The new education minister, Phongthep Thepkanchana, is right to be unhappy with our country's poor educational performance compared with international standards. He is also right to take a serious look at the country's curriculum. But he is definitely wrong if he believes overhauling the curriculum alone will improve the performance of students.
Like many policy makers, Mr Phongthep believes that for Thailand to benefit from economic globalisation, Thai students must perform better academically. A few years ago, the Programme for International Student Assessment showed that Thai students' performances in maths, reading, and scientific literacy were well below the international average. This year, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released the result of its latest assessment for the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which rates Thai students' overall skills in mathematics and science as "poor".
This is despite the fact that classroom hours of Thai students are among the highest in the world, according to Unesco. The budget for the Education Ministry, at 20% of the national outlay, is also higher than other sectors.
So what are the problems? Since education reform has been on the national agenda for decades _ yet we still lack comprehensive remedies _ the problems plaguing the national education system are no secret. The rote-learning system. The authoritarian school culture that kills creativity. The top-down Bangkok-based curriculum that is out of touch with local realities. The appalling differences in education quality among schools which intensifies social disparity. The lack of commitment to improve the quality of vocational education. The teachers' performance rating system that is tied to paperwork, not teaching quality. And education administrators and teachers' lack of accountability for students' poor academic performances.
In short, the problems are too complex to be solved by changing the curriculum.
Despite Mr Phongthep's good intentions, education quality is not decided by what is taught alone, it is also determined by how the content is taught. To start with, better memorisation does not bring about better academic performance. Without allowing more creativity in the classrooms, better teacher training, more relevant content, more support for vocational education _ and more accountability from local teachers and administrators up to the minister in charge _ we cannot hope to see the current problems fixed.
As education minister, Mr Phongthep must see the bigger picture. When the country is plagued by ethnic violence and political divisiveness, the Education Ministry must think seriously about how the education system can play a role to instill crucial peace values such as respect for cultural diversity and tolerance.
Indeed, Thailand desperately needs education reform to gear society towards being a more tolerant one where the young have better skills to benefit from economic opportunities.
This cannot happen without decentralisation of education management. So far, the decentralisation call continues to fall on deaf ears because it affects the Education Ministry's central power.
If Mr Phongthep is serious about improving the education system, he must go beyond curriculum reform. He must aim for education reform by reforming the centralised Education Ministry first and foremost.