There is considerable discussion in Thailand about the need for young people to acquire 21st century skills and the need to prepare them for high-skill jobs. It is estimated that 85 percent of Thai workers are currently employed in low-skill jobs, and there is agreement that they need training to enter high-skill jobs. But what training do they need? Policymakers talk about the need for problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and so forth, but these discussions often overlook the most critical skill that is missing – the ability to read Thai. Half of young Thais score below level 2 on the PISA literacy test which is given in Thai; this is the level at which individuals can only read simple sentences. Individuals who score below level 2 can’t read a newspaper or a training manual or a textbook, and as a consequence, they are hard to re-train. Reading remains a fundamental skill for the 21st century.
Policymakers often want fast and definitive answers to their questions about how to improve education, but cannot always find answers in education research. Part of the disconnect arises from timeliness. It can take decades before longitudinal studies produce definitive answers to some of the questions facing policymakers. Does a job training program alter the quality of life of the students who complete it? Does a new preschool curriculum alter the life outcomes of children? Does a new science program encourage more students to pursue careers in science? Do STEM programs motivate students to pursue STEM careers? Answers to such questions require longitudinal studies that are expensive and lengthy.
Two recent studies of Thai education have concluded that poorly designed policies contribute to Thailand’s weak performance on international assessments. OECD and UNESCO conducted a policy review of Thailand in 2018, and CPRE conducted a study of the Premium Program for IPST in 2017, and both studies pointed to flawed policies as factors contributing to the weak performance of Thai schools.