Problems with the Thai public education system

A list of almost twenty issues that certainly need looking at


In my last blog I described my intention to compile a list of problems with the Thai public education system.

Some of the people who responded to that article incorrectly assumed that I'm trying to fix the entire Thai education system. If I had as much money and energy as Bill Gates I might try to do that, but I don't. My short-term goals are quite a bit more modest and can be achieved in a few months.

First, as I said earlier, I simply want to compile a list of problems with the current system from the perspective of foreign teachers. The first iteration of this list is almost finished and shown below. Second, I want to propose possible solutions to each of the problems in the list. This will take a few more weeks and will evolve into an ongoing activity.

Some of the problems, like lack of air-conditioning, have obvious solutions but require huge amounts of money. I could buy one air-conditioner and see if it makes a difference in one classroom but I'm not sure that's an effective use of my limited resources. The point is that I'm not trying to fix anything right now, I just want to list some of the more egregious problems and describe reasonable solutions. Testing and implementing the solutions on a small scale will come later, if at all.

The reason I'm describing this project to the gentle folks who read this website is to politely and sincerely ask for your suggestions. The comments directed to my last article on this forum were more critical than constructive, however even the negative comments reflect the feelings of some members of this community.

I want to thank Greg Nunn for providing some interesting reference links which I've added to my website. Brad Michaelis took the time to write a thoughtful list of problems which I've included below. I also want to say that on an emotional level I completely agree with Mark Newman who said we should basically abandon the poor preforming students and focus our efforts on the small percentage of students who actually want to learn English.

Last semester as I was struggling to teach M3 and M6 I had the exact same thought on many occasions. I'm going to include that suggestion as a possible solution to Problem #4 below. I don't know how realistic that is and I don't think it will be well-received, but I'm going to list it as one of the possible solutions. And a special thanks to Tracy who defended my attempt to do something slightly noble even when the chances of success are miniscule.

So here's the list. Again, please send your feedback, corrections, and criticism to khun.mark.brown@gmail.com. I'll maintain a more complete version of this list on my website 

1. Students in most classes have a very wide range of abilities, with high-performing students sitting next to low-performing students. This makes it almost impossible to design curriculum or teach either group without short-changing the other. The bright students become bored and the slower students stop trying. One contributor estimates that total student participation is about 45%. He also said "There are students that are so advanced they belong two grades higher. They are not given the chance to be separated from their classmates for an English class."

2. Related to #1, students are promoted from one grade to the next even when they clearly should be held back or directed to remedial programs. There is a tradition in Thai culture that all students must advance to the next grade regardless of their performance. This means that low-performing students will be further mismatched with the curriculum in subsequent grades. This effect is compounded each year until some students in M6 have similar performance to students in P6 or even lower.

3. Cheating is endemic throughout all levels of public education. Students routinely cheat on all tests and exams. This contaminates performance assessments which are vital to improving curriculum and determining remediation.

4. Discipline is a constant issue in almost all classes. This problem seems to get worse as students progress through the system, until by the time they're in high school they're almost impossible to control. Students are often late for class. They talk freely with each other and move around the classroom as if they were at a social function. They use their cellphones or work do their homework from other classes. This is very discouraging to all teachers and it's clearly detrimental to the minority of students who are well-behaved.

5. Foreign teachers feel like they are superficial and disconnected from the rest of their department. They often complain that they were hired merely for appearances and serve only as "window dressing". They are almost never solicited for input into curriculum. They are often ignored by the other teachers. Some of the perceived separation between Thai and foreign teachers may be a result of shyness or even embarrassment on the part of the Thai teachers, but in an English department this is not a viable excuse.

6. Related to #5, the overall scores or grades that foreign teachers assign to their students are discounted or even ignored by Thai teachers to assign grades at the end of each semester. It's common for the grades given by foreign teachers to account for only 10% of students' final grades. This increases the perception of foreign teachers that they efforts are largely superficial. Thai teachers assign grades based on cultural expectations rather than performance.

7. The Thai education system is not a meritocracy, it's an oligarchy. Good teachers, even good Thai teachers, are not evaluated and rewarded for their accomplishments or the accomplishments of their students. This is another factor which makes it very discouraging to work for a school in Thailand. Professional advancement in the Thai education system seems to be based on certificates or degrees regardless of the effectiveness of a teacher's ability to teach. The result is that Thai teachers work hard to get these degrees even by cheating or short-cutting their way through the program just so they can get the piece of paper which is needed to get a better salary.

