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PISA Thailand Regional Breakdown Shows Inequalities between Bangkok and Upper North with the Rest of Thailand

2014 February 21
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

As reported previously in The Isaan Record, there are clear inequalities in Thai students’ academic achievement, and these are easily seen in official Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) Results by province. These results have been seen to broadly follow ethnolinguistic and class groupings, with Bangkok, home to wealthier ethnic Central Thais, noticeably outperforming other areas and ethnicities. This was visible in the fact that 15-16-year old Central Bangkok students achieved a mean score of 50.6/100% in the Thai language in 2010, compared to a mean of 39.0/100% for the median northeastern province, Mahasarakham – a difference of nearly 12%.

In an article in The Nation on December 5th, 2013, it was revealed that Thai students’ results in the Organization for Economically Developed Countries’ Programme for International Student Tests (PISA) had improved from 2009-2012. This test also looks at the achievement of Thai 15 year olds, with Thailand being one of 65 countries and economies involved.

The 2009 results were 421 in reading, 425 in science, and 419 in mathematics. The recently released 2012 results were 441 in reading, 444 in science, and 427 in mathematics. However, Dr. Sunee Klainin, the manager of the PISA Thailand Project, attributed the higher scores to the performance of demonstration schools and the Princess Chulabhorn’s College schools. She also pointed out that half of Thai students tested did not achieve a Band 3 or higher in mathematics, while around a third did not achieve a Band 3 in science or reading.

What do these scores mean? The definitions of the PISA levels for reading and mathematics are available here. There are six bands for mathematics. Students testing in Band 3 or lower – half of Thai students aged 15 – means they have little problem-solving ability in mathematics.

Likewise, in reading, a third of Thai students aged 15 are not able to relate a text to everyday knowledge and find and link multiple parts of a text.

What about the regional breakdown for Thailand? To date, this has not been included in the PISA 2012 regional data sheet (available here), which lists regional breakdowns for 14 of the PISA countries and economies. In fact, the regional breakdown for Thailand has never been publicly reported in the media. However, a regional breakdown was reported in a technical document published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the ASEAN Secretariat in late 2013.[i] (Also available from a web link on the OECD Centre for Development website, here).


Figure: PISA scores in Thailand, by subject and region
















Upper North






Lower North






Upper Northeast






Lower Northeast












National Average





Source: The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST).

Note: PISA scale was set such that approximately two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. Gaps of 72, 62 and 75 points in reading, mathematics, and science scores, respectively, are equivalent to one proficiency level.


In math, the average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North, where Chiang Mai has been an academic powerhouse for some time. The Upper Northeast fares slightly better than the Lower Northeast likely because it includes the major urban centers of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Interestingly, the average Central region student also scores very low compared to the average Bangkok student, and this may be because of differences in the quality of the schools. One possible explanation for the much lower average score for a student in the South is because it includes the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani.

In science, there is a similar pattern. The average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North and the Upper Northeast, with the Upper Northeast still well behind Bangkok.

Can we correlate the statistics with ethnic identity? It certainly looks like the scores of the Northeast Thailand students can be correlated with the Thai Lao ethnolinguistic identity. In the Lower Northeast, where there are a million ethnic Khmers, the scores are lower, but without a detailed understanding of which provinces are included, it is difficult to say. What is interesting is that the average student from the Central Thai ethnolinguistic identity also scores low outside Bangkok.

One of the standard explanations for these differing scores is poverty. Poverty is certainly a factor in tertiary enrollment in Thailand.[ii] While poverty is also a factor in PISA achievement, the 2012 PISA figures note that the socio-economic background (class) of Thai students has an impact on both performance and the performance gap that is actually better than the OECD averages. Another issue then may be the inequality of access to resources, especially in more rural areas populated by ethnic minorities.

In response to the poor Thai PISA 2012 results, Professor Gerald Fry made five recommendations in an article in The Nation of December 23, 2013. He suggests additional factors in the low scores may be a lack of equity in resource allocation, an emphasis on quantity (buildings and personnel) rather than the quality of people, the lack of a strong reading culture, and a lack of expenditure on Research and Development. He also notes there is the possibility that students may be scoring low because their first language is not Thai. In other words, they may simply not understand the written instructions or how to write the short analyses in Thai required by the PISA tests.

