How Poor are Filipino Students in Studying?

There is a running joke that’s going around recently that the Philippines is deserving of the award of being lowest in terms of reading comprehension:


“HM po” means “How much po?” which means that the typical Filipino do not even bother to read even when the question has already been answered.

The heartbreaking truth is — it may be true that we lag behind our global counterparts on areas such as reading, science and math.

Based on the results of the 2018 PISA exam, it seems that there is bearing to such question on how dumb Filipino kids are vs. other countries. On the top were the following countries:


And on the bottom was us, the Philippines, alongside Kosovo and the Dominican Republic, our results way below the OECD average.


How embarrassing!

The PISA 2018 Results

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to 79 countries. The tests measures 15-year old students’ academic performances specifically in math, science and reading. Their 2018 data collection results was released on December 3, 2019 to much funfare and disappointment. Here was the results in a single chart.[3] PISA-results-2018.jpg

Source: PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations

For better clarity, here is a sample of a Level 1 PISA Reading Comprehension question. Do note that the Philippines ranked lowest amongst 79 countries in this category.

PISA Reading.jpg

Here’s the sample of a PISA Math Question — You will need reading comprehension to even understand it. I personally found this question super easy. The answer is already right there on the chart.

Math Question.jpg

The Philippines PISA 2018 Results

The Philippine results were dismal. To our embarrassment, the Philippines ranked lowest in reading, second to the lowest in Math and Science. Reactions to the PISA tests was predictably any of the three:

  1. Denial — “Hmph, it’s just a test. We all know you can’t judge kids based on a stupid test.”
  2. Blame Throwing — “The government must be held responsible. Teachers must improve. That’s because there’s not enough budget for education in the Philippine budget. K-12 is a failure!” 


3. Or Passive Defeat with Inaction — This is too worrisome.” “This is sad.”

Why are we even surprised?

The Philippines boast of a literacy rate of 95% as of 1994. According to the PSA, “The 1994 simple literacy rate of 95.0 percent accounts for 45.6 million 10-64 years old people. This means that 1 out of 9 Filipinos can read and write (simple literate). However, they cannot compute or are deficient in numeracy skills (functionally illiterate).”


PISA tests comprehension in terms of solving reading and math problems, so it’s not a big surprise that the Philippines ranks the lowest amongst 79 countries. It is not a secret that there are many Filipino kids who have already reached 12 years old, still cannot read.

Watch this heartbreaking eye-opening Karen David GMA show that explained why 12 year old Filipino kids still cannot read. This was posted last September 2018, over a year since the PISA results were released. Is it any wonder why we ranked so low?

To sum up this excellent episode:

  1. There are a lot of Filipino kids in high school who still cannot read. While Philippines have a high literacy rate, 50% of kids do not know or understand what they are reading.
  2. There are a lot of children in grade school who still do not even know the alphabet or know how to count. These are things learned in kindergarten but up until Grade 7, many are still unfamiliar with their ABCs.
  3. Many of these low performing kids are raised by absentee parents who are not even aware their kids cannot read.
  4. After school, the parents do not tutor them. They are usually not even at home.
  5. The children spend a few hours after school working and earning to help their family. In the clip, the child filters through the garbage and sorts them out. He is paid ₱80 for a few hours work.
  6. Teachers are often blamed for the problem. But the clip shows that public school teachers do make extra effort in teaching the kids. There are classrooms, and there are a lot of books available but it’s hard to overcome the problem if the kids are subpar upon arriving in their classroom. High school kids cannot even read or identify the correct colors!
  7. The Department of Education (DepEd) rewards and punishes teachers based on the number of kids they pass and fail. So the teacher is incentivized to pass the kids even if they don’t hit the standard. The kids are passed from one grade to the other, resulting to them not even knowing how to read in high school.
  8. This is a no-win situation for teachers —- If you fail the kids, the parents complain and you’re forced to teach them over summer for free. It’s not easy to be a public school teacher in the Philippines.
  9. There are not enough schools. There’s 580 schools in NCR. Many classes have 100 kids and 2 teachers. Shifting is popular so kids don’t come in the entire day.