8. The classrooms in many up-country schools are dirty and un-air-conditioned. The floors are filthy. The widows are broken. The desks and chairs are falling apart. Maintenance and janitorial services are inadequate. The classrooms are equipped with chalkboards instead of whiteboards. These unpleasant working conditions contribute to a sense of working in a menial job. The poor state of classroom facilities probably contributes to the general lack of respect on the part of the students. Considering how much money the Thai government spends on education you would think they could afford air conditioners in all classrooms, even in rural areas.

9. There is a ridiculous number of holidays and extra-curricular activities which result in fewer productive teaching days. These distractions include Buddhist holidays, sporting events, various competitive events, and all-day teacher meetings. A substantial amount of effort and apparently money is directed to these activities which, although they may impart critical aspects of Thai culture, do very little to advance core academic achievements and disrupt the continuity of the curriculum. Classes that meet in the first or last periods of the day are often cancelled due to competing activities.

10. Academic tests like ONET seemed to be used mainly as a way for schools to qualify for additional funding and have little impact on remediation for poor-performing students. Test questions are often completely mismatched to the average student's abilities which results in them being disappointed and further disengaged from their future education. Even worse, some of the English language test questions contain grammatical errors or examples which don't make sense to a native speaker. In addition to being a filter that determines which students can advance to college, performance tests should be used as a tool to identify students who should be enrolled in remedial programs.

11. There doesn't seem to be any standard curriculum. Foreign teachers aren't given any teaching materials and are allowed to select text books and develop teaching materials as they see fit. Even Thai teachers are given huge freedom to do whatever they want in the classroom with little or no guidance from their department, let alone Thai educational organizations at the national level. While this lack of standardization may be considered a blessing and foreign teachers take advantage of this, it's symptomatic of a disorganized system as a whole.

12. Textbooks used for teaching English are written by English authors and targeted for English children. Books from Oxford Press are examples of this. The covers and first page of have been translated into Thai but there isn't a single word of Thai in the entire rest of the book. No attempt is made to translate English into Thai because that isn't necessary in England. Examples and vocabulary are obviously England-centric. Fruits, vegetables, and animals mentioned in these books don't occur naturally in Thailand. Idioms and nursery rhymes are England-centric.
Here are some additional comments I received in response to my last blog article. I've made some minor edits.

13. Schools should put the students first. Not the teachers.

14. Most Thai teachers think the school is there for them, that they are the most important part of it. They're not!

15. Teach the students how to think, not just copy and follow the instructions.

16. School staff and above should listen to those with more experience, rather than saying "I've taught 'this', in this way for many years, you can't show me a better way".

17. If you're going to teach someone a subject, the teacher should have the basic knowledge of that subject. I.e. the ability to speak English, if that's what you teach. You don't see an art teacher who can't draw, or a P.E teacher who can't run.

18. Forget complex grammar until you have some ability to speak and understand the language.

19. Teach the students how to talk with constant practice, increase vocabulary, and lots of praise, not criticism.


California Accent offers free training materials (courseware) which can be used to teach English to Thai students. These training materials are free for parents and teachers to use as long as they are not resold or used for commerical purposes. New materials are being added to this site every week as they are developed and tested by the author.


Comments

Wow! You just hit every nail on the head touché!!!!

By Jaronald, Khon Kaen (3 days, 19 hours ago)

I do agree with most of your list. I’m really passionate about #15. Majority of the classes I teach are once a week(so my grade is only 10%); which is pointless both for teaching new content and establishing discipline... but it’s been frustrating on having the kids think for themselves. They sometimes feel like robots, there’s no independence... I work with groups in class and each class is broken into 4 parts that students need to complete in order to move to the next (think of a puzzle) answer keys are provided so they all can work independently and at their own pace... but somehow they just can’t do it, so I get the “Teacher teacher teacher teacher teacher” —because A. According to them I didn’t hear the first time B. I’m not at their table... and it’s until I arrive at their table, they are ready to work... It’s like they are trained not to think for themselves and expect the teacher to tell them what to do next, instead of trying to figure it out by themselves...don’t even get me started with students who respond “I don’t have a pencil” (when their neighbor has a huge pencil case) when I ask them why they aren’t writing after 15 mins of class...

