with translations for all technical words. C'mon, who has a translation of say "tectonic plates"? Tektonikang pinggan? Or what exactly is "micro-biology" in Tagalog? Maykro-bayoloji? How about "water cycle", "hypotenuse", "statistical probability"?
Another problem with the proposition is that the Tagalogs in Manila (and parts of Luzon) assume that Tagalog is understood by the rest of the Filipinos. In my rough estimate, only about 20 percent (maximum) of Filipinos speak Tagalog as their mother tongue and they are mostly concentrated in Luzon. If the aim is teaching Math and Science in the local language to make it more understandable to school children, that would certainly entail translating all Science and Math textbooks into Waray, Bisaya, Maguindanao, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, and maybe hundreds of other dialects and languages that make up the archipelago. I even know of people from Mindanao and the Visayas who are better at speaking, reading, and writing in English than in Tagalog. In fact, I have friends from Cebu who'd rather speak English than Tagalog because they know their Tagalog is atrocious (and they are soooo right, pramis!).
In a time when most countries are choosing to expand English education, radically shifting the instructional language to Tagalog in Philippine schools is simply outrageous. Rather than improving educational quality, it would become yet another stumbling block to human resource development. As it is, our competency in English is judged to be rapidly eroding (perhaps it is just perceived) but foreign companies still prefer Filipino workers because of our English proficiency. The primacy of English as the language of commerce and technology has even prompted Malaysia to teach Math and Science in English starting in 2005.
Perhaps, instead of looking at the language of instruction for Math and Science (which has been unfairly charged as the culprit to the moribund skills of Filipino students in those subjects), educators should look at how exactly these subjects are taught in schools. Why, for instance is Singapore, a country that is as multi-lingual, still successful in teaching Math and Science in English? In fact, they have been topping the TIMSS. Why should the Philippines be any different? Have educators really looked at the quality of textbooks, classrooms, teachers' capability, school facilities, etc? What about looking at new pedagogical techniques such as integrated and experiential learning to effectively impart knowledge?
On the other hand, there is the issue of Filipinos being simply proficient in English and Tagalog but we have not exactly developed full mastery of any of the two. One of my teachers in college remarked that Filipinos are half-baked in either English or the native tongue. In this vein, perhaps schools can teach English better (and better English), especially during early childhood education. As such, if schoolchildren can better understood lessons in English we do not have to resort to the debate of what language to use in instruction.
Certainly, talks of nationalism would come into play in this discourse. I'm so not going into that now. However, this debate should be seen in a more pragmatic light and there are obvious alternatives. I do not think generations of schoolchildren who continue to receive substandard education can wait for all the noise to abate before anything is done.