Education Transformation and PISA: Reflections from a New PISA Participating Country

Nepomuceno A. Malaluan

Undersecretary, Department of Education



(Remarks at Plenary Session 1 – Education Fast Forward Discussion and Debate THE EDUCATION WORLD FORUM 2020

19-22 January 2020, London)


The Philippines joined PISA for the first time in 2018. I will give my reflections from the perspective of the Department of Education of a country that joined PISA for the first time.

Towards the latter part of 2016, when the Department of Education was to decide whether or not to participate in the 2018 PISA, the Secretary had serious apprehensions about joining.

A major concern was the presentation of its results as a ranking of countries, which she believes politicizes the PISA results. At the international level, a country’s education system will be judged based on its rank, and within the country, the education department or ministry, and naturally its leadership, will be placed under very close scrutiny.

The political risk from participation was quite high for the Department, given the evidence from our own national large-scale assessment. The performance of our learners in our National Achievement Test (NAT) has stagnated at low levels. We had also only recently implemented K to 12, and the overhaul of the curriculum presented transitional difficulties to the system. Thus, we were anticipating that our learners will not fare well in PISA. The Secretary felt that participation in PISA will have political ramifications that, if not managed well, can even be disruptive to the education reforms we were pursuing.

One could say, if you want to avoid the political risk, then simply, don’t join. But from the start of the Secretary’s administration in mid-2016, we already saw that the major challenge of basic education in the Philippines was

shifting from access, to quality. Participating in PISA would signal our determination to confront the challenge of quality in basic education, in that:

  • We aim to globalize the quality of Philippine basic education. PISA represents a global standard, and we want to find out our standing in it.
  • We want to take advantage of an assessment designed and constantly updated by education experts around the
  • We want the PISA result to complement our own national assessment, to provide further evidence on needed reforms. By participating in PISA, we will be able to establish our baseline in relation to global standards, and benchmark the effectiveness of our reforms moving forward.

Thus, despite the huge political risk, we made the decision to join the 2018 PISA. As the Secretary puts it, we made a decision to squarely look at ourselves in the mirror.

We believe we have made the right decision.

Despite our unfavorable PISA results, the support from key stakeholders has been overwhelming. We have the full support of the President and the Cabinet. We have the support of major members of Congress, particularly the Chairpersons of the House and Senate Committees on Basic Education and key members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees. We have the support of leading personalities and organizations in education reform, including the private sector.

The results of PISA have put in sharper focus our need to address the challenge of quality. On December 3, the same day the PISA results were released, we launched Sulong EduKalidad (Onward Education Quality), which is our rallying call for a national effort for quality basic education,  and crystalizes the four key pillars of our ongoing reforms:

  1. K to 12 curriculum review and update
  2. Improving the learning environment
  3. Teachers’ upskilling and reskilling; and
  4. Engagement of stakeholders for support and

Sulong EduKalidad, under the backdrop of the PISA results, has galvanized broad unity to work together on key reforms, including collaborative research to deepen insights from PISA and our national assessments, and coordinated concrete interventions under the four pillars.

Having said these, we believe that in addition to taking the lead in sharing the lessons from the PISA results towards education transformation, PISA should also do more to further emphasize the important contexts and nuances to country comparisons and ranking. A ranking system gives the public the impression that countries are perfectly comparable. But the country contexts and education systems are vastly different. They differ in size, levels of development, and challenges.

We hope that these could be pointed out, including:

  • The fact that the national incomes of the participating countries vary greatly, and that countries with higher national incomes tend to score higher in PISA, even as there is evidence that the income factor can be overcome;
  • That along with the national income disparity are qualitative differences in conjunctural conditions that pose unique challenges to each education system;
  • That while, as the report says, PISA brings together about 90 countries representing 80% of the world economy, there are also more than 100 countries that are not yet participating, inhabited by about 45% of the world’s population, and if we include the population of the non- participating provinces in China, brings this up to about 60%.

The Philippines takes quality education very seriously, and seeks to maximize initiatives like PISA to guide its way towards education transformation. We look forward to balanced communication of all aspects and nuances of PISA, as we partner with PISA and the global education community towards advancing quality education for all.

Thank you.