December 03, 2012 00:00 By Chularat Saengpassa
EVERY NOW AND THEN, Thailand's education sector receives some bad news. Thai children's academic achievements in international rankings are rather depressing.
Instead of going up, they have been slipping downwards.
In 1995, the first Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) found that Thai children were doing quite well in science and mathematics. Thai children scored 525 points in the former and 522 points in the latter that year, while the world’s average score stood at around 500.
But since then, Thai children’s scores have dropped. In 1999, their science and mathematics scores plunged to just 482 and 467 respectively. In 2007, their average scores were 441 in mathematics and 471 in science.
TIMSS reports every four years on the mathematics and science achievement of fourth- and eighth-grade students worldwide. Findings from the survey are used to inform education policy-makers and to improve teaching.
During the past decade, Thai educators and policymakers have experienced a shock through their circles whenever the TIMSS scores are released. But after a few days or perhaps just a bit longer, the ripples through Thailand’s education system disappear and everything turns virtually idle again.
No big efforts have been made or sustained to really reverse the trend.
In fact, TIMSS scores clearly show that students at well-equipped schools perform much better than those from schools with limited resources. Children in rural provinces, particularly those in the Northeast, do not receive the same quality of education as their peers in urban zones.
Authorities of course know that many rural schools suffer a severe shortage of teaching staff and that teachers who majored in physical education are being asked to teach mathematics and science. At so many schools in the rural zones, one instructor teaches all the subjects. Some schools have resources and staff for primary-education level only, but must still offer secondary-education classes in response to the government’s policy to make secondary education mandatory for all children.
Comprehensive access to educational services is important, but the government should realise that the quality of educational services is no less important.
Pornpun Waitayangkoon, who heads the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST), said all available indicators had identified where the problems lie. “There’s no need to conduct new research. The government can formulate policies based on these indicators,” she said.
She believed the government should start pouring more resources into small schools in the Northeast now.
“We must not allow the gap between well-equipped schools and the poor schools to widen further,” Pornpun said. She also demanded that exams in Thailand’s education system place emphasis on analytical thinking.
“If we don’t make changes, we will get bad news every time international rankings about academic performances are released,” she said. “The international focus is now on the ability to analyse.”
According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old Thais have rather poor reading skills. Of this group, 42.8 per cent know how to read but cannot summarise the content. About 37 per cent can give summaries only when the content is easy to read.
According to the 2009 PISA, just 0.3 per cent of Thai children have reached reading proficiency Level 5 or have the ability to fully understand a text whose form and content is unfamiliar.
“The poor PISA scores have affected Thailand’s competitiveness,” Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec) deputy secretary-general Benjalak Namfa said.
Obec, she said, is planning several measures to improve Thai children’s performances in the PISA ranking through the development of better teachers.
For example, Obec is considering awarding higher academic ranks and better pay to teachers when their students score well on the Ordinary National Educational Test (Onet). If the students’ Onet scores are higher, they will very likely get better scores in the TIMSS and PISA too.
Indeed, Thailand should learn from the many countries that have already successfully used the TIMSS findings. Germany, for example, has already gone a long way from where it started with its 1995 TIMSS scores.
German children performed below average in mathematics in 1995, creating "the TIMSS Shock" in their country.
In response to this shock, authorities adjusted their policies and developed measures to improve German students’ performance. Germany’s efforts paid off, with students’ performances on international tests improving, according to Eckhard Klieme, a professor of education at the German Institute of International Educational Research.
Now, let’s hope that when the 2012 TIMSS results are released later this month, the shock waves will lead to real efforts to improve Thailand’s education system in a sustainable way.
TIMSS, PISA and the like are indicators to help policymakers shape useful policies. Thailand needs to make good use of them.