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OP-ED: Solving Isaan’s Education Problem

2011 December 12
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

In 2011, the 2010 Ordinary National Education Test (O-NET) results by province were made available to the public for only the second time in the history of this standardized nationwide test, and students in Northeast Thailand achieved terrible results.  This article considers the reasons for these poor academic results, focusing on the subjects of Thai, the de facto national language of Thailand, and English, the main foreign language of Thailand (described as such because neither are included in the constitution). Isaan students are being left behind not only because of a lack of resources or because of malnutrition leading to stunted growth, but because they’re learning in the wrong language.

All four data sets mentioned in this article can be found here.

The statistics are quite clear, and for Isaan parents and educators, extremely worrying. For the Thai language, in 2005, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was placed 46 out of 76 provinces, and the lowest ranked Isaan province was Kalasin, ranked 73, with only the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwas and Pattani (in that order) below it. The median score was Loei, ranked 62. Just four years later, in 2010, following at least 300 million baht of teacher training directed by the Ministry of Education, with much of it in the Northeast, the highest placed Isaan province was once again Udon Thani. It placed 43 out of 76 provinces – an improvement of just three spots – and the lowest ranked Isaan province was again Kalasin, which saw no improvement at all and ranked 73. The median score was Maha Sarakham, ranked 61. In plain English, what this means is that rural Isaan students graduating from secondary school tend to have difficulties reading the front page of a Thai newspaper.

Turning to English, a principal gateway language and a prerequisite for entering prestige professional career paths such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and engineering, the situation is, in fact, worse. For example, in 2006, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was ranked 36th out of 76 provinces, and for 2010, the highest ranked Isaan province, once again Udon Thani, placed 35 out of 76 provinces. In other words, Isaan students exist in an even more extreme two-tier education system as regards English, and again, little has changed in five years.

Thus, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, as a region, excluding the Deep South, which has periodically suffered the closure of anything from dozens to thousands of schools due to intense violence against both schools and teachers, median ranking illustrates Isaan has the worst education system as regards teaching both the de facto national language and English. Secondly, this position has not changed significantly in the last five years despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of baht on teacher training.

Generally speaking, three potential reasons for this phenomenon have appeared in Thailand’s newspapers: 1) Isaan (mainly Lao) people are stupid (though to their credit, most newspapers merely report but do not take this stance); Isaan children suffer from malnutrition, generally acknowledged to be 10% in children under five according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in a 2003 report; and Isaan children suffer from an apparently ‘broken’ education system, perhaps due to a lack of resources or poorly trained teachers.

Addressing the issue of intelligence, a Nation article in July 2011 noted, “By region, students in the Northeast had the lowest average [IQ] scores, with 95.99…Students in Bangkok averaged 104.5.” One danger would be to correlate this low intelligence with poor academic performance and leave it at that. Indeed, this was the mistake of the British Establishment as regards ‘lower races’: the British Establishment in India was out-witted by a relatively small coterie of London-trained Indian lawyers into giving up India at least a generation until they were prepared to do so. In the United States, one self-educated African-American versed in Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thoreau sought and gained equality for all races a little later. To sum up, no group of people has ever been proven intrinsically more stupid than another, and so there is no reason to believe that Isaan children are stupid because of their ethnicity.

Turning to the basic issue of nutrition, malnutrition has been found to result in low IQ as well as child deaths. According to the 2009 UNDP Thailand country report, “The four provinces classified as most vulnerable with ‘significantly negative main food insecurity and nutrition outcomes’ are all in the outer Northeast (Yasothon, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom). The next most vulnerable category includes the rest of the Northeast… In short, nutritional deficiency is a regional problem.” Another factor is large family size (5.7 vs. 4.0 national Thai average), which is a risk factor for malnutrition. Particularly in Northeastern Thailand, several growth-limiting micronutrients and low intakes of energy have been reported in children. Deficits in these micronutrients have been linked to “reduced linear growth, as well as impaired immune competence, cognition and school performance.” In other words, despite Thailand’s new status as a newly industrialized country, the poorest of the poor are having children who are either cognitively stunted (a technical term) due to their lack of a decent nutritional intake, or who die due to mild to moderate malnutrition and its accompanying baggage of infectious diseases.

