The Plight of Government Schools in Thailand

My reason for being here.
My reason for being here.

No education system exists without flaw; there is no such thing as an ideal system. Certainly, though, some type of universal educational standard should be in place.

After nearly a year of teaching in Thailand, the system has innerved me so often and considerably that I’ve been drawn to the point of dissecting my personal quips with the system. I don’t claim to be an expert, but after working at two different schools across the country and comparing notes with teachers around Thailand, this is my opinion:

The government school system in Thailand is horrendous.

While decent government institutions do exist, they are far and few between. I hold the utmost regard for this country and its people, but the Thailand’s Ministry of Education could stand to do some re-organizing.

1. To Group or Not to Group

In most schools in Thailand, grades levels are grouped into classrooms according to ability. Students take a placement test both when they enter primary and secondary school. The results determine their level, and according to teachers I’ve interrogated on the topic, they are thereby stuck in that level for the years to follow. For poor test takers, students wishing to move levels, or even students that may be at a lower learning capacity but nonetheless want to learn – it is nearly impossible.

Within grade six, “6/1” will theoretically be the most well-behaved and motivated class. When you work your way down the seven other levels ending in “6/8” it resembles more of a zoo than a classroom.

I have now experienced working at both a school that groups students by levels and one that does not, and I am struggling to figure out which is the better alternative.

On one hand, the grouping of levels allows for more productive top-level classes. On the other hand, it makes for such a chaotic environment in the other levels, full of disruptive, unmotivated students who make it impossible to teach or learn. At first, I assumed it was the language barrier, but not much changes when I speak Thai or have a Thai assistant. There is only one tool that seems to tame a disrespectful class: the whip of corporal punishment, a very acceptable practice among Thai teachers.

At my current school, all of my classes are mixed levels. Although the system of dividing into levels is frustrating, there is no advantage of not dividing them, as I cannot prepare adequate lesson plans for everyone. I end up having to cater down to the majority, while those who have higher English skills breeze through the work. But what more can be done in disorderly, overcrowded classes of 50+ students?

2. No Child Left Behind = No Knowledge Gained

In Thailand, there is a law that all students must pass. No matter how poorly the students do, how often they ditch classes and don’t do their work, they must go on to the next grade each year. The biggest downfall to this rule is that the students are well aware that they will pass no matter what, making for unmotivated and uncooperative students. It is far too common for a majority of students in a class to show up halfway through the lesson and never do their work once in the semester – yet the system pushes them forward.

Similar to other countries, the Thai government wants to get everyone through the system. In Thailand, there is a horrible separation of the law to its actual outcome; the priority becomes getting students through as fast as possible (at least to grade 10 when they can legally drop out) without concern for the knowledge gained.

Students may re-take tests as many times as they need and turn in homework as late as they choose. In my country, blatant copying is called “cheating,” while here it is group effort that is tolerated on assignments and exams alike. The prevalence of plagiarizing is uncanny; I was shocked to learn that teachers turn their heads when 50 sheets have the exact same right and wrong answers. While this is related to the group mentality of Thai society vs the more individualized Western mindset, it is difficult to encourage individual growth when the reward does not match effort in the classroom.

As the only foreign teacher in my first school, I received a belated answer on how to grade my 1200 students just before exam week: Pass/Fail. But they have to pass, correct? I clarified with the Head of English (mind you, she spoke little to no English).


So it’s Pass/Fail but they all get a P.

And I was actually expected to hand-write P next to 1200 students’ names.

Oh, Thailand.

The future of Thailand.

3. Hitler Who?

If you spend enough time in Thailand, you will notice it is a very introspective country. With an absence of education in world history and international matters, the lack of concern for the outside world is inevitable.

Thai students do not learn about what I consider to be crucial world historical topics. They are oblivious to some of the most monumental genocides, religions, cultures and even music known to mankind. Not to say that my American education on history was so thorough, but I am left in awe about the material not included in what I thought to be a basic curriculum. In school, they learn limited information about their own history, and not much outside of that.

This is no secret I have come across numerous blogs and articles referring to Thais as extremely ignorant population, not to the individual’s fault. I came across a well-educated PhD graduate unacquainted with the name Adolf Hitler. Another set of students insisted that Hitler’s distinctive photograph was Charlie Chaplin.

