Declare education in a state of emergency

Declare education in a state of emergency

With education reform still on the drawing board, the only hope to save an entire generation of students is foreign assistance. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)
With education reform still on the drawing board, the only hope to save an entire generation of students is foreign assistance. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)

Thailand's education is failing an entire generation. With another school year coming to a close, the long hoped for, and much needed educational reforms, have not materialised and are still on the drawing board. Systemically incapable of far-reaching reform, Thailand may only be able to improve its educational institutions with sustained external assistance from international development partners.

Hopes for educational reform have been high. The April 2015 purge of officials 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 Education Ministry has only introduced superficial cosmetic 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 disturbing 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.

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 Unesco's Education For All Initiative and the UN's recently implemented Sustainable Development Goals, the changing global market and the launch of Asean Economic Community threaten to make increasing numbers of 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 adequately prepare learners. Parental anxieties have led to intense competition for places at educational institutions with acceptable standards, such as university demonstration schools, and also fuelled 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 recognise 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. 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 recognised language standards against which learning and assessment can be aligned, with modest but realistic goals for students in grades 6, 9 and 12.

The Education Ministry is now working with Cambridge University to reform English language teaching and assessment, although detailed plans about how this relationship will significantly improve actual classroom learning are not yet evident. 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 those teachers' own classrooms without external audit, assessment and support.

Another move towards international standardisation 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 than in private schools. Implementing the IB would benefit selected schools and could become a catalyst for wider changes by providing education leaders with centres for excellence demonstrating how teaching, learning and assessment can be conducted more effectively.

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 decentralisation. In contrast, Thailand's education system suffers from a centralised, top-down leadership and a fragmented education ministry consisting of territorial commissions, which have impeded previous reforms.

Thailand's standardised 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, 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 due, the military government does not have enough time to successfully reform the country's education system, but it can still lay the foundations for genuine improvements. In fact, Education Minister Dapong Ratanasuwan has promised six plans consisting of 65 modules to address 33 educational problems nationwide. To do this, 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.

Thailand needs to seriously engage with countries, or organisations 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 students' futures. Thailand's leaders need to declare education reform a national emergency and prevent this system from failing our children.

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.

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