A lack of “resources”, as noted by newspapers such as The Nation, whether trained human resources or equipment such as textbooks or computers, has been another principal reason for poor academic results in Isaan, and The Nation ascribes the poor performance on IQ tests to “not enough decent schools, libraries, teachers and education funding, which children in Bangkok have easy access to.” In the English as a Foreign Language setting, a lack of trained human resources and equipment has long been lamented by respected authors such as Joseph A. Foley[i]. One major problem was the lack of a regional university with specialist educational majors until the 1960’s, when Khon Kaen University (KKU) formally came into being (in 1962), evolving from the University of Northeast Thailand. At that time, teachers in Isaan were trained in a general curriculum in teachers’ colleges such as in Maha Sarakham, and they served as form teachers at both primary and secondary levels. However, KKU only began offering a specialist BA in Secondary Education in 1969, and its first Master’s degree only came in 1982.

These dates are only a decade behind the development of the Bangkok universities (with Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Education arriving in 1957), but the high number of elite public universities in Bangkok amplifies this difference. Khon Kaen University currently has an entire student body of approximately 34,000 and as the regional university is responsible, together with three smaller universities and around 19 public polytechnics-turned university, for a catchment area of 19 million people. A similar catchment area of 21 million people for Greater Bangkok and its surrounding provinces is represented by a student body of at least 100,000 when counting just the three elite public institutions of Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University and Mahidol University. In addition, dozens of private universities are also available in the Greater Bangkok area, while recent moves to delist E-sarn University in Khon Kaen due to a diploma-buying scam have thrown a severe light on the quality of education in the Northeast. A further illustration that cuts to the heart of the matter – the quality of education at Khon Kaen University – is that in 2004, I found first year Education majors at the Faculty of Education, i.e., future teachers, unable to decline basic irregular English verbs.[ii]

Having dealt (admittedly quite summarily) with the issue of resource availability in the education system, we turn to the aptly named elephant in the room – the students’ first language. Some 50% of ethnic minority Thai students are having to learn Thai as the gateway language for education before they can even get onto English as the gateway language for professional vocations. In national surveys, “Minority children with poor Standard Thai skills had 50% lower learning results than Thai speaking students in all main subjects”, and in this context, almost every one of the 19 million inhabitants of Isaan is from a minority. Furthermore, very little is being done about this state of affairs, despite UNESCO adopting the position since 1953 that the mother tongue must be the first language of education – and in Isaan, this means Lao (15,000,000 speakers), Khmer (1,400,000 speakers), and Phu Thai (470,000 speakers), and these three are just mentions of languages with populations of around 500,000 or above.

This is not to say that nothing is being done about the elephant in question – a project in the Deep South is introducing Pattani Malay (Yawi) in a dozen pilot schools. Isaan, together with Lao, is being taught in around 17 schools in Khon Kaen province, and for some time Chiang Mai University has been sporting multilingual Thai-English-Northern Thai (Kammuang) signs. However, these are tiny, broadly inconsequential efforts, despite Thailand having formally adopted a stance welcoming plurality or pahulak in its 1997 and 2007 constitutions. Regional languages must be given a place in formal education – and that means being taught in parallel with Thai in a way approved by the Ministry of Education. Musings on this issue have been heard coming from the highly respected Royal Institute, which has in theory endorsed a National Language Policy which supports a multilingualism that includes the regional and local languages. Furthermore, former Prime Minister Abhisit himself urged more support for local languages in schools in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals. And for that to happen, Thai must be endorsed as the national language in an amendment to the Thai constitution in order to assuage the quite natural Thai fear of regional separatism. The regional and local languages of Thailand must also be given a place, however, in such an amendment, in a way that sets standards, allocates roles and endorses their position in formal education.

 John Draper has been a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages at Khon Kaen University for nearly ten years. He holds a BA in Modern History from Oxford University and two MAs in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He conducts research and is published in the areas of language policy and planning, multilingualism and sociolinguistics. He is also a researcher with the Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, based at Khon Kaen University.

[i]    Foley, J. (2005). English in Thailand. RELC Journal, 36(2), 223-34.

