From grades to quality education: Why are Filipinos obsessed with rankings and numbers?

By Sensei Adorador

Grades. If there’s one thing that students are dying to have is good grades. They regard them as symbols or badges of success regardless of the effort they gave at school. They equate it to class ranking and prestige every time they get those high marks. Grades are the standard of one’s intelligence and are the basis for class sectioning by level; the lower the number, the higher the intellect, so Section 1 is smarter than Section 12.

In public schools where a massive number of students enroll, sectioning by purported intelligence is the norm. I can still remember that there are schools with 20 sections. If you belong to the last section, people deem you a failure, and people regard those who belong to the first sections as students with a bright future.

I can still remember what my fellow faculty in a private institution said about our colleague turning into an administrator. She said, “During our high school, she belonged to the lowest section. I was in the star section and graduated salutatorian. She didn’t have any awards but now? She is our admin; I can’t imagine a person from the lowest section leading us.” As if being in the lower section is automatically a ticket to an unsuccessful life.

Education DNA

Our educational system revolves around market practices. Apprenticeship and practicality characterized pre-colonial Filipino education. In some cases, it is applying what you have learned in your daily life and learning the elders’ tales as part of oral practices. The learning continues as you pass on the survival skills and tradition to the young generation. Interestingly, learning was useful because of its practicality and applicability to everyday living. The passing of tradition is done through storytelling together with elders in the form of socialization.

However, things changed when the Spanish introduced a new way of learning and then followed by Americans. Until now, American research and expertise on education is the textbook of schooling in the Philippines. Our education began standardization wherein religious society set up Latin grammar schools to train monks and priests in transcribing the Bible. Each new copy must be indistinguishable from its predecessors. The grammar school revolved around its core principles of standardization, time efficiency, minimization of error, and creative departures from the norm. This model shaped the educational system throughout Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world. Ultimately, this practice remains until today.

18th century Prussia introduced a compulsory eight-year regimen in primary education and focused on 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). They also invented grades, classes, subjects, and tailored school experience to impart the early industrial economy’s skills. The model spread rapidly in Europe and United States.

At the end of the 19th century, there was an influx of refugees and immigrants in America to work on farms and growing industrial jobs. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the person who advocated Taylorism, formulated efficient products tailored to the school’s practice as they addressed the surging number of factory workers they needed to educate. Here they promoted the values of following orders, being punctual, and performing a rote task.

Thus, later on, this practice evolved into the “Assembly Line” model of education, where students perform repetitive tasks, retain modest amounts of content, and keep errors to a minimum. It also gives praise for following the order, punishes those who did not, rewards those who parrot the lesson, and gives failing marks for those who don’t obey what the teacher says. Hence, this form of education DNA hinges on hyper-competition wherein those who perform above the rest become marketable, and the system rejects the underperformers.

Under the guise of “standardization,” people worship on the altars of academic credentials, are obsessed with titles, become grade conscious, and label people who are not into the fad as “underperforming” because they don’t qualify for the so-called standardization. In our country, we test our students on the criteria that have an imperceptible relation to life skills, and they are abject failures if they received a grade in the line of 7.

Grades as a testament of one’s worth

Aside from societal pressure, parental pressure pushes students to the brink of despair. There are cases of suicides due to academic dissatisfaction and failures. Parents expect their children to be straight “A” or honor students because it is a way to brag and ultimately market them to their peers. That is why middle-class parents put their children into rigorous talent workshops to the point that they could no longer enjoy their childhood. I call this phenomenon the rise of “trophy children.” The main reason is that they are above the norm and get admitted into prestigious universities as part of the parents’ bragging rights.

Teachers become victims of this system, as they need to water down academic standards to fit the students’ demands. Giving them challenging tasks will result in low evaluation scores. An evaluation has become a tool to measure teachers’ performance when they apply for tenure, so some offer awards to teachers with high evaluation scores. The tendency is to give students high grades and minimize tasks as their perception of a good teacher is a happy-go-lucky who gives high grades with no sweat.

Who determines the quality of education?

As the Philippines suffers from validation from other countries, especially from the First World, our main problem is that we cannot have quality education because we always pattern it on Western standards. It explains why whenever a foreigner reacts to us on YouTube or social media, we instantly click it and share it. Little did we know that foreigners make it on purpose because of the number of users in our country, and the views equate to monetary gains.

In analogy, our educational system always looks up to the system abroad, and we let them dictate our system. We pattern it to foreign systems as a form of “standardization.” There are numerous accreditation bodies to enforce this so-called standardization to regulate quality, but why are we still in the bottom part of education in the world? Why? Because accreditation is a form of moro-moro, schools choreograph their every move (I will write more about this in my next article).

Quality education depends on the number of Latin honor graduates, Ph.D. holders in the faculty, and institutional research. However, this obsession leads to disaster. Teachers lower their standards to produce many Latin honors or the “laudes.” They turn into diploma mills for the point system and titles.

Lastly, publishing in predatory journals leads to an avalanche of bad science. There is widespread research dysmorphia, and we can blame all of this on the Education DNA implanted on us—the excessively competitive society that loves ranking and numbers. Business and education leaders design this education is to fit globally and condition students to be knowledge workers and not the creative problem solvers that our country needs, not an obsession with numbers and rankings dictated by Western worldviews on education.