I also think there’s lack of support that helps with their confidence in trying to even speak/learn the language... I think both language fluency and accuracy is important, but I think maybe focusing more on fluency than accuracy can help build their confidence... I mean even when I speak Thai, I care more about them understanding what I’m trying to say as opposed to saying it correctly.

Now if the students want to be English teachers... that’s a whole different story

By Marie, Phuket (1 week, 3 days ago)

"opinions don't change facts"

Sometimes, if we can actually determine what is and what is not a "fact" but I would say it is almost equally true facts rarely change opinions.

By Jack, In a chaid (1 week, 4 days ago)

"Something we like to say in science is, "opinions don't change facts".

Ouch... you wouldn't get a job in any Western educational establishment with a weird approach like that! I think 'facts' are some kind of racism or bigotry in the West these days.

Getting Thai kids to ask questions is a challenge. Many of them in a lot of schools aren't really 'involved' in their classes in any practical sense. This makes asking them to come out of themselves something of a mnission.

And getting them to answer any question that starts with 'Why... ?' is also a frustrating excerise!

We soldier on, though!

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (1 week, 4 days ago)

Ha ha, Mark. I was actually referring to having ideas and an approach on how to improve your lessons and teaching. I only really have an opinion on the science department at my school. I'm the head science teacher. We use the British curriculum and students have to pass a language proficiency test in order to attend science classes taught in English. Our students can and do fail. I wouldn't have it any other way.

When I first started at my school, we were missing certain funds. Several months later a very important and powerful lady at the school retired early. She was asked to leave because she had embezzled a ridiculous amount of money over a long period of time. More and more details keep creeping out, and it's very upsetting that she could have stolen so much for so long and seemingly get away with it. It remains a huge black eye for our school and rightly so. Let's hope it doesn't happen again. The school is doing their best to make amends. This woman should be in prison, but what can you do?

The great thing about teaching science is that we deal with facts and what we know. My students are always encouraged to ask questions. There are no stupid questions. One of my students not so long ago asked me about a movement of people who think the world is flat. Other students sniggered and we talked about it at length. I've conditioned my kids to always ask questions in my science classes. They can do what they like in other classes, but in my class we use the scientific approach.

I didn't have any support when I started so I had to learn as I went along. Trial and error. Which I guess is true for a lot of teachers. Now I have lots of support and I'm studying more. I can afford it and my school pay towards my studies. I'm lucky. I know that.

Something we like to say in science is, "opinions don't change facts". We're all entitled to our opinions, but that's all they are; opinions. But let's move away from misrepresenting others' opinions which I'm witnessing more and more on here (and in life). It's an ugly trend within people to want to be right. Let's use goodwill to understand each other's positions and arguments.

Let's not regress into a state where people are forced into using disclaimers that they're not racist, sexist, homophobic baby eaters.

By Simon, Bangkok (1 week, 4 days ago)

Blimey, Simon... If you think that's a 'positive perspective' of Thai education, you must qualify as one of the most 'glass half full' people I have ever met!

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (1 week, 5 days ago)

Great article and great read. Good to see a positive perspective from a teacher who's in the field. As a teacher who actually teaches within the Thai education system, there's a lot I agree with.

We need to hear more from people who are teachers in Thailand. Their experiences and thoughts can prove to be very beneficial to others who are new or who simply don't know because they don't actually teach here.

By Simon, Bangkok (1 week, 5 days ago)

OECD UNESCO hired a team of experts to do an analysis of the Thai educational system, identified many problems, and offered suggestions for improvement.

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002457/245735E.pdf

If a person can read Thai, there are also many reports produced by local experts analysing the current situation and problems found in the Thai educational system while making recommendations for improvement.

For an example, see https://www.m-society.go.th/article_attach/19341/20693.pdf

What these reports have in common are they are based on actual evidence, statistical comparisons of outcomes, academic theories and an attempt at understanding the context found in the Thai environment.

Quality education is a very complex and contextual concept which is extremely difficult to identify or measure. If there easy solutions, the world would have much better educational systems than we do.

