The education system in Thailand, like those in most nations, faces some serious challenges as a result of the Co-vid pandemic. Children have missed a lot of school and it is likely that many have fallen behind in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. But this problem is even more serious for Thailand than in many other nations because before the pandemic Thai children already lagged far behind their international and regional peers in developing these critical skills.
On the PISA examinations administered in 2018, only 40% of Thai students attained at least Level 2 or higher proficiency in reading their own language (OECD average: 77%). Level 2 students are minimally proficient at reading. Very few students in Thailand were top performers in reading, meaning that they attained Level 5 or 6 in the PISA reading test (OECD average: 9%). In 20 national education systems, including those of 15 OECD countries, more than 10% of 15- year-old students were top performers in reading (OECD, 2019).
This means that 60 percent of Thai 15-year-olds were functionally illiterate. Why is this important? If you are illiterate, you are unlikely to be successful in further education, you can’t read a newspaper, complete a job application, or read the manual for a machine in a factory. You are likely doomed to low-wage jobs and a life of poverty.
Thai students did a little better in mathematics. Some 47% of students in Thailand attained Level 2 or higher in mathematics (OECD average: 76%). On average across the OECD countries, 76% of students attained at least Level 2 proficiency in mathematics. In Thailand, only 2% of students scored at Level 5 or higher in mathematics (OECD average: 11%) while over 20 percent of the students in Singapore, Taipei, and Vietnam scored Level 5 or 6.
Why bring up this old news now? Because it reflects some serious problems in education in Thailand and it is likely that the pandemic has made the situation worse. If Thailand hopes to compete in the 21st Century economy, it must take action to overcome these gaps in the skills of its students. In spite of all of the talk about 21st Century skills, they are not attainable unless students can read and do basic mathematics. So, what could be done to address these problems?
Simply returning schools to the way they were when they closed will not suffice. The damage from the pandemic will be greatest to disadvantaged students, many of whom were unable to take advantage of the remote learning most schools provided. Some of these students were struggling even before schools closed, but when they reopen, these students will be further behind.
Research shows that the most effective way to help students who lag behind is small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations. And a number of countries including the U.K., the Netherlands, and the USA are either creating national tutoring programs or considering doing so in response to the school closings caused by the pandemic. Thailand should do the same.
J-PAL North America, a research center focused on reducing poverty, recently released a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies of tutoring in literacy and mathematics and found that tutoring programs consistently produced large improvements in learning outcomes for students — with an impact greater than those of most other educational strategies. This study summarized what we know about tutoring:
So, what should be done? We recommend that Thailand create, pilot, and evaluate a tutoring program in reading and mathematics in the upper primary grades in several provinces. The program should offer all eligible students 3 hours a week of tutoring in groups of 5-6 students in either reading or mathematics. If it is successful, it could be then be expanded to all provinces. This sounds complicated and expensive, but it need not be. If all Ministry employees volunteered to tutor students three hours a week and all teachers volunteered to provide three hours after school, Thailand would have a lot of tutors. In addition, there are a lot of unemployed people, especially in the hospitality industry who have the necessary skills and might be happy to tutor for a minimum wage. And many recent university graduates need work, and they too could be recruited as tutors. And students in pre-service teacher education programs could be asked to use half of their practicums for tutoring. They would learn more from this experience than from serving as unpaid teaching assistants. It would not be hard to identify 50,00 tutors across the country. The Ministry would have to develop a tutoring curriculum and purchase instructional materials, but there are good examples internationally that could be replicated for Thailand. And there are a number of organizations in Thailand with training capacity that could help train tutors. Copying a well-known rallying cry, we might say “Thai children’s learning matters!” and we are going to do something about it.
Thomas B. Corcoran, Senior Advisor to the Director of the SEAMEO STEM-ED