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19 May 2015
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Education reform: First put teachers back in the classroom!

Education reform, one of the major topics in the ongoing reform process, can’t begin to see the light of the day without some real efforts to shake things up. But that probably won’t happen in the foreseeable future despite what the reformists may say on paper.

Education Minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasai hasn’t come up with any revolutionary ideas to stir things up. He has gone back to the same old warnings that the practice of paying “tea money” by parents to get their children places in well-known schools won’t be tolerated. He also said using “personal connections” to secure places for privileged students won’t be accepted either. But nothing is expected to change.

Almost every new education minister, upon taking office, has made more or less the same threats, but the bureaucrats and school administrators have managed to act as though they are following the order while keeping the old practice intact – with impunity. That’s the way it has always been. And that’s the way it will continue to be, unless real political will is enforced.

And that political determination will have to be based on some real understanding of the issues at hand.

A comprehensive study led by Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) president Dr. Somkiat Tangkitvanich hits the nail on the head with this conclusion: Return teachers to the classroom.

The study shows that despite the fact that Thai students are spending more time in the classroom (1,000 to 1,200 hours annually) than the average in most countries (less than 800 hours), their standards remain deplorably low.

Researchers found that because teachers are required to carry out activities that are not related to teaching, they are forced to be absent from the classroom up to 84 days a year. In other words, most Thai teachers meet up with their students in class only 200 days per year – or 60 per cent of the 1,000 hours.

Teachers spend 40 percent of their time working on the mandatory assessment forms required by the Education Ministry, most of which have no direct impact on the quality of their teaching or on the students. This activity takes up 43 days a year.

Teachers are also assigned to work with small groups of students who are dispatched to compete in various contests. This second segment of out-of-classroom work consumes 23 days. Others enter into academic competitions on their own, which takes about 10 days every year.

The TDRI research team proposes a new theme: Flip the Classroom, Change the Future.

First, the assessment system must be overhauled so that scores aren’t recorded only on paper. The evaluation must be conducted on the basis of real work that benefits students. Teacher-training courses should be held during school breaks rather than pulling teachers out of their classrooms to attend training.

Second, close attention must be paid to improve the quality of teaching. The researchers found strong evidence of a clear distinction between experienced teachers their inexperienced counterparts when it came to impact on students’ performance.

Over the next 10 years, about 200,000 teachers are due for retirement, opening up the way for vigorous recruitment of a new crop of teachers who could be trained to make learning both fun and educational for students.

As things stand now, there is a huge surplus of applicants for teaching jobs. It is forecast that in the next five years, teaching colleges will produce about 300,000 new graduates, who will be joined by another 300,000 who already possess teaching licences. But there are only about 40,000 to 50,000 vacancies. In theory, the demand-supply situation should produce higher-quality teachers in the near future.

But the screening process remains flawed. Applicants are tested only through written examinations – which is a very ineffective means to select qualified teachers whose quality is determined not by written knowledge alone but on how they can keep their students’ attention through modern teaching techniques.

Another serious impediment is the old system whereby government-school administrators don’t get the right to choose their teachers, who instead go where they are assigned by the central authorities. This rigid system means that teachers don’t get to teach the subjects they know best. What’s worse, when they are assigned subjects they aren’t good at or interested in, imagine how the students react – and how both the teachers and students must struggle to survive the dread of a “dead classroom”.

Will the education-reform “superboard” headed by Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha pay sufficient attention to this set of proposals and begin to consider making real changes to the classroom so that genuine reform can really start?

It seems deceptively simple. But it’s a tall order indeed.

First, the authorities must “get” it.

Second, they must stop asking: “What’s in it for me?”

Instead, they have to start asking the really relevant question: “What’s in it for the students?”

Until the right questions are asked, the answers will still be blowing in the wind.


First Published: The Nation, May 14, 2015