I think almost everyone involved in education in Thailand (Thai and foreigners) agrees the country could do better than it is currently doing and there are some agreements about changes in principles, but it is difficult to develop a consensus over specific practices and to actually implement the changes.

These reports listed above, were developed using evidence, research, statistics and an attempt to understand the Thai context.

Mark’s “report” is not based on any research, statistical analysis, theoretical foundation, supporting evidence or consideration of the Thai context. Instead it was straight up subjective opinion of a single person without any specialized training in education and very limited experience and apparently little appreciation for the cultural, economic, religious or political environment.

While I have no doubt those ESL teachers who take every opportunity possible to express their disdain for everything Thai will love Mark’s work, but does anyone in reality think the policy makers of education in Thailand will take Mark’s internet rant seriously?

Mark’s work will probably get him a couple of slaps on the back from fellow ESL teachers who have a similar negative opinion of the country and its culture, but I cannot see it being taken seriously by anyone with responsibility for making changes and having an actual concern for improvements in the educational system.

If the goal is to get a few atta boys from like-minded and xenophobic individuals and an opportunity to express his dislike of Thai culture publically, it has a good chance at success, if the goal is to produce ideas that might actually be useful in reforming the system this extremely amateurish report will a major failure.

Just the way I see it

By Jack, Sitting down (1 week, 5 days ago)

Farang and their opinions that don't matter because the farang are hired as people for the kids to practice their English with at best and window dressing at worst.

By John, Bangkok (1 week, 6 days ago)

Oh wow, a list of what is wrong with Thailand and the entire Thai educational system and instead of being founded on some type of quantitative survey which takes into account the viewpoints of a wide range of people involved in education in Thailand, it is based on the opinions of a single foreign English teacher who has a couple of years of experience. This list must be a first for ajarn.com (or maybe not). What brilliant analysis (Thailand and it educational systems are bad) based on the results produced using the most appropriate and sophisicated research methodology possible! I predict this list will help convince everyone in Thailand their culture is really bad and now, finally, everything in the country and educational system will start to change and become just like Mark would like it to be.

Or maybe not.

By Jack, Nearer than you think (2 weeks ago)

Completely agree. It’s the pay that put me off and the housing I was given. Paid out of my own pocket for sensible accommodations

By Faiza, Bangkok (2 weeks ago)

There's no point in trying to fix anything in the Thai education system. You'll get no thanks whatsoever and if you are successful in coming up with a solution the Thai administration will feel threatened by it and will punish you one way or another.
This is a country that spends 24% of its government budget on education, yet where is that money going? Hey, check out the new alloys on the directors A5! As has been rightly pointed out, many schools are falling apart and don't even have a curriculum or glass in the windows. There's always money in the pot for the odd jolly or some ritualistic nonsense, though.
Based on the way that I've seen foreign teachers being treated in schools in Bangkok, by Thai teachers and administration, I think it's sensible to say that it's not our place to bother trying.
The old saying 'Not my circus, not my monkeys' springs to mind.
Ego is what matters most here, which is kind of ironic considering it's a Buddhist country. It will take one hell of a humbling before anything changes that. Until then, the ridiculous concept of 'Thia-centrism' will prevail and I, and many others shall continue to teach online until a point at which I can leave for a country that is willing to show gratitude, rather than resentment, towards foreign teachers. Perhaps a country that's put the salaries up in the last 10-20 years.

By Steve, Bangkok (2 weeks ago)

#1 - Agree 100%.

This year my school tried something new... they mixed the abilities of all the students. The idea was that the brighter ones would help the duller ones.

This progressive lunacy just screws up the smart kids and ends up hurting all students. I'll bet that next year we'll be back to streaming the kids!

#2 - Oops!

"There is a tradition in Thai culture that all students must advance to the next grade regardless of their performance."

What you meant to say is...

There is a tradition in America that all students must be held back from the next grade if they don't perform well.

#3 - Everybody cheats everywhere and in every level of life. Get used to it.

#4 - Student discipline in Thailand is a reflection of your capability as a teacher and is very rarely to do with the kids. If you are serious about this contention, try teaching in any school in the UK or North America and you'll soon change your tune! The answer to discipline issues is to be a better more engaging and interesting teacher.