05students3.jpgPhoto Credit: Worst PH Ranking in Math Science and Reading Prompts DepEd Review

The problem can be solved with love, care and attention to these kids. But lot of these kids are ignored. If they don’t even know the basics like the alphabet or how to count by Grade 7, how can they even grasp the harder concepts?


It’s not so much as the fault of the school or the teachers but more of internal issues beyond the children’s control. Teachers now are paid a lot better than before and education is a significant portion of the Philippines budget, barring corruption aside.

But I do believe there are several reasons that are to blame for the Philippines’ dismal results in the PISA Ranking. Before we blame the government, we should first look within ourselves to see if we are a critical part of the problem. The Filipino parent is at fault here. Specifically, how can the children excel if there are the following that stops them from advancing:

1. Filipino children have less active guidance from parents.

When we were young, a low grade merits a “palo” from a strict parent. The family closely worked together with the school to ensure their kids maintain a certain standard. If the kids fail, you punish the kids, not bully the teacher.


I remember the time when I was a student. I would go to school at 7:30 am and school till 4:00 pm. After school, I had to go to a tutor until 6:00 pm to study Chinese. After dinner, I would still be studying for my English subjects. Since my books were too heavy, we used these bags that we would lug around all day.


However, as the number of Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs) rise and both parents now are working and the kids are left in the care of others. Consequently, “napapabayaan” ang kids. Their academics are ignored, and most are just given the iPad or phone to keep them company.


Fact of the matter is, yayas and lolas do not make great disciplinarians. As a result, lower output from children. It’s ok now to pass. Excellence is now just an option instead of a requirement.

It’s true, the Filipino family system is more broken.

Single parents are normal nowadays, and there’s a lot of confusing romantic relationships in the mix.

Case in point without any judgments, my own yaya has one child from her husband, who separated from her husband later on because he cheated. Now, she has 4 other kids with another man and they are unmarried. This man has one child from another woman, who is his first wife, and her first husband has 2 other kids from the girl he cheated with her with. To prevent any confusion, I drew this chart to make you understand the situation better.


Now, I understand WHY yaya did it. Anyway, who wants to be with someone who cheats on you all the time. However, since divorce is illegal in the Philippines, the only solution for most Filipinos is to separate from their spouses, and start another family with another without getting married. It does make one screwed up family dynamic.

This is extremely common in the Philippines.

There’s a lot of kids whose parents have kids from other people, and are not married. There are way too many absentee parents in the mix. There are kids with a lot of half-siblings lying around.

And while we accept this as the norm, these type of broken family system is actually not that usual overseas. In China for example, children must be legitimate and registered. Those who are not registered are black children or heihaizi and are deemed illegal. Consequently, they do not have access most public services, such as education and health care, and do not receive protection under the law.[4][5][6]

Those who usually grow up with a strong family system, of two loving parents, are a stabilizing factor to children. In general, these kids perform better.

2. Too much phones and ipads. Books have almost disappeared: That’s our fault too (including me).

Kids do NOT need phones, period. If they are bored, give them books or let them make up imaginary friends. If everyone’s eating, converse. Minimize phone use, your kids will survive.


But phones, ipads and social media have actively replaced parenting. This results to dumbed down children who lack EQ and social skills.

3. Filipinos love the easy. Studying is seen as a chore, and parents pity their kids. Hence, we do not pressure our children to study.

Filipinos love to sing, dance and tambay but we hate to sit down and study boring subjects like Math and Science. Those who join math competition are considered losers and nerds.

Check out the type of hard test Hong Kong has for their 4- to 5-year old Kindergarten students. How the heck can we compete?

Hong Kong.jpg

When I lived abroad, math and science was embraced as the key to future success and kids are exposed to math as early as 3. The math gets way harder as they age, and the kids are trained not to escape the hard subjects. Compare that to the Philippines —- which kids are really exposed to math?

4. Overpopulation and huge number of kids per family.

Poor people get pregnant very easily. They keep on having kids without thought of how to afford them.

