Regional success stories point the way, but the government has been a slow learner so far

Originally published in The Nation on 14th February 2017

When the National Council for Peace and Order came to power in 2014, it pledged to reform Thailand’s failing institutions, among which education was a clear priority. Now, with democratic elections expected within 18 months and little sign of any substantial reforms to education, it will take a determined effort by the country’s leadership to start catching up with neighbouring countries.

That Thailand’s education system is underperforming and urgently requires reform is recognised by both sides of the political divide, as well as by the general public. A 2015 NIDA poll concluded that Thais prioritise the education system as most needing reform. Furthermore, the failings of the Thai education system are highlighted annually, with average scores in national assessments rarely breaking 50 per cent. Recent international reports such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, in which Thailand came 55th among 70 countries, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), where Thailand ranked 26th among 39 countries, emphasise the dire situation of Thai education.

These international rankings present points of comparison for educators and policymakers, and examining the success of neighbouring countries provides directions for Thailand’s education reforms. Within the Asean Economic Community, Singapore and Vietnam – which have made significant improvements and now outrank the UK and the US – furnish useful lessons.

For a decade, Singapore has been at the top of education assessments, and its status as an educational superpower has been confirmed by taking top spot in the most recent TIMSS and PISA rankings. What makes Singapore’s success relevant is that, historically, academic standards have been low in the city-state and the education system shared many similarities with Thailand, being highly scripted and uniform across all levels. Singapore previously used the teacher-centred “chalk and talk” method, still prevailing in Thailand. However, following the 1997 financial crisis, it adopted a new educational vision, “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”, focusing on quality of learning rather than quantity.

This vision became an umbrella programme under which a range of tailored initiatives were launched. The country’s solid foundation in numeracy is attributed to the adoption of the successful “Mastery Method for Mathematics”, which has gained global admiration. The foundations of this method are that students spend ample time developing core skills, often through kinaesthetic activities that use real-world situations to explain abstract concepts, and are required to become proficient in each step. They do not progress until they have mastered each topic.

This approach differs greatly from the Thai system, which sets a very demanding curriculum, introducing advanced concepts before students have mastered the basics. Perversely, the Thai Education Ministry’s answer to low academic standards has been to make the curriculum more difficult, when what is needed is for students to spend more time mastering the basics and building a solid foundation.

Faced with an unrealistic curriculum seen as unfair to students, many Thai teachers often give failing students a pass grade regardless of ability. This “no fail policy” is directly responsible for much of Thailand’s poor academic status.

Further, Singaporean students only begin studying science in Grade 3, while Thais are introduced to complex scientific concepts such as adaptation, evolution and species classification in Grade 1. This theoretical head start on Singaporean students is soon lost; the average 15-year-old Singaporean is academically three years ahead of Thai students.

Singapore’s success also benefits from the country’s ability to develop highly proficient educators, with prospective teachers being selected from the top third of high school graduates. By recruiting high-quality individuals and providing them with good training and support, teaching has developed into a competitive and well-regarded occupation. Decent compensation is thus an important aspect of developing and maintaining educational professionals, and Singapore’s Education Ministry ensures teachers’ starting salaries remain competitive with the private sector.

Thailand, with 76 provinces and over 10 million students, will be pushed to swiftly imitate all Singapore’s educational reforms. With just 500,000 students and less than 400 state schools, Singapore’s task is considerably easier. Furthermore, the stability of the Singaporean government, with a shared vision for education, has given it a degree of strength rare in Thailand. While the adoption of curriculum pacing and Singapore’s approach to teaching mathematics should be prioritised by Thai authorities, implementing other aspects may require more time. This means looking for short-cuts from evaluating the success of Vietnam, which shares many of Thailand’s challenges.

Vietnam surprised the international education community in 2012 when the country’s 15-year-olds first participated in PISA and came 8th in science, 17th in mathematics, and 19th in reading, with scores well above OECD averages. The results from the 2015 PISA further confirmed Vietnam’s impressive achievements, with the county outranking the US, Australia and Britain.
The results from socially disadvantaged children in Vietnam were particularly inspiring and indicate that the school system genuinely empowers learners in disadvantaged communities. Andreas Schleicher, who coordinates the OECD’s PISA tests, explained, “almost 17 per cent of Vietnam’s poorest 15-year-old students are among the 25 per cent top-performing students across all countries and economies that participate in the PISA tests.”

Vietnam’s educational success has been verified by independent assessments in Vietnamese classrooms, which confirm that the country’s PISA rank does not simply reflect test-taking skills. According to the findings of the Young Lives project, student performance in Vietnam is truly remarkable, with 95 per cent of Vietnamese 10-year-olds able to add four-digit numbers and 85 per cent able to subtract fractions.

Schleicher attributes Vietnam’s success to forward-thinking government officials, a focused curriculum, a careful choice of education policies, investment in teachers, and political commitment. Its curriculum is designed for students to gain a deep understanding and mastery of core concepts and skills, similar to that of Singapore and very different to Thailand’s current curriculum.

By incorporating Singaporean and Vietnamese models, Thai authorities can truly begin urgently required education reforms. If the NCPO intends to initiate these changes, it needs to act soon.