Education Emergency

Written by Daniel Maxwell and Peerasit Kamnuansilpa,

Originally published in Bangkok Post on 1st March 2016

Thailand’s education system is failing an entire generation. With another school year coming to a close, the long anticipated and much needed educational reforms have not materialized. Systemically incapable of far-reaching reform, Thailand may only be able to improve its educational institutions with sustained external assistance from international development partners.

People’s hopes for educational reform have been high. In April 2015 there was a purge of officials which saw three education boards dissolved, including the Teachers Council of Thailand. These drastic actions were interpreted as the beginning of the long-anticipated reforms the military government has been promising since May 2014.

However, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has only introduced superficial changes, such as restructuring the Social Studies curriculum, focusing on the 12 Core Values of Thainess, and piloting a well-intentioned, but poorly executed, scheme to reduce classroom hours.

The weaknesses in Thailand’s education system are well documented: the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey, World Bank reports, and another set of disastrous O-NET results, in which the average score in eight out of nine subjects was below 50%, all highlight educational stagnation while neighbouring countries advance.

Even more concerning is evidence that Thailand’s education system could be harming students’ mental development. The Health Department’s 2015 report on intelligence found the average IQs of pre-school students to be at internationally acceptable levels, but as primary schooling commenced the average IQ drops, suggesting a need to better nurture intelligence with improved educational instruction, environmental stimulation and nutrition. The current system’s fixation with conformity is also an impediment to the development of critical thinking and creativity.

While national averages indicate an education system in crisis, regional variations reveal a total disaster. Students constantly underperform in areas where families are of lower socio-economic status. Especially disadvantaged are Thai Malay students from the southernmost provinces and ethnic minorities from the Northeast, who not only suffer from poverty and poor schooling but are also hindered by linguistic and cultural barriers.

Alongside Thailand’s international obligations to improve national education standards under Unicef’s Education For All initiative and the UN’s recently implemented Sustainable Development Goals, the changing global market and the AEC threaten to make increasing numbers of semi-professional Thai workers unemployed by 2020, escalating the urgency with which education reform is needed.

Increasing numbers of parents are keenly aware of Thailand’s inadequate education system and its inability to meaningfully prepare learners. Parental anxieties have led to intense competition for places at educational institutions with acceptable standards, such as university demonstration schools, and also fueled demand for international schooling, with Bangkok now home to 140 international schools.

After billions of baht and years of ill-conceived innovations and superficial policy changes, it is time to recognize the state of emergency now facing Thai education and seek external support from countries and organisations with proven success in implementing educational reform.

Reforming a national education system is a monumental task which takes years of commitment. However, the past decade has seen a number of developed and developing countries, including Ecuador, Mexico, Canada, England and Finland, successfully achieve reforms.

Thailand may finally be willing to accept help from abroad and overcome its insularity in this regard. In 2015 it adopted the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, internationally recognized language standards against which learning and assessment can be aligned, with modest but realistic goals for students in Grades 6, 9 and 12.

Thailand’s MoE is also working with Cambridge University to reform English language teaching and assessment, although detailed plans about how this relationship will improve actual classroom learning are yet to be revealed. As with any reform, they demand long-term commitment, as simply sending selected teachers on short-course ‘train the trainer’ workshops will have little impact beyond the walls of those teachers’ own classrooms without external audit, assessment, and support.

Another move towards international standardization would be implementing the International Baccalaureate (IB) in selected government schools. Currently the IB is only available in Thailand’s most prestigious international schools, but globally it is now more commonly found in state that in private schools. Implementing the IB would benefit selected schools and could become a catalyst for wider changes by providing education leaders with centers for excellence demonstrating how teaching, learning and assessment can be conducted more effectively, as in Ecuador and Mexico.

Thai education officials have also reached out to Finnish educators. Finland has been the subject of much attention following the country’s arrival in the PISA Top 10. The story of Finland’s success has been attributed to its well-paced curriculum, effective teacher training programmes, school autonomy and decentralization. In contrast, Thailand’s education system suffers from a centralized top-down leadership and a fragmented education ministry consisting of territorial commissions, which have impeded previous reforms. This needs to change.

Thailand’s standardized O-NET assessments and their ill-conceived and inappropriate questions are already a national disgrace, and the concept of assessing 12 years of schooling with a multiple-choice test is unjustifiable. Meaningful reforms must include a completely new approach to measuring student achievement, a switch which can be piloted immediately. In addition, standardised results need to be presented to the public to enable parents to make choices. This will also enable community participation in rescuing failing schools.

With democratic elections in 2017, the military government no longer has time to successfully reform the country’s education system as promised, but it can still lay the foundations for genuine improvements. The government must establish a dedicated reform unit with the power to cut through the red tape that has impeded previous reforms. The reform board then needs to be allocated clear, publicly transparent goals.

It needs to seriously engage with countries, or organizations such as Unicef, with proven success in school reform and begin a publicly transparent roadmap to meaningful educational reform, with built-in impartial advice and external assessment. Enough time has been wasted at the expense of too many students’ futures. Thailand’s leaders need to declare education a national emergency, make reforms an absolute priority, and prevent this system from failing our children.

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