In 2017, the Teenage pregnancy rate in the Philippines was 8.7 percent, down from 10.2 percent in 2016. The number still remains high though. The Philippines is the world’s 13th most populous country, a statistic we do not want to have. In 2016, we had the highest number of teenage pregnancy in Southeast Asia!


According to the Commission of Population, “Some 196,000 Filipinos between the ages of 15 and 19 years old get pregnant each year. The teenage pregnancy rate in Asia’s lone Catholic-dominated country remains high, as 30 percent of youngsters engaged in premarital sex in 2017, 10 percent higher than in 2016″

If you have 5-8 kids and of minimum wage, the problem’s not the wage, but the number of mouths to feed. If you have 5 kids, how can you afford each of them a decent education? At most, many will not be well educated.

5. Money is an issue too —- How much do you pay for a good private education? I don’t think my parents paid ₱150,000 per year for kindergarten. Plus there’s tutor and extra classes.


Yes, smartness is based on the kid but it’s also due to the money we pour in making our kids excel. How many people can afford that nowadays? Especially if most Filipinos still prioritize spending on a big screen TV or the latest iphone instead of their kid’s education.

6. Asian parents stress their kids out. We don’t. Not to that degree. Competition is not celebrated here. If children are stressed, parents are sympathetic and say the kids are “kawawa.”

The children in China study from day till night. They are pressured to excel from Day 1 up until their college graduation.

Filipinos feel bad when kids get pressured. When they are young, we want them to play than to study. We worry about mental health. We don’t want them to be robots. When kids cry, we go to Tulfo.

So is it any surprise that day by day, year by year, our gap between us and our neighbors widen? We have done little to excel in reading, math or science.

If we want to excel, change the mindset. But if we are ok with “pwede na,” then why should we be even surprised?

What Now? 

My theory is, even if the government builds libraries, pay teachers better, and offer air-conditioned schools, the academic score will only improve marginally. Case in point, give the poor kids a book, and none of them will read. Give them a phone, and they’ll be scrolling and posting in Facebook. Books are way cheaper than before, but readers are STILL decreasing.

I’ve been to China, Singapore and Hong Kong, and their educational system is information, stress, and pressure laden. I’ve attached a photo of a sample of a kindergarten lesson in Hong Kong. Yes, that’s just for 4-year old KINDERGARTEN KIDS. The Mainland Chinese parents laugh and think that the lessons in HK are still weak vs. the China curriculum. Check out the lesson. I ask you sincerely, how can our kids even compare? Does China, Singapore and Hong Kong not deserve to be at the top?

It is the Filipino families who need to prioritize education. Many parents are too busy working, families have too many kids to educate, and there’s really no pressure to excel in school, especially in Math and Science? We generally think it’s too hard. When DepEd announced their support for a no homework policy, we celebrated (!!!), and said we should let kids be kids, and that they’re too overworked as it is.

I don’t agree it’s the government, DepEd or the teacher’s fault.

Blaming others has always been a Pinoy sickness.

That solves nothing and just makes for a great political story. And after blaming, nothing still gets done.

The fault lies in most parents, and how kids are raised nowadays. And unless we pinpoint the real crux of the problem, we will forever be one of those last, and honestly, there’s nobody to blame but ourselves.

I hope this is a real eye-opener for the Philippines. I applaud the Philippine government and the Department of Education for having the courage to face this issue head on. They could have chosen not to let the children get involved as to avoid any embarrassment, but they did not. They still allowed the test to examine the academic aptitude of our Filipino children.

The great thing about these results is it concretely tells us what improvements do we need to do amongst ourselves. There is much work to be done, and if we are really honest about it, I do feel that while we finished last, this is not the end, and I do believe that we will perform a lot better in the future.


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2 thoughts on “How Poor are Filipino Students in Studying?

  1. My Filipino wife used to be a teacher and my mother in law was a college professor and yet they hardly read any books which to me, as a European, is quite strange because I come from a culture where it is unthinkable to have a college degree and not to be well-read

    1. Good observation! Phones and ipads have replaced books in the Philippines. People don’t really read much except to get updates on Facebook. That’s why Filipinos are so gullible and easily swayed by fake news. It’s sad.

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