[ii]   Draper, J. (2004, January). Acquisition of English “if” conditionals at Khon Kaen University: A diagnostic test of proficiency of 2003-2004 first year students. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Thai TESOL Conference Prioritising Teacher Development, Khon Kaen, Thailand.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. December 12, 2011

    an insightful article.
    Parents who have little thai are also part of what hold students back


  2. December 12, 2011

    Toss into the mix the antiquated style of rote learning, video games, and low paying-college required jobs, and it is no wonder that the students are so far behind. Any student can learn more on the Internet in a couple of months than can be learned in school in years.

  3. Teekayu Jorns permalink
    December 15, 2011

    What about the area that is heavily populated by Phu Thais or Khmers ? Should the sign be trilingual? and which Lao dialect should be taught in school in the Lao speaking area; the Lao in LaoPDR or the local Lao dialects?

    • John Draper permalink
      December 17, 2011

      In an area heavily populated by Phu Thais or Khmers, yes, I would have multilingual signs – 4 languages would be needed here. This is roughly similar to Swizerland, which uses French, German, Italian and then English (or other languages) for tourists. I would use the local Isan dialect in Prathom at least, for common-sense purposes and to respect the Thai language. In Matthayom, students could choose to specialise in Lao PDR Lao as a minor, or in Isan (poetry, fiction, songforms), or in both. For Phu Thai and Khmer communities, they would learn the mother tongue, together with Thai. Isan literacy (local Lao literacy) would probably be optional, but it could make sense for them to study Isan as a spoken language and for listening at least in Prathom as it is a lingua franca in their areas.

      • Teekayu Jorns permalink
        December 22, 2011

        Thank you for the answer. I wholeheartedly support this idea but who will support this expensive program of preserving endangered languages such as some local Lao dialects, Phu Thai or high Khmer. Maybe we should start in the street signs in big towns and cities first? As being Isan people myself, I always oppose the idea of “Isan” being used as language and culture. The language, ethnicity and culture should strictly be called “Lao”. Isan only means “Northeast” (of Bangkok) it doesn’t mean anything to me.

        • John Draper permalink
          December 22, 2011

          I totally agree that signage is important. You may be interested to know that the Faculty sign of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Khon Kaen University, as well as the sign of the Student Union at the Faculty and various canteen signs there, are now in Thai, Isan and English, with Thai above and larger than the other languages out of respect for the de facto national language. . Three separate surveys have indicated an approval rate of around 86% for such multilingual signage. Let’s see what 2012 brings.

      • September 15, 2015

        Dear Ajan John,
        I have followed your articles and the most recently about the importance of Mother Tongue that it contributes to boosting literacy. I would like to get in touched with you for work and collaboration purposes, as I think we share similar concerns/work and interest regarding local cultures. I also would like your advice on our MTBMLE project which needs external evaluation after 9 years development cooperation to support this pilot project. I work with Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation and we support improving access to quality and relevant education for Indigenous Children and Youth, and we have been supporting access to Mother Tongue Based Bilingual/Multilingual Education— pilot projects covering Mon, Pgow Karen and Hmong langauge groups. We partner with Foundation for Applied Linguistics. We have realized that this needs mobilization and advocacy not only with government but also with communities and the public at large to realize the importance role of mother tongue. See our recent Alternative report to the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Hope to hear from you. Best regards, Suraporn Suriyamonton

  4. ShinyMan permalink
    December 31, 2011

    Certainly idealistic, but who will turn the ideal into reality, when the only party that works for the poor wants to only indulge them in a sea of illusion forever and never wants to educate them. At the same time, the parties that MIGHT be interested in helping them would not do so because their effort would slip through unappreciated, or worse, unnoticed.

    And I would argue that the article’s proposed solution doesn’t solve the ultimate problem. From the introduction, the presented problem focused the poor performance of Isaan students in Thai and English, with a very small touch on the other subjects. This problem will not be solved by giving out mandatory education in the students’mother tongues. Studying in mother tongues certainly would not help there Thai and English score, and would help the scores of other subjects only if those dialects are used all the way from their school study to the O-Net examination.

    Unless the country is overhauled in a way that local dialects could be the gateway to success, mastery in such dialects and studying in such dialects don’t really get the students anywhere. Thai and English will be the way to go for the foreseeable future and that’s what the whole system should point to.