Unless you have the financial means to study abroad, travel or attend an international school, chances are you won’t learn about World War II or even the massacres as close to home as their neighbors in Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam some which ended only just 30 years ago. To exclude such genocides from the education of such a large, prospering nation is frightening; this is how history manages to repeat itself.

Before the push to learn English in preparation for ASEAN brought foreign teachers to most schools in Thailand, students were only learning English from Thai teachers. Many of these Thai teachers hold the title English teacher,” yet so often struggle to have a basic conversation with the native-English speaking foreign teachers.

Three times throughout grade school, Thai students must take an internationally condemned, horribly written test called O-NET. If you want to learn more about how terrible it is, check out this comprehensive evaluation of the O-NET test in a four part blog on the Sorry State of Thai Education. I had the privilege of glancing over the English section, and there was not one question that had correct English.

Thai students are not taught critical thinking skills. In a culture that is all about saving face, questioning their teacher or peers in such a manner as we do in the West would be an act of defamation.

4. Motivation, Where Art Thou?

Overall, the motivation in Thailand is very low. Its hard to exactly pinpoint where this stems from, but I can only help but see a connection to the poor quality of education. Perhaps the absence of knowledge of the outside world makes for a very narrow-minded society.

Students are particularly uninterested in learning English. In the above linked blog, Kaewmala articulates the fear of English that I experience daily living in Thailand, as shopkeepers run from my foreign face to locate the one semi-English speaking worker: It looks as though Thais have a pathological fear of speaking English. At times I’ve had a worker run away from me when I speak Thai to them, as they instantaneously shut off their ears as soon as they see my white skin; they assume I am speaking English without listening.

When I traveled to Vietnam, I was accosted left and right on the streets by locals wanting to practice their English. Perhaps it has to do with Vietnam’s prior colonization and its emerging role in the world economy, but I couldn’t help compare how eager this neighboring country is to learn English and communicate with the outside world.

Last semester, a teacher asked me to help a graduating senior boy prepare for an English interview after school one day. This 18-year old boy was interviewing for the chance to receive a scholarship to study abroad in Australia for free. When I asked him why he wants to study abroad, a most probable question he’d be asked in the interview, he told me honestly that he did not want to go; the school had forced him to apply. He told me he’d rather stay at home with his friends and family and work in his parent’s food stall.

Perhaps it is my culture, and my raging travel disease, but surely such an opportunity for this 18 year old in Thailand would only come once. I respect the dedication to one’s family, but he would never understand the doors that could have been opened to him had he spent just one year of his life abroad.

Teaching in Thailand

Thai children enjoying life.

Thailand is a very special country that is close to my heart and the people here are uncommonly compassionate. I can appreciate that Thai people have a good thing going here right at home. Without the education and incentive instilled in young children, there isn’t much reason for Thais to seek opportunities outside as they have everything they could want right at home. Additionally, the dedication to ones homeland and family is admirable. I can also see how a lack of involvement in the turmoil of international politics is to their advantage.

It wouldn’t be fair if I failed to mention all of the truly wonderful students who greet their teachers with a traditional Thai “wai” out of respect. If you consider what I find the be the flaws of the system, it’s incredible that so many students do still diligently take notes and seek the teacher’s mark of approval on their work. I must give those students an extra round of applause, because I am not sure I would have the same motivation under a similarly absurd system. Also, because things are not so rigid, as a teacher, there is a lot more room to have fun with my students. Even on the worst of days, it is impossible for some child or another’s adorable innocence to not force a smile on my face.

Still, my innately Western-mind is bothered by the current system in place. For one of the most Westernized countries in Southeast Asia, there is still a lot of room for improvement in the public education. It might take Thailand developing a greater international presence and thus mindset for any real change to come about.

Although living in this beautiful country has been worth every challenge, spending a year working in the government schools has been a true test of my endurance. While I will consider teaching abroad again in the future, I can confidently say it will not be at a government school in Thailand.

Editors Note: This article originally appeared at Andrea’s blog. To learn more about Andrea and her life in the Land of Smiles, be sure to check out her website.