The Thai education system was recently been featured in the Economist (Poor schools are at the heart of Thailand’s political malaise, January 19, 2017). The article discussed Thailand’s international education rankings in the recently released Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Thailand’s scores have plunged to an overall ranking of 54 out of 70 assessed countries. PISA have found that one-third of Thailand’s 15-year-olds were “functionally illiterate.”
I recently took my family to a Thai school in the outer provinces. We went there to donate school supplies, money, and provide lunch for all the students at the school. We were expecting a couple of hundred children but only about half of the children were present. My wife asked the principal about the missing children. The principal replied that many children do not come to school because they cannot afford the 20 baht lunch and were embarrassed when they had to sit down at lunch and watch their friends eat.
I don’t think that school children go hungry in some of the wealthier provinces where people are paid more but it may be a problem where some families have to support themselves on a couple of hundred baht a day.
I decided to talk to my friend, Eric Guzman, who teaches at a school in Rayong, what he believes is the cause of students scoring so low in international assessments. He talked to a few of his fellow teachers and this was his response. The teachers that he communicated with wanted to remain anonymous.
I spoke with a couple of my fellow Thai teachers about the Thai educational system. One Thai teacher says that he recognizes the benefits and drawbacks of the Thai educational system.
However, the teacher said that the annual policy changes instituted by successive Thai governments makes it difficult for teachers to develop a lesson plan. Teachers are uncertain whether a new government edict will remain or change. Another difficulty is when old policies remain in place when new policies are instituted creating more confusion.
A tangent to this issue is the proliferation of celebrations and holiday programs that take children out of the classroom. There are weekly events including sports week, scout’s week, Western culture week, and programs commemorating multiple Thai holidays.
Some foreign teachers question the frequency of these programs which occur multiple times a month. During these programs, many children are taken out of the classroom to assist in the preparation of the programs and classes are canceled. While the programs are fun, the preparations and frequency of these programs interferes with student’s academic progress.
Additional government programs reduced amount of time available to teachers while increases the teacher’s workload. This means less time preparing for classes and dealing with large amounts of administrative paperwork. Many Thai teachers feel overburdened with paperwork that reduces their ability to focus on their student’s learning. This is compounded when they have to deal with students who make no attempt to learn.
A Thai teacher anonymously remarked that he thinks that the most common problem among Thai students was laziness. He said, “Many kids, especially boys, are only interested in playing games. They seem to get bored easily with discussion and are only attentive during the first few minutes in class.”
I concur with my limited teaching experience. Most students become idle when they lack the drive and motivation to study. It is the role of teachers to continually entertain and educate to students. During the course of a year, I am required to continually develop new action plans to keep the students engaged and learning. This task is not easy and over time can be exhausting. I empathize with some teachers who have reverted to the old Thai teaching method of rote memorization.
One large challenge to teachers is Thailand’s no-fail policy. Even if the student does not show up in class, teachers have to provide minimal scores to allow the student to pass. Many students recognize that regardless of their performance in the classroom, they will inevitably move on to the next level at the end of the school year.
Still and all, I love my job as a teacher, and I enjoy being with my students. They are one of the primary reasons why I am teaching at my school. There may be times when the situation in the class seems more difficult than the other days.
However, changes should be made to the Thai education system to reduce government edicts and allow local schools more freedom to educate students. In a system where teachers feel overburdened with bureaucracy and where apathetic students still are allowed to pass, the passion in the hearts of many young teachers are quickly extinguished.
By Eric John Guzman and Robert R. Virasin
Mr. Robert R. Virasin is a licensed U.S. Attorney and managing director of Virasin & Partners. He can be reached at www.virasin.com. Mr. Eric John de Guzman is a teaches at a public secondary school in Rayong, Thailand.