All around the world, countries are trying to get better performance from schools and school systems.

Thailand is no exception to this effort.

We know that some systems perform better than others, and we know that the best schools and systems have a set of common things they do. There is no secret about the factors that lead to school and systemic excellence. It is a reasonable question to ask that in any table or list of high performing schools or systems, what are the standards used to judge the schools?

There are several ways of making these judgments. Most countries conduct nationally benchmarked testing systems – mostly in the areas of literacy and numeracy.  In Thailand, for example there are the O-net tests which provide an indication of the academic performance of schools on a nationally comparable basis.

Internationally, there are benchmarks provided by such organisations as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) enables comparisons to be made between systems, and between counties.

The PISA assessments examine such questions as:

    • Are students well prepared for future challenges?
    • Can they analyse, reason and communicate effectively?
    • Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life?

The PISA data provides answers to these questions, through its surveys of 15-year-olds in the principal industrialized countries. Every three years, it assesses to what extent students near the end of compulsory education, have acquired in knowledge and skills essential for participation in society. The questions are related to literacy, numeracy and science and more recently, digital literacy.

Neither source of data about systems’ performance comes from research organisations such as social research company McKinsey and the Grattan Institute at Melbourne University, Australia.

Research [2006 – 2010] into high performing  school systems  by McKinsey and Company  , looked at 25 school systems around the world, their findings being published  in the report – How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top [March 2008]

It is possible to obtain information about what it is that enables some schools to be rated as high performing, and through aggregation, what it is that makes some systems perform better than others.

Schools and systems seeking improvement can look to this evidence and use it to apply it to how they operate and they can also use the evidence to lobby for better support.

While there is a number of factors that lead to high performance, such as class size, demographics, budgets and so on, however research shows there is one factor that stands out above others. That factor is the quality of the teachers in schools.

There are three things which matter the most about getting high quality teachers into schools:

    • Getting the right people to become teachers
    • Developing new teachers into effective instructors
    • Ensuring the system is able to develop the best possible instruction for every child.

The McKinsey report found that in the 25 systems it examined, these three factors succeed in improving educational performance wherever they are applied.

Other studies provide strong evidence which support this.

In 2011 The Grattan Institute report Learning from the Best [] examined the four highest performing Asian systems – Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Specifically the researchers wanted to know: Why are these systems moving rapidly ahead of others?

Popular stereotypes about Asian education are strong in some countries. But this evidence challenges these stereotypes. In these four systems, high performance comes from effective education strategies that focus on implementing well-designed programs that continuously improve learning and teaching.

In just five years, Hong Kong moved from 17th to 2nd in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) the international assessment of Grade 4 students’ reading literacy. In these four Asian systems, education reforms created rapid changes in reading literacy.

Success cannot be explained by what is often seen as an emphasis on rote learning in Asian systems. Students who rely on rote learning come to grief in PISA assessments, because PISA assesses meta-cognitive content knowledge and problem solving abilities. These skills are not conducive to rote learning. Rote learning in preparation for PISA assessment would lead to lower scores. Moreover, international research shows that classroom lessons in Hong Kong, for example, require greater deductive reasoning, with more new and advanced content.

Thai education policy makers would do well to look at the four high performing systems studied in the Grattan Report.  Anyone looking at the systems will soon see that have introduced one or several of the following reforms, they:

• Provide high quality initial teacher education. In Singapore, students are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. Government evaluations have bite and can close down ineffective teacher education courses.

• Provide mentoring that continually improves learning and teaching. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who observe and give feedback on their classes.

• View teachers as researchers. In Shanghai teachers belong to research groups that continually develop and evaluate innovative teaching. Teachers cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having a published paper peer reviewed

The challenge for Thailand is to look at these Asian systems and then ascertain what they can easily and quickly implement in the Thai context that is similar to the steps taken in Singapore Korea Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Thailand can do this.

Greg Cairnduff

Acting Editor