Overall, the Thailand regional breakdown and the country PISA scores make for tragic results. Thailand is a whole PISA level behind the OECD averages of 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading and 501 for science. As also pointed out by Professor Fry in his article, it is also behind Vietnam, a newcomer to the PISA tests and a developing country compared to Thailand’s status as a newly industrialized country.

The gap in PISA levels is the difference between 15-year-old Thai children being able to solve problems or not. And, for the first time we can see from the PISA statistics themselves where those differences are geographically. They are the same kind of differences that can be seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey results from 2011 for Thai Primary 4 and Thai Secondary 2 students’ scores, as reported in The Nation on December 12, 2012.

There is an urgent need for a public discussion of these regional figures and what they mean for the future of the Thai education system. This public discussion should be constant and sustained until the scores of the children of the Northeast – and those of the other regions stricken by poor results – can equal the scores of the children of Bangkok.


About the Author: John Draper is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP; see and


[i] OECD. (2013). Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India. Available at

[ii] Ibid., p. 207.


In Uphill Battle, Isaan Language Taught in Schools

2014 February 10
by Sally Mairs

KHON KAEN—It has been banned from Thai classrooms for over 100 years, but the local language of the Northeast, referred to as “Thai Lao,” “Isaan,” or often just plain “Lao,” is making a comeback.

Eleven municipal schools in Khon Kaen have started teaching students how to read and write in Thai Lao, thanks to an E.U.-funded project known as The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP). Two years after receiving a 20 million baht grant, ICMRP has achieved some notable successes, but formidable challenges lie ahead.

Starting last May, Khon Kaen municipal schoolteachers began teaching the script of Thai Lao, known as Tai Noi, to students ranging from grades four to eight.

The principal challenge so far has been most teachers’ unfamiliarity with the written form of the language. Although the majority of people in the Northeast still speak Thai Lao, the literacy rate of the language is close to zero, save for a few elders, academics, and monks. There have been no new major works of literature written in Thai Lao for almost a century, and scholars have just embarked on the complicated process of adapting the antiquated alphabet, Tai Noi, to modern times. As a result, many teachers in Khon Kaen’s municipal schools have recently learned the alphabet for the first time themselves.

“I was trained for only a month before I started teaching my own class,” said Udomsarp Lurngubol, a Thai language teacher at Suansanook Municipal School who started teaching Tai Noi to his seventh grade students this semester. Mr. Udom stopped the class in December to make time for boy and girl scout activities, and he has already forgotten how to write the ABC’s in Tai Noi script.

Mr. Udomsarp said he would like to see the program continue, but he doesn’t feel confident in his ability to teach the subject. “It would be better to have someone else come to my class once a week and teach it than to have a rookie like me who is starting at the same level as the students,” said Mr. Udom.

Some teachers, parents, and children in the Khon Kaen community have asked why it’s necessary to learn Tai Noi script in the first place.

For Professor Chob Desuankok, who studies the history of Northeastern Thailand, teaching children how to read and write in Thai Lao is about more than achieving literacy. It’s about reclaiming the cultural roots of the Northeast.

“People in Bangkok who say that their 300,000 votes are better than one million votes in the Northeast are looking down on our intelligence,” said Professor Chob. “But revitalizing Tai Noi will show that we have our own literature, our own teachings, our own ethics. Our voice will be made equal by this.”

Professor Chob added, “We want our kids to understand who they are, and why they have to keep on being Isaan people.”

Others see the promotion of Thai Lao literacy as way to increase academic results across the board. On national education tests, the Northeast is consistently one of the country’s lowest-scoring regions. ICMRP project officer John Draper said this could be because most Northeastern children are taught in a language that is not their mother tongue.

At this early stage of language revitalization, the teachers in Khon Kaen lack basic resources like an instruction manual on how to teach Tai Noi, or a standard-reference dictionary, which is still being created. Progress has been stalled by disagreement among academics over the spelling of many words, and on issues like whether or not tone marks—which weren’t included in ancient manuscripts, but are used in the spoken language—should be included.

Khon Kaen University linguistics Professor Rattana Chantao doesn’t think it is possible to reach agreement on these issues any time soon, so she has decided to forge ahead on developing a 600-word dictionary for primary school students in Khon Kaen. In her opinion, tone markers must be added to make the Tai Noi script accessible to young people.

