‘Flipping’ the reform of education


Thailand has been continuously attempting to reform its education system through a top-down approach by overhauling the Ministry of Education and tweaking some laws and regulations. It was speculated that this would eventually improve the learning outcome in all schools.

Unfortunately, the attempts have not borne fruit as frequent political changes, such as reshuffles of the cabinet, make it difficult to support any long-term reforms.

However, Thailand has another capital, though often ignored, for the reform. A few of our schools performed well in the 2015 Programme for International Students Assessments (PISA). What is remarkable is that these are schools with students from rather poor families who managed to beat the odds that they would tend to get relatively lower scores than their counterparts.

Behind such findings is our analysis of the PISA data. We have divided all 264 schools participating in the PISA testing into five groups based on their students’ socio-economic status. The top 10 schools of the poorest student group have scored 461 points in science, above the national average score of 421. The best-performing school in the group is even on par with the average school in the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development who are more developed than Thailand.

One of these schools’ key success factors could be their know-how in enhancing disadvantaged students’ learning outcomes as they are not endowed with more financial resources than others. The way to leverage this hidden asset is to “flip” the current education reform approach. The reform should start from the bottom up by improving classrooms and scaling up good practices nationwide to achieve system-wide changes. The following cases from the US and Japan further emphasise that such an approach is possible.

The US’s Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) is a nationwide franchise-like network of charter schools, or privately managed public schools. As KIPP believes all students can achieve in education regardless of their socioeconomic background, 87% of its students were poor and eligible for free or subsidised lunch. Research found that students from KIPP schools learned faster in math by half a year than their similarly poor peers.

More importantly, the success has persisted as KIPP has expanded its network to 162 schools, enrolling around 8,000 students across 20 states. One key success factor is their translation of good practices into five core principles ready to be learned. For example, according to the data-driven teaching principle, teachers should frequently adjust their teaching practices by analysing students’ learning outcomes from student assessments.

To ensure that its franchisees effectively use the five principles, KIPP designs a rigorous principal selection process, which currently selects around 10% of the applicants. New principals have to go through one-year training and coaching before they can run and manage schools.

Another encouraging case from the US is the adoption of successful practices of high-quality charter schools by public schools. Roland G Fryer, a researcher from Harvard University, attributed five key common practices among high-quality charter schools: high expectations of students, instructional time extension, small group tutoring, data-driven instruction, and frequent teacher feedback. These practices have been introduced to the 20 worst performing public schools in a Houston school district, whose students’ math learning was five months slower than their peers. Early results showed the learning gap was almost closed within one to two years.

Japan offers another interesting case. In Japan, almost all primary schools adopt the “Lesson Study” or Kaizen in the education sector, which is a teacher-led approach in which a group of teachers work together to continuously improve educational practices and their students’ learning and then share the proven solutions with others.

“Lesson Study” is credited for transforming Japanese math teaching into successful problem-solving discussions. As a result, Japanese students have high math performances in almost every round of international tests.

In the Lesson Study process, small groups of teachers collaborate to identify students’ learning problems and develop their lesson plans to address them. In the development, teachers study educational research, teacher manuals, and other learning materials, and provide teaching according to the lesson plans. Students’ learning then is observed by the other teachers and educational experts. All observations are later discussed to draw lessons learned from classrooms. Afterward, teachers convey the lessons to other schools and spread the practices across the education system.

To scale up good school practices in Thailand, we need to identify excellent schools, our hidden assets. Our national student assessments should be revised to be more reliable like the PISA. The assessment data could be used to identify effective teaching and learning methods. Good practices should then be turned into explicit knowledge in order to be used by other schools.

Rapid scaling up needs platforms, ranging from highly-organised ones such as KIPP franchises to less organised knowledge-sharing platforms among schools like what is demonstrated by the Japanese Lesson Study approach. The platforms would help schools and teachers to internalise the shared knowledge. The government and social partners should provide supports for building these platforms. High-performing schools should be supported to help turn under-performing ones around and expand their franchisee-like subsidiaries.

The ultimate goal of our education system is to turn schools into learning organisations. True education reform can be achieved only when teachers and schools continuously improve their learning and teaching methods. To successfully reform our education system, maybe we need to “flip” the approach.

Supanutt Sasiwuttiwat, a senior researcher, and Chosita Salakham, a researcher, are from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
First Publish: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, March 08, 2017