Boosting education levels via a lift in teacher standards, accountability


Wanwisa SuebnusornYongyuth Chalamwong

          Labour Development Section, TDRI


ON FEBRUARY 15, the Thailand Development Research Institute Foundation (TDRI) demonstrated its sincere and great concern over the Thai education through its year-end Annual Conference 2011 entitled “Revamping the Thai Education System: Quality for All”.

The key message was that Thai education is perceived as being extremely low in quality and irrelevant to labour markets, due to its lack of “accountability”. More precisely, no notice has been given to the linkage between the poor learning performance of students and lack of employment of graduates; and the reward/punishment system of educational personnel.

The recommendations included introducing a high-quality standardised exit examination and a serious evaluation of education providers based on the learning outcome of students. The bottom line is that someone who is accountable must be completely responsible for what they do and must be able to give a satisfactory reason for it.

Actually, the proposed idea is no novelty at all. Education reformers and strategists in the last 15 years have been passionately enamoured of the policies of standardisation, intrusive intervention and market competition. The evidence of standardised tests as a means of accountability can be seen in: England’s national literacy strategy and primary school targets; the US’ gruelling process of adequate yearly progress; Ontario’s strategy to reach provincial tested targets within one electoral term; and Australia’s Federal literacy test. Unfortunately, these policies have been very controversial and led to a paradigm shift towards “post-standardisation”.

This has been seen in, for example, the abolition of all educational testing up to age 14 in Wales, the introduction of a more flexible testing regime for primary school pupils in the UK, the easing of regulations regarding what counts as adequate yearly progress in the US, and the formal agreement of a period of peace and stability between teacher unions and the government of Ontario. Meanwhile, nations that lagged behind or resisted the reform agenda in the previous era, such as Scotland, Ireland and the Nordic countries, are still pulling towards it, but in a circumspect manner.

Existing patterns were eradicated following increasing data on their failure. The high-pressure standardisation – where short-term gains could be measured – entailed narrowing curriculum, anxiety among competing students, demoralisation of teachers by cultures of administrative culpability and political fear, and a crisis of recruitment and retention of teachers. It challenged the autonomy of teachers and distracted them from their own creativity. The top-down policy was therefore replaced by the bottom-up initiatives, moving back from the bureaucracy to professionals.

The key success factors in Finland, among the world’s highest performing educational systems and economies, are its society that values children, education and social welfare. The country has a high regard for education and educators as servants of the public good, and ranks teaching as the most desired occupation of high school graduates. Finland’s success is not by endless targeted interventions from the top, but by quiet, professional cooperation among all teachers involved.

In England, the high-trust culture of schools helping schools, teachers and administrators, also offers promising network conferences for their inspirational input and practical assistance. In Ontario, Michael Fullan, a world-famous educational reformer, has set out a post-standardised strategy committed to educational accountability through a range of initiatives that build up capacity of teachers and school leaders. Fullan believes their failure to improve the learning outcome of students is due to their lack of capacity (See Hargreaves, 2008).

In Thailand, the undesirable impact of standardised exit-examinations once forced the 1978 curriculum reform to abolish external examinations throughout the Kingdom and replaced it with examinations administered in each school.

Twenty years later, the comprehensive education reform of 1999 and 2009 has facilitated the initiation of standardised tests like O-Net and the establishment of the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (ONESQA). However, the O-Net test is merely a standardised test, not a real exit-examination powerfully encouraging students to put all of their efforts into it.

Moreover, students’ learning achievements and ONESQA’s evaluation results are not fully utilised to promote better governance and accountability. In other words, these results have no clear linkage with career advancement of teachers and educational personnel.

The questions are:

– Have Thai educators been aware of possible backlash effects from TDRI’s proposals and thus purposively decided to implement just some parts of it, or have they been trying to protect themselves by avoiding drawing up such policies in their scope of responsibility?

– Are Thai educators judging the intrinsic value of education at the expense of utilitarian concepts of education?

– Are Thai educational policy makers respecting the sacred status of the teaching profession or worrying about conflicts of interests?

–  Do Thai teachers and educational personnel deserve their protected autonomy and professional judgement?

First published: The Nation Website on February 27, 2012