Global tests expose reality of Thai schools
The shortcomings of Thailand's education system have again been exposed by international education rankings, with Thai students scoring well below global averages in the core subjects of mathematics, science and literacy.
The country has its own decades-long top-down, centralised approaches to education to blame for such poor rankings. Thailand's education indeed needs structural reform.
Despite having one of the world's highest percentages of national expenditure, Thailand's abysmal system is massively outperformed by that of one of its closest competitors for foreign direct investment, Vietnam, whose students are years ahead of Thailand's.
Earlier this month, reports by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 2015 Programme for International Student Assessments (Pisa) ranked Singaporean students highest. Singapore was joined in the TIMSS high rankings by other East Asian economies, including South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, which all performed admirably. The Top 10 of the PISA rankings consisted of seven Asian economies: Singapore, Japan, Taipei, Macao, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China.
In contrast, Thai students fell well short of the 500-point TIMSS median score, with 431 in maths and 456 in science. These results indicate a slight improvement from 2011. They, however, are lower than the average scores that the country received from its first TIMSS assessments in 1995.
Additionally, Thailand is struggling near the bottom of the Pisa rankings, with Thai students scoring 415 points in maths, 421 in sciences and 409 in reading, all of which are well below the median scores of 490. Singapore scored 564 in maths, 556 in sciences and 530 in reading.
According to the OECD, 30 points equates to one year of schooling, which suggests that Singaporean students are over three years ahead of Thai students, as are those in a host of Asian economies, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
Pisa data also provides insights into the shortcomings of the Thai education system. Only 1.7% of Thai students, the elite, achieve a high score in at least one of the three Pisa subjects, while 36.8% score so low that they cannot convert one currency into another, understand whether one total distance is farther than another, or understand the main idea in a text.
Despite these abysmal results, few Thai students actually repeat years. Only approximately 6% of Thai students repeat a school grade, while the OECD average is about 12% and 17% in Hong Kong. Further, a colossal 32% of Thai students who took Pisa reported skipping a day's school in the two weeks before the test, compared to the OECD average of 20% and 4% in Hong Kong.
The results confirm a worrying trend long evident from the country's own Ordinary National Education Test (O-Net) results, namely the acute regional disparity in learner achievement, with students in Thailand's wealthier central areas outperforming learners in rural areas, particularly the Northeast and South.
For decades, education has been closely supervised by the centralised bureaucratic system, with little participation from communities or parents. Initiatives such as the widespread adoption of child-centred learning and the more recent reduction in number of school hours have failed to have a positive impact due to poor implementation and an obvious disconnect between Ministry of Education-sanctioned initiatives and actual schooling.
Meanwhile, many governments in Europe, the Americas and much of Asia have restructured their national education systems, decentralising control and empowering schools and regions to adapt and develop the learning they deliver, to meet the specific needs of their students. The benefits of transferring decision-making authority closer to the teachers, parents and learners is increased accountability, which often results in improved efficiency in the use of school resources, a better match between instruction and learners needs, and improvements in academic attainment.
Decentralisation can also directly benefit learners by enabling regional ethnic groups to develop their own curricula, teach in their own languages, and manage their own schools. The unrest in Thailand's three southernmost provinces could be tackled though dual language programmes while attainment levels in the Northeast could be improved considerably by providing some education in students' mother-tongues, an approach successful in the comparable Basque region of Spain.
Unfortunately, Thailand's current leaders appear to be moving in the opposite direction by placing education within a more strictly controlled centralised system. This emphasises Thai ultra-nationalism, conditioning students to obey while doing little to improve classroom instruction and student achievement.
Top-down, centralised management structures hinder learners' development both nationally and locally, where disengaged school administrators sanction projects and initiatives without consulting classroom teachers, those who have the clearest ideas of their learners' needs and abilities.
Decentralising education at the national level is an important first step, and the widespread adoption of distributed leadership to suit the situation and school requirements is needed to ensure reforms reach their full potential.
For example, decentralisation would influence education funding and create opportunities for regions or provinces to develop targeted scholarship programmes, such as the successful, lottery-funded HOPE program of the US state of Georgia. Regional lotteries for education can return to the poor from the regressive tax the state collects from them via lotteries. The proceeds from these lottery products could fund and manage education reform independently of ministry bureaucrats.
The challenges facing the development of education in Thailand are convoluted and diverse. For decades, successive governments have attempted to improve academic standards through the widespread adoption of well-intentioned, but poorly implemented educational reforms developed by policy makers and bureaucrats who are disconnected from the complex realities of classrooms.
This one-size-fits-all approach will continue to fail. What is needed are structural reforms that empower districts and school leaders by creating community-centred schools, accountable to the people for educational progress. Yet, empowering people requires citizen involvement, something entirely missing from the current, centralised monopoly on education.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer, educator and education analyst for the Asian Correspondent website. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa Phd is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.