Setting up future failure

The education system, which is failing our children and Thailand's competitiveness in the world, lacks an accountability system.

Thailand can no longer argue it lacks the money to improve and sustain an effective education system.

The education system, focused as it is on classroom teaching and rote-learning, fails to equip students with independent thinking and other necessary skills for modern living. THITI WANNAMONTHA

The government's budget since 2003 has shown a sharp increase in education spending.

In 2003, the government allocated 140 billion  baht, which jumped to 350 billion baht in 2009 and finally reached nearly 460 billion baht in 2012.

Despite this, our education system is worsening in performance, which puts our future at risk.

So why is it that we are spending more but achieving less - far less?

This huge budget is meant to train and pay the teachers, improve the curriculum, build better learning facilities and promote learning among our youth.

It constitutes 4% of GDP, while Singapore's education budget is equal to only 3% of its GDP.

The Pisa test, an international study which evaluates education systems worldwide, shows Thai students achieve some of the lowest scores academically in East Asia.

The average 15-year-old in Singapore achieves 526 in reading, 562 in mathematics and 542 in science.

By contrast, their Thai counterparts achieve only 421, 419 and 425, respectively.

This reflects an imbalance in our education system; our students spend more hours in the classroom, while Singapore's education system advocates the "teach less, learn more" approach.

One of TDRI's research priorities is education reform. Our research team has found there are two fundamental problems in our education system:

1) It lacks an accountability system, and

2) It does not equip students with the skills necessary for modern living.

When Thai students are assessed as having poor learning performance, no one feels responsible.

When teachers are unable to fulfil their role in providing the best possible teaching, no one responsible for education administration shows any concern.

When the curriculum focuses on testing student memory of what they are taught, rather than their understanding of a subject, again few seem to worry.

This lack of concern reflects a lack of accountability in the education system.

Neither teachers, school heads, nor the government seem accountable to the students and their parents. After all, their fates are not tied to students' learning outcomes.

Teachers are still paid higher salaries and can be promoted to higher positions if they can please school heads and those who evaluate them. School heads still keep their jobs even when most students fail tests.

So, we propose an accountability system be established. Teachers and principals should be made more accountable to students and parents, and we can do this by linking their remuneration to students' learning outcomes. This should be coupled with enhancing 21st century skills for our youngsters.

Our five recommendations are as follows:

First, students must learn the skills and knowledge necessary to live and work in the 21st century.

One thing which the education system fails to do is encourage in students an ability to think for themselves.

Learning to think and adapting oneself to new environments should define an individual's aptitude for excelling in the world.

It is depressing that we have been training our young people to read, write and do sums but neglect to incorporate other important learning skills such as research and critical thinking.

The new curriculum should be lean and interdisciplinary, and incorporate an element of thinking.

The current curriculum does not allow true learning to happen as teachers have to cover the detailed content set by the Ministry of Education first, before they can turn to doing anything else.

Students should learn how to work in teams, be well-versed in the use of IT resources and ultimately be able to cultivate a self-learning habit for life.

Second, we need to reform performance assessments. The Ordinary National Educational Test (Onet) should be replaced with a literary-based test system like Pisa.

Schools and teachers should be subject to regular assessment so they too are accountable for students' learning progress.

Regular formative assessment is also recommended so interim problems can be addressed as soon as possible.

Third, priority should be given to training our teachers. Teachers' remuneration has been soaring but their performance has been in decline.

The Ministry of Education should stop monopolising teacher training and decentralise the role to schools, which should be allowed to choose training programmes which are most appropriate to them.

Different schools have different needs, and the government should provide autonomy at the school level, but maintain its role in providing the budget and assessing the school's knowledge management programme.

Fourth, schools and other education institutions complain they are being "overly assessed".

The overly detailed assessment criteria which have been deployed are often unnecessary and result in a huge burden of compliance.

We propose the assessment criteria should only provide basic fundamentals such as students' test results. Additionally, schools, with assistance from the Education Ministry, should develop their own internal assessments which are tailor-made for their needs.

Finally, education funding should be promote accountability, by moving towards a voucher-like demand-side financing system.

At present, the budget allocated to student subsidies is estimated to make up only 25% of the total budget. This allocation should be higher and school financing should also promote equality of opportunity among the rich and the poor.

In particular, schools should be provided with a per-head subsidy to compensate for their socio-economic conditions.

Simply put, more financial assistance should go to those schools that need it most.

The fundamental problems of our education system are a lack of accountability, and an outdated curriculum and related teaching methods.

If we believe education is crucial for our future, then Thailand has been careless about its future.

We have been careless in a way that will put our young people in jeopardy in competing and surviving in this world of increasing complexities.

We need to address these problems urgently, or this educational failure will turn into our future crisis.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich is president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

About the author

Writer: Somkiat Tangkitvanich