“Without tone markers, it’s too difficult to learn,” said Professor Rattana. “Revitalization encompasses many concepts, and I think it means adapting to changes in the culture and the language.”

Although the project relies heavily on backing from the E.U.’s External Action Service, which funds 90% of the project, coordination between the Thai municipalities and the foreign agency has proven difficult.

Mr. Saran Paonariang, who works in Khon Kaen Municipality’s Education Department, said that adjusting to the European style of accounting has been a challenge.

Furthermore, E.U. funding has been temporarily delayed because of uncertainty over an internal audit, said ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper. Mr. Draper attributes the delay in funding to cross-cultural differences between the two agencies.

“The municipalities know little about the E.U., and the E.U. has little experience working with Thai municipalities,” said Mr. Draper. “I would describe the slippage in terms of problems with the socio-political interface that results from any principal-agent contractual relationship between two entities who do not really know each other.”

The delay in funding, as well as numerous changes in staff on both the E.U. and the Thai side of the project, have had an even more detrimental impact on other parts of the program financed by the grant. There has been only marginal progress in the municipalities of Chum Phae, Ban Phai, and Phon, which were tasked with designing and installing signs in Thai Lao, manufacturing traditional Isaan-style school uniforms, and curating an online database of Isaan cultural performances.

This bureaucratic stagnancy is not just a consequence of the difficulties posed by international collaboration. A draft of a National Language Policy, which was approved by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, recognizes Thai Lao as a regional language and supports bilingual education for children of ethnic groups, like many in Isaan, whose mother tongue is different from Central Thai. Yet, all progress on implementing the policy has been frozen since the dissolution of the government in December.

Revitalizing Isaan language literacy is proving to be an uphill battle. But for ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper, the biggest achievement has been a small, but essential one: the creation of a community of activists, historians, and linguists in Khon Kaen who are united around the cause of promoting Isaan culture, language, and identity.

The new sign to the entrance of Khon Kaen University, which was erected last month, captures the budding community-mobilization around this goal. It has the name of the University written in Standard Thai, English, and for the first time, Tai Noi.

“Thousands of people are going to ask, ‘what is that language doing there?” Mr. Draper said. “Sooner or later that is going to have a positive effect on promoting Thai Lao identity and the real history of the Northeast.”



European Union Thailand National Debate Tournament Moves from Bangkok to the Northeast

2012 October 30
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN-For the past seven years, the European Union has sponsored the European Union Thailand National Inter-varsity Debate Tournament (EUTH) with the objective of stimulating critical thinking, democratic values, and English proficiency among Thai youth. However, this year marks a first for the event as organizers moved the tournament outside of the capital in an effort to expand beyond the predominantly Bangkok-based participants. For the tournament’s eighth year, Khon Kaen University (KKU) won the bid to host.

University and high school students from schools from across the country came to Khon Kaen this past week to participate in the five-day tournament in which debaters discussed a wide variety of motions including human rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) issues, international relations, media, environmental issues, and the imminent ASEAN economic community.

Winning Team

EU representative and debate judge Ms. Ana Beatriz Martins presents the winning team from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok their award.

Moving the debate to Khon Kaen this year was strategic in fortifying the blossoming debate culture that has been developing in the province over the past few years according to the tournament’s advisor and outgoing chair, Mr. Chainarong Sangsranoi.

The Thai education system has often been criticized for its focus on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. Within this system, Isaan has suffered as the standard of education and resources available in Isaan have fallen behind those of other regions, explained Mr. John Draper, KKU lecturer and one of the judges for the debate. By hosting this tournament, however, Khon Kaen University administrators and teachers are hoping to work against that trend by promoting the skills involved in Western style debate and subsequently nurturing a new generation of open-minded and analytical Thai youth.

Participants and spectators alike who expressed their discontent with the traditional education system commented on how events like these can successfully challenge this system.

Siravich Sincharoenkul, a debater from Mahidol University echoed the critiques of Thai education and went further saying, “[Through debate I’ve learned how to use analytical thinking and to be more responsive. We cannot just learn by rote learning, just memorizing the information. That is not effective because you will not be able to apply it in the future.”

Student participants from outside of Isaan recognize the greater implications that the move out of Bangkok has for the Thai education system, and Isaan in particular.  “I think that it shows that education or the opportunity to learn is not only limited to the center of Thailand,” said Siravich. “I think the rest of the country has more opportunities to access materials and information and education. I think this is a good step for Thailand so that we can continue to develop a young generation of educated people.”

