Teach Thais to think

Author: Somkiat Tangkitvanich, TDRI

Thailand’s education system is failing its youth and the country’s competitiveness. Simply, it lacks accountability.

Thailand can no longer argue it lacks the finances to improve and sustain an effective education system. The government’s budget for education has sharply increased from about USD 3.5 billion in 2003 to nearly USD 14.7 billion in 2012, and Thailand’s public spending on education constituted 4 per cent of its GDP in 2011, while Singapore’s equivalent is just 3.2 per cent of its GDP.

Thai students spend more hours in the classroom, while Singapore adopts the ‘teach less, learn more’ approach.

Yet Singapore does much better than Thailand. Thai students achieve some of the lowest scores in East Asia in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) test, an international study which evaluates students worldwide. The average score among OECD countries is normalized to 500 points and the standard deviation to 100 points. The average 15-year-old in Singapore scores 526 in reading, 562 in mathematics and 542 in science, far above the OECD average. By contrast, their Thai counterparts achieve only 421, 419 and 425, respectively.

How can it be that Thailand spends so much on education but remains in this humiliating position?

At the Thai Development Research Institute (TDRI), we have found one fundamental problem in Thailand’s education system — a lack of accountability.

When Thai students are assessed as having poor learning performance, no one feels responsible. When teachers are unable to fulfill their role in providing the best possible teaching, no one in the education administration shows any concern. When the curriculum focuses on testing a student’s ability to memorise an answer 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 administrations, nor the government are accountable to the students and their parents. After all, their fates are not tied to students’ learning outcomes.

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

Thailand needs a system of accountability.

Teachers and principals should be made more accountable to students and parents by linking their remuneration to improvements in students’ learning outcomes. This should be coupled with enhancing 21st-century skills among Thailand’s next generation.

The TDRI has developed five recommendations to improve Thai schools.

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

The Thai education system fails to equip students with the ability to think for themselves. Individuals who know how to think, and can adapt themselves to new environments, are likely to excel in the world. It is depressing that Thailand trains its young people to read, write and do sums but neglects to incorporate other important learning skills such as critical thinking and teambuilding. Students should be well versed in the use of IT too. The current curriculum does not allow students to truly learn, as teachers have to cover the detailed content set by the Ministry of Education first, before they can turn to anything else.

Second, Thailand needs to reform performance assessments. The current Ordinary National Educational Test should be replaced with a literacy-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 problems can be addressed as soon as possible.

Third, Thailand should give priority to teacher training. Teachers’ remuneration has been soaring but their performance has been in decline. The Ministry of Education should stop monopolising teacher training and decentralise this role to schools, which should be allowed to choose the training programs that most suit them. As different schools have different needs, the government should allow schools to make their own autonomous decisions, but maintain its role in providing the required resources.

Fourth, schools and other education institutions complain they are being ‘overly assessed’. They have a point. Thailand uses overly detailed assessment criteria, many of which are unnecessary and impose a huge burden of compliance. It would be better for the assessment criteria to only cover basic fundamentals such as students’ test results. Additionally, schools, with assistance from the Ministry of Education, should develop their own internal assessments that are tailor-made for their needs.

Finally, education funding should promote accountability by moving toward a voucher-like demand-side financing system. Under such system, the funding goes directly to students rather than schools, enabling the students to have more choices of schools to attend. Budget allocation should also promote equality of opportunity among the rich and the poor. More financial assistance should go to those schools that need it most.

If we believe education is crucial for our future then Thailand has been careless about its future. It has been careless in a way that will make it difficult for its young people to survive in an increasingly complex world.

Thailand needs to address these problems urgently, lest its failures beget an educational crisis.

Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich is President of the Thailand Development Research Institute.

A version of this article was first published here, in the Bangkok Post.

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