My heart broke as I read in bed Thursday night. It wasn't anything I -- and maybe you -- hadn't read or heard before. But somehow it hit me hard this time.
It wasn't some love story, but part of the report the World Bank released that day on the Philippine economy. Allow me to paraphrase.
-- Before 2013 we were behind most of the the world in terms of the number of years of basic education -- 10 years compared with 12 in almost all other countries.
-- Spending on basic education was stagnant or declining. Until recently it was just P5,500 per student per year in 2000 prices. (That means it's the equivalent of what P5,500 would buy in 2000, cancelling out inflation).
-- The result of underspending shows up in test scores. According to one international test, we got 378 versus the average of 466 in eighth-grade math, 377 versus 473 in science. While 91 percent of 14-year-olds are in school, less than 40 percent "have some knowledge" of whole numbers, decimals, operations and basic graphs, versus 50 percent in Indonesia, 70 percent in Thailand, and 80 percent in Malaysia.
-- It also shows up in low passing rates in professional exams and the difficulty BPOs now face in recruiting enough qualified workers.
-- While textbook and classroom shortages are being closed, the quality of education needs further upgrading. Here's the high note: "This has begun with the K-12 program."
We beat up the government about infrastructure, but education is as important if not more so. Everyone knows you need smarts to get ahead.
Yes, it can be street smarts. Yes, you can pick it up out of school. Yes you should never stop learning. But school is still the best way most of us -- and a nation -- can start to get competitive. (And for every dropout who made it, there are many more who struggle. We can't all be John Gokongwei, Injap Sia, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Besides, they dropped out of college, not basic education.) And if those scores are any indication, how can we even dream of competing as one country, rather than as half a country, with the other half out of the game?
Then I woke up to Boo Chanco's Philippine Star column on how our BPO industry can go the way of the now-dead black tiger prawn industry.
He says because burgeoning BPOs are running out of qualified employees, service standards are falling, which could hurt our "brand" and turn potential clients off.
Boo tells the story of an American who blamed his bad encounter with a Filipino call center agent on Filipinos not being bright, unlike the many Indians at the top of the U.S. business and tech scenes. He holds up IBM's Mariels Almeda Winhoffer and Silicon Valley pioneer Dado Banatao to refute this. But the truth is, while Filipinos are born as bright as anyone else, a big number of us fall behind because of poor nutrition, too few years in school, and poor schools.
That's the price of wrong policies on food -- as the World Bank's Marcelo Giugale says, "temporary spikes in food prices can cause a permanent loss of human capital" -- and other issues. (India has been building the Indian Institutes of Technology -- now 16 and counting -- since the 1950s, while our version of a tech industry has been complaining of a lack of engineering, science and math majors, masters and PhDs since my early years as a reporter.) It's also the price of tax evasion and corruption, which reduces the money that should be in education and other national priorities.
Hopefully the World Bank is right that K-12 is one big step to correcting these.
At least one business person has told me that Education Secretary Armin Luistro has been so good at rolling out K-12 and the rest of his job that the businessman would give points to a presidential candidate who pledges to keep Luistro on. I don't know if Brother Armin would stay on, or if the Christian Brothers would extend his leave. I've never even talked to him. He's one of the more difficult cabinet secretaries to book an interview with. I’d like to think he's too busy to talk to media, caught up doing his job.
Coco Alcuaz is business news head at ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel. He's @cocoalcuaz on Twitter.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.