The mathematics of failure by Philippine schools

The education field has adopted the notion that intelligence is natural and fixed. This has led schools and teachers to conveniently classify children as excellent, above-average, average, below average and poor.

Rationality is the basis of this view of intelligence. It is exhibited in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) which tests a person's potential in terms of language, Math, Science and abstract reasoning. It is the modern application of Plato's view of education that the understanding of the abstract or the ideal is the highest of virtues, a quality of society's best leaders or philosopher kings.

Thus, student success in math can be likened to a pyramid where only a few can divine the apex of abstract mathematical understanding while the majority below becomes the collateral damage of teaching Math for math's sake.


Math is normally considered as the most difficult subject in the country's Basic Education Curriculum (BEC). In Grade 1, pupils start hating it as teachers utilize rote memorization to teach addition and multiplication. The reverse of these operations, namely subtraction and division, only aggravates confusion.

Not a few Math teachers emphasize difficulty, instead of joy, in learning Math. Some demonize inquisitive minds by expressing their low expectations, and would even express the percentage that would most likely fail.

Students who develop a dislike for it eventually infect others with the "I hate Math" syndrome. As mistakes in exams compound, these students absolve themselves by detesting the subject as a form of denial, if not escape. This is followed by a brutal acceptance: "Math is not for me".

Teaching fails to educate as the victims fail to see the connection between Math and real life. The higher the level of abstraction, the fewer are the "philosopher kings" who develop the love for it. These few find liberation in tinkering which they eventually discover is at the core of mathematical mystery, while most find liberation in becoming co-preachers of math's alleged irrelevancy.


Back in 1999, the Philippines ranked 36th in 2nd Year High School Math out of 38 countries in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

In 2003, the Philippines ranked 23rd in Grade 4 Math among 25 countries. It ranked 41st in 2nd Year High School Math, among 45 countries.

The Philippines did not participate in the 2007 TIMSS. Consistently on top are Asian countries, namely Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong (China) and Japan.

The Philippines boasts of Filipino students who top international Math competitions. But they mostly come from the best Chinese schools in the country. These Filipino-Chinese students have Math both in their English and Chinese curricular programs. Aside from this, many get exposed early in the businesses of their parents that they learn to appreciate Math by social osmosis.


We need a strong Math Program for the country not only on paper. Unfortunately, our nation does not share the Math vision of our Asian neighbors. Thus, even with a revised curriculum under the K+12 Program, we cannot expect to overtake easily our East Asian neighbors.

Becoming one of the best in Math takes more than mere empty aspirations. It takes a strong national resolve and doable plans, backed up by funding and educational opportunities not only for those with the so called natural gift in Math but, more importantly, for everyone in the system.

Basic education schools must hone the basic Math skills before students are permitted to enter higher education. Schools must never practice mass promotion to evade the difficult responsibility of educating.

If a student does not deserve to pass in his Math, or any of his subjects, then he must either be given remedial activities or asked to repeat the subject. Mathematical skills deficiency can be solved only by a follow-up training that is competent, and not by denying that the problem exists. Tolerating the student to pursue higher level Math without fully mastering the lower level subjects is, indeed, a disservice to the student and the nation.

An alumnus and former faculty member of UP Diliman, the author is president of the Darwin International School System. He studied in Osaka University (Japan), the University of Cambridge (England) and at the University of Leiden (the Netherlands).