#5 & #6 - You're not that important in the grand scheme of things. Get over yourself.

#7 - Teachers - regardless of ability - are paid the same. Yes, this happens in every country on earth!

#8 - The classrooms are shite and in poor condition. So what? In the sixties when I went to school the classrooms were appalling... much worse than in Thailand. Still managed to muscle through the freezing temperatures and come away with something.

#9 - "There is a ridiculous number of holidays and extra-curricular activities which result in fewer productive teaching days."

What you meant to say is...

The West could learn a thing or two about how children spend their time in school. It's NOT about being academically hardwired for 8 hours a day. For one thing, it makes kids hate school and for another, it simply doesn't work.

Adjust your priorities and adapt to the easier going and less rigid Thai school system. This is actually something that Thailand does right.

#10 - Agree 100%. ONET is a national embarrassment and should have been scrapped decades ago. It's an absolute failure on every level. Parents should do more about getting something done about this.

#11 - Agree 100%. The curriculum seems to be very haphazard in all the subjects and left to the schools and teachers just to muddle through. Again, parents should be making something happen about this.

#12 - Agree 100%. Every single English language textbook I have ever seen is absolutely SHIT. There has been no effort to localize the books for individual countries.

#13 & #14 - Platitudes.

#15 - Rote learning has its place... so half agree on that one.

#16 - "School staff and above should listen to those with more experience."

A definite maybe... but it ain't happening so don't sweat it!

#17 - "You don't see an art teacher who can't draw or a P.E. teacher who can't run."

Yes, you do... well, at least I do! The English language isn't the only subject riddled with incompetent and ineffective teachers. Poor training and oversight of teachers is one of the biggest problems that is missing off this list.

#18 - Agree 100%. Grammar is just a waste of time. Social media has pretty much destroyed any value it ever had in English language communication. This should only be taught at the university level.

#19 - Agree somewhat... contextual use of vocab is essential if the students are going to remember what they are taught. Phrases and sentences are as important as learning words.

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (2 weeks ago)

Employ teachers based on skills, knowledge and experience... NOT COLOUR...RACE!!!

By Sedick , Saudi Arabia (2 weeks ago)

Mark, what you said is very true. So, like you, I'm finishing out my contract in an EP public school or even better, I will go when there's a compelling offer.
Honestly, I feel my English knowledge and skills has been dumb down.
Seriously, how can Thai teachers in English teach when they are worse than the students? They can't even get the TOEIC right, definitely sink on the IELTS.

For Thais, it's all about appearance. Just watch their Miss Earth Thailand and Miss Universe Thailand. Their answers were whooosh! Then tell me where is improvement. To add, those ladies are half-Thais, lived and studied abroad.

By Cha, Trang (2 weeks ago)

You know Mark after being in Thailand for over 8 years, I will tell you what I think. You cannot change the system. Do not even try. It will win you no friends and you will lose your job. Accept it for what it is, make it fun and leave the rest to someone else. There is cheating and it is different from Western systems but they say that Finland has the best education system in the world. Is the US perfect? In an inner city school in New York do you get the respect you deserve or think you deserve? It all depends where you teach. Some schools do have air conditioning and in my school I have my own separate subject which gets reported on the report card with no or little interference from anyone.

After year in the Government schools I moved out of it due to low pay, rampant corruption by agencies, and been told what to do and where. But I did get some satisfaction out of it and found there to real appreciation by the Thai students. They would smile and greet me in the corridors and I got along well with them. Now it appears all you need is a 3 week TEFL course to get you going and you are off into the wonderful world of TEFL. After 6 months in some grimy school you wonder why you came. But it is up to you. I did not do it for anyone else but the kids – not the administrators or anyone else, and I got a sense of reward that way.

You will not change much. In the private schools the same problems are there – kids not listening, rampant cheating. We recently had our exams and most “helped each other”. When you think of it that way it does not seem so bad. Thai education is not really improving because they got rid of the real experience and replaced it with young good-looking foreigners who do not know how to teach and have no experience. That is something they have to fix. You would be better off getting back into IT because this does not really have any good long-term prospects and sounds like you are going to go mad. Little will change until they want it to. Or maybe you should be teaching IT to Thai kids. Over and out.

By Jonny Jon, Bangkok (2 weeks ago)

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