  5. John Draper permalink
    January 15, 2012

    Dear Shiny Man,

    You are correct in stating that the mother tongue would have to be integrated in the whole education system, at least for grades 1-6. This is and has been the position of UNESCO since 1953 and is why the Thai government is sponsoring such a project in the Depp South with 11-12 schools. Mandatory learning in the mother tongue instills what are called ‘metalinguistic skills’, e.g., the ability to understand the organization of a paragraph, or the ability to anticipate the structure of a paragraph and then read it. Such metalinguistic skills have been found to be transferable to other languages. Thus, it has been statistically proven (and if you want the references, please ask), that education in the mother tongue does indeed increase scores in second and subsequent languages. Furthermore, with the ASEAN 2015 program mandating the acquisition of another language, students who had learned Isan literacy would very easily be able to acquire Lao literacy and would score good grades in this subject. This would help with transboundary issues, such as trade and investment.

    As for the practicality, a major attempt to raise the profile of Isan and integrate it into the school system has been provided with funding for 2012-2016 and will be active in four KK municipalities. We will have to see whether that will succeed and spread or not.

  6. January 18, 2012

    Sorry again… the link to the first should be ‘Malay-Muslim Insurgency – Lessons Learnt’.

    It would be nice if Bozos like myself could preview our postings :)

  7. Dr. Lance Burger permalink
    February 23, 2015

    Brilliant John. I wish we could talk or even hold a conference. I am a professor from Fresno State who teaches mathematics and trains pre-service mathematics teachers in usa. My wife is from Nonbualamphu. I am on sabbatical leave for the purpose of observing the teaching of mathematics in high schools. I have been granted a rare opportunity to go everyday to nongbua pittyacharn high school. I won’t get to judgmental, as I am just trying to remain objective and only observe, but I am picking up some alarming patterns of behavior that are not conducive to conceptual understanding of mathematics, or problem solving ability.

    Let me say this, as USA students are also not the best and brightest, according to TIMMS. Thai schools do not have the management issues USA does, and for the most part all of the students are well-behaved and at least superficially engaged in a lesson. I think what I am discovering are more the subtleties of being engaged due to respect for the teacher verses being engaged by the actual material.

    And the notebooks …

    it is not uncommon to see students spend 45 minutes of an hour class time copying problems down in their notebooks, as opposed to actually attempting and doing problem solving, hopefully in groups, so that they can get better at it. If given a problem, the entire class usually does a constant flipping back and forth in their notebooks to try and adapt a shown problem to the given one.

    I have decided, in education research, to write very anecdotal articles, as I think there are so many confounding variables in social research, it renders p-values as useless.

    I would be happy to co-author an article with you. I will write an article, though, about the serious issues with lack of problem solving skill development, based on my observations.

    I have seen many classes by many teachers, and don’t really need to do a controlled experiment to get the gist of what is going on. Also, i have attempted to explain concepts to students, but it doesn’t go over very well. They do not seem to care at all about taking notes about a conceptual proof a mathematical concept, but just want to know what kind of problem they might need to solve to get through the class. In a certain sense culturally, they are exceptionally practical.

    my email is :

    I would gladly include you as an author for a paper to a respected math. ed. journal., if you could read my final article and critique it, when it’s done in a few months.



  8. John Draper permalink
    December 22, 2011

    1) Thai phonetics cannot accurately reproduce the Isan language and psychologically would ‘feel’ Thai.
    2) Present-day Lao should be used for the Lao of Lao PDR, not for the version spoken in Isan, or there would be confusion.
    3) Tua Tham is difficult to learn.

    So, personally, I prefer Tai Noi, which is quite easy to learn, does not use tone markers, and is similar to modern Lao, so would have the benefit of enabling children who learned it to also get a start in learning another ASEAN language (modern Lao).

  9. Teekayu Jorns permalink
    December 23, 2011

    Absolutely agree. I also prefer Tai Noi script or Tua Lao (ตัวลาว) as it is locally called in Isan. It would be nice to see Khon Kaen University sign at the main entrance in Tua Lao script, just like the one in front of Chiang Mai University with Tua Tham. A lot of our cultural history were recorded in both scripts, it would be nice for the next generation to be able to read our past.

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