Mika Apichatsakol, Chulalongkorn University debater and second place winner, explained that debate is motivation for her to stay informed about world issues. “It’s an incentive to research. I want to be an informed individual,” she said.  She does recognize, however, that this is not common for the majority of Thai youth, but hopes that through debate, she can help to stimulate critical thinking and self-initiative among others in her generation.

Subsequently, the arguments made throughout the week, from LGBTQ-only schools, to the use of drone warfare, to whether or not Thailand should move its capital, seemingly left a resounding mark on spectators and student volunteers by sparking conversation beyond the walls of the auditorium.

The hope from the organizers and the European Union is that events such as this will help to fortify the regions outside of Bangkok in terms of English proficiency and freedom of expression as debate culture continues to gain momentum. The EU has already helped to create regional workshops that they hope will inspire participation from even more universities from outside Bangkok by providing greater opportunities for practice in preparation for the EUTH National tournament. Nakhon Ratchasima, for example, attended this year’s regional debate in the hopes that next year they will be able to participate in the tournament.

Ms. Ana Beatriz Martins, Head of Political, Press and Information Section of the EU and a judge of the final debate, expressed the influence she hopes the expansion of debate culture will have on Thailand’s next generation, especially given the current political climate. “The intention is to create a next generation and new society that learns to debate constructively. To overcome differences of views in dialogue rather than aggression or violence. I think that is the path Thailand is taking.”

Ms. Martins believes that this year’s move to Khon Kaen is a significant step in building the EU’s relationship with the Northeast through their support of the region’s growing debate culture. “We are very happy KKU has agreed to host. As one of the biggest universities in Thailand, they’re a natural partner for us. We hope to continue this path of encouraging debate culture outside of Bangkok and to link it up with other regions.”

NHRC Exonerates Law Dean, Condemns KKU

2012 March 8
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – On February 28, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released a report condemning Khon Kaen University (KKU) for arbitrarily and unjustly dismissing Kittibodi Yaipool from his position as the Acting Dean of the Law Faculty. Mr. Kittibodi, whose abrupt dismissal came in June 2011, submitted the case to the NHRC because he believed that the Office of the President had abused its power for political reasons.

Last June, Acting Dean Mr. Kittibodi was notified by the Office of the President that he was dismissed from the Law Faculty due to allegations of tampering with official documents. He and many of his staff were then banned from the Law Faculty’s premises and moved to other faculties. In response, Mr. Kittibodi submitted the case to the NHRC for a proper investigation. He denies ever tampering with official documents and believes that he was being punished for his support of human rights issues and social activism.

The NHRC concluded that the University did not have enough justification to transfer Mr. Kittibodi and his personnel. Their report ultimately urges the University to officially exonerate all transferred staff members and to consider reinstating them in their former positions.

“The University should publicly apologize for its mistake, neglect, and the false information given to the University community,” the report reads. “The University should also inform the public that those who were transferred from the faculty are not guilty.”

Khon Kaen University has yet to issue its decision.

Frustrated with the University’s silence, over 100 activists and villagers took to the Office of the President on Tuesday to demand that the president admit his faults. Suwit Khulabwong, the event’s organizer, led the crowd in chants calling for KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai’s resignation.

“The report from the NHRC has come out and we can see clearly that the president abused his power and violated human rights,” he said in an interview. “What is the [president’s] responsibility? The president has to quit.”

Mr. Kittibodi helped found the Law Faculty at KKU in 2006 and thereafter began demonstrating his commitment to community rights in Isaan. He established free courses for Isaan villagers to learn about the legal system and also regularly encouraged students in the faculty to volunteer in remote communities struggling with legal issues. Now, he is on a crusade to prove to the public that the University violated his own rights.

“I have been using my rights, the law, and the constitution as a route to find justice and now it is up to the University to take responsibility once they hear the decisions of neutral organizations that [make decisions] following the constitution,” Mr. Kittibodi said in a phone interview. “I believe that the University should demonstrate their responsibility to be an exemplar for society.”

EU Funds Isaan Language Program

2012 March 2
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – On Thursday, the European External Action Service of the European Union launched its funding for an Isaan language program, The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP), at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU).  The EU pledged nearly half a million euros to a program that codifies Isaan language for its integration into city schools and local signage.

The program will develop an Isaan language curriculum implemented in 17 public schools, record and archive Isaan cultural dance and performance, introduce official city signage in Isaan language, and initiate a weekly ‘Isaan Day’ that encourages government employees to wear traditional Isaan clothing. The mayors of Khon Kaen, Phol, Chumphae, and Ban Phai will collaborate with a coordination team at KKU over four years in the hopes of enhancing the perception of Isaan culture and language.

Khon Kaen’s Governor, Sombat Triwatsuwan, delivered the opening address in which he talked (partly in Isaan language) about the need to preserve Isaan language for future generations and encourage people not to be ashamed of it. “Isaan people are shy to speak their own language,” he said in an interview. “I want them to be aware of its value.”

National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are popularly cast as “maids, laborers, and servants, and this is made obvious through the way they speak, which is often as comic relief.” In studies which test the national perception of Isaan speakers, “consistently, Isaan people come out sounding uneducated, and naïve, however honest and hardworking as well,” he explained.

Mr. Draper (also an Isaan Record contributor) argues that this program should not only enhance the perception of Isaan speakers by publicly embracing the language, but also help close the performance gap between Isaan and Central Thai students. Research shows that people who achieve literacy in their mother-tongue language at an early age are more likely to achieve better scores in school overall.

Teaching Isaan language and culture in schools, however, is still politically sensitive. Central Thai is Thailand’s only officially recognized language and the government has long fought to keep Thais unified under one language and minority dialects out of the classrooms.

Priya Waeohongsa, Programme Officer of the European Union and an attendee of Thursday’s opening ceremony, argues that it is time for change in Thailand’s centralized education system that was initiated a hundred years ago. “One language [was used] as a medium for control – not only for education’s sake, but to control the people by imposing the central language on the schools [in a time of national integration],” she explained. “At that time it might have been the right thing, but now we found this is not the right approach and we need to revitalize local culture.”

Though some may fear that allowing regional languages in schools could disrupt the long sought after “national unity” of Thailand, programs similar to the ICMRP have revealed quite opposite results. The Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization focused on capacity building, has been implementing a similar language program in the Deep South for nearly five decades. “When we did a public perception survey, what the majority of people said very clearly was that they were not on a quest for independence but a quest for common understanding and respect. Our language program puts that into practice,” said Kim McQuay, the organization’s Thailand Representative.

The ICMRP’s Project Officer, Mr. Draper, is confident that this program will maintain the support of government officials like Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan of Khon Kaen by garnering regional interest in mother-tongue education. “Sustainability will come from the top down,” he said. “But the know-how and the knowledge to implement it in a way that people will welcome it will come from this program that was launched today. It will serve as an incubator for larger-scale deployment later.”

Education Reform Finds a Home in Khon Kaen

2012 January 19
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: Lukas Winfield

KHON KAEN – Thirty-some elementary students pick through a mountain of trash, carefully selecting old milk boxes, discarded spools of yarn, broken necklaces and other landfill gems for an art project. They are students from the local Non Chai Municipal Elementary School who have been studying Khon Kaen’s waste system which has led them inevitably to the overflowing mountain of trash known as the Khambon landfill, some 20 kilometers outside of Khon Kaen.  They have come to see firsthand the impact of waste and the consequences of urban consumption.

Non Chai has a slightly unorthodox approach to learning. Rather than reading textbooks or listening to lectures like many of their peers, students here are taken on field trips throughout the year to learn through experience.

Non Chai is one example of a larger move in Khon Kaen towards alternative educational models. In recent years, the city’s Mayor Peerapon Pattabapeeradech has been vocally supportive of this movement, often spearheading reforms himself.

Seven schools have opened “Big Picture” classrooms which are offered as an option to struggling students. These classrooms have the academic freedom to ignore national benchmarks and create their own integrated curricula based off of student interests. Five years ago, the Khon Kaen Education Initiative (KKEI) was founded and it soon began funding and providing resources to provincial teachers experimenting with and developing more student-centered teaching.

“[Alternative] education focuses on teaching students how to learn rather than just handing them information,” explains Chuntinton Huttapanom, a vice-director working at Non Chai.  She arrived at the school in October of 2011 and began pushing for reforms of the existing traditional model in favor of a more alternative model. For her, this is a radically different approach to education in Khon Kaen, where rote education is almost absolute. It is the norm for teachers to be seen as the holders of knowledge in front of whom students are expected to sit quietly and listen unconditionally.

Ms. Chutinton envisions a school that deconstructs the teacher-student hierarchy present in many Thai schools and, instead, prioritizes developing students’ “learning skills” (i.e., critical thinking, problem solving, relationship building and more) over rote memorization and reading and writing drills. She hopes to ensure students’ capacities for self-motivation so that they can continue their own education after they graduate. She points out, “just because you graduate doesn’t mean you have to stop learning new things or new skills.”

Ms. Chutinton cites her old classroom at Nong Waeng Municipal Elementary School in Khon Kaen as an example of a successful alternative education model. When teachers were having a hard time motivating students to attend classes, she decided to change her classroom environment as an experiment. In an attempt to make her teaching more relevant and engaging for her students, she decided she would liven up her math, science and English subjects by integrating trips to local gardens, camps and even the city landfill. The result was a rise in student attendance from an average of 70% to 95% and a class that was eager in their studies.

While the municipality has been supportive of the movement towards alternative education and at times has led it, direction from the municipal government has been inconsistent and, at times, even conflicting.

Schools have received heavy pressure to improve test scores on regional and national tests like the Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET), on which Khon Kaen province placed 47 out of 72 during 2010 for Thai language skills. In response, schools such as Non Chai have stopped teaching during their last period of the day and instead focus only on tutoring for standardized tests. Tutoring has even extended into the weekend with students coming to school on Saturdays.

Sanya Makarin, a high school teacher at Non Chai, complains that the focus on testing has restricted his ability to teach and his students’ ability to learn. “It disturbs the class and it disturbs their learning process,” he says. Mr. Sanya explains that the pressure is not just about standardized testing, but also about following the municipality’s flagship school, Suan Sanook, which focuses on more traditional educational practices.

At Suan Sanook, teachers focus on literacy competence and student obedience. Students are taught through rote learning; teachers lecture, students are expected to listen. This approach has been successful as students here regularly test higher than students from other schools and, often, Suan Sanook’s students rank within the top three places at academic contests.

Its success has made it a model for other schools within the municipality. The school has grown accustomed to hosting visiting teachers who have come to learn how to copy their successful framework.

“Suan Sanook students can read and write and when they compete, they win. The weakness [of this model] is that people have many different learning styles. And not everyone can be the winner, students must learn compassion” points out Ms. Chutinton of Non Chai school. While she acknowledges the strengths of the Suan Sanook model, Ms. Chutinton criticizes it for being too focused on test scores and says it offers little room for student participation.

While the city’s Mayor remains a strong voice in championing educators like Ms. Chutinton and Mr. Sanya, the future direction of Khon Kaen schools remains unclear. With Mayor Peerapon considering retirement, possibly as early as next spring, Ms. Chutinton admits, “I am worried a lot, I don’t believe that the next [mayor] will understand alternative education like [Mr. Peerapon] does.”

Lukas Winfield has worked in the field of education for the past five years. He currently teaches and organizes professional development for teachers in Khon Kaen.

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.

KKU President Absent, NHRC Hears Law Dean’s Case

2011 July 26
by The Isaan Record

Mr. Kittibodi Yaipool (far right) prepares to address the Commission.

BANGKOK – The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) met yesterday to continue its investigation into the abrupt dismissal of Acting Dean Kittibodi Yaipool from Khon Kaen University’s Law Faculty this past June. Following his dismissal, Mr. Kittibodi asked for a hearing from the NHRC on the grounds that he was dismissed without due process.

The NHRC summoned all concerned parties to meet in Bangkok yesterday, but KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai chose not to attend. Instead, he sent a representative to speak on his behalf.

Mr. Kittibodi founded the Law Faculty in 2006 and began serving as the Acting Dean. In only five years, his faculty has gained wide recognition for its contributions to human rights activism throughout Northeast Thailand.

However, while awaiting his overdue evaluation and a promotion to Dean this past June, Mr. Kittibodi received notification of his immediate dismissal. On June 16, the Office of the President accused Mr. Kittibodi and his staff of destroying official documents and barred them from entering the grounds of the faculty.

Mr. Kittibodi insists that no documents were destroyed under his watch and now seeks a fair trial to present his case.

Mr. Surasee Kosolnavin, a former chairman of the NHRC and a current lecturer at KKU’s Faculty of Law, believes that Mr. Kittibodi’s involvement in human rights and civil society movements might have unnerved the more traditional teachers and administrators.

“[Mr. Kittibodi and his staff] encourage students to participate more in learning from real life experience. The old style of teaching was basically to learn through rote memorization, not analysis. Some teachers familiar with the old style of teaching might not understand. That’s what led to this disagreement,” he said in an interview.

But Mr. Surasee believes that Mr. Kittibodi will get his job back. “He has brought a lot of improvement to this faculty… and I believe that he is innocent,” he said. In order for the case to proceed, however, “[The Office of the President] needs to notify Kittibodi about why he was dismissed from his position.”

According to Mr. Kittibodi, yesterday’s representative for President Kittichai could not clearly explain the cause for dismissal. Next Monday, the NHRC will summon President Kittichai a second time so he can present his side of the case himself.

“We have to wait for the explanation from the President, but I am hopeful [to win the case] because the representative who came today couldn’t tell us the grounds for the transfer [from my position],” said Mr. Kittibodi. “This is the main question that we need answered.”

For now, Mr. Kittibodi and the NHRC are waiting patiently.

Villagers Fight for Law Dean’s Rights

2011 June 30
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – One hundred and fifty members of the Isaan People’s Network protested outside Khon Kaen University’s Office of the President yesterday to demand justice for the recently dismissed Acting Dean of the Law Faculty. Just two weeks earlier, Kittibodi Yaipool, who was awaiting his promotion to Dean, found instead that he was banned from the grounds of his faculty with little justification. Yesterday’s protesters fear he was discharged on account of his exceptional commitment to human rights activism.

On behalf of the Isaan People's Network, Mani Boonrod (right) hands Vice President of Finances Dr. Sommai Priprem the villagers' requests.

The villagers, hailing from 19 provinces, came to show support for a professor and administrator who has helped many rural communities navigate legal troubles. Some claimed that they learned how to protect their communities’ land thanks to the timely legal counsel of Mr. Kittibodi and his students. Others were grateful to be attending the Law Faculty’s free bi-monthly course which was established by Mr. Kittibodi to teach villagers how to use the law to preserve their way of life. All came to fight for the rights of a man who has spent many years teaching them how to fight for their own.

The demonstration culminated as leaders of the Isaan People’s Network handed a letter to a representative from the Office of the President. Their letter asked the President to clarify the future direction of the Law Faculty, the justification for Mr. Kittibodi’s removal, and the University’s policy on including local citizens in the management of University affairs. These requests followed a lengthy indictment of the University’s recent actions.

Though Mr. Kittbodi had been the Acting Dean of the Law Faculty since its inception in 2006, it was only in October of 2010 that the selection committee nominated him to begin his term as Dean in June 2011. After June 1 had come and gone and he had not received an official notification of appointment from the President, Mr. Kittibodi drafted a letter asking for an explanation. Twenty-seven University employees signed.

Then, on June 16, the national “Wai Khru” holiday for honoring teachers, Mr. Kittibodi arrived to the Law Faculty to find a series of posters accusing him and six of his staff of destroying official documents. The signed notices from University President Kittichai Triratanasirichai barred all seven employees from re-entering the faculty. In some cases, photocopied pictures of the accused were posted beneath the President’s order.

Villagers march in front of the Office of the President.

Now, Mr. Kittibodi argues that his rights have been compromised. “There was no due process,” he explained in an interview. “The principles of human rights state that you are innocent until proven guilty.” He hopes that the University will allow for a fair and transparent investigation in which he can present his case. He contends no documents went missing while he was in office.

“This is an abuse of power that should not happen in this century,” he said, “and certainly not at the Faculty of Law, of all places. It is a threat to my human rights.”

To strengthen his appeal, Kittibodi presented his case to the National Human Rights Council in Bangkok on June 20. And, on June 24, he filed an official police report for wrongful dismissal.

But Mr. Kittibodi has little trust in the prospect of a fair investigation. Much like the villagers, he also believes he has been punished for his involvement with human rights cases, which he explained Thai society often views as attacks on governmental power. He claims that many coworkers had quietly warned him that human rights was a sensitive issue and he should not get involved. Suddenly, their whispers seem all the more prescient.

Despite the fear that social activism cost Mr. Kittibodi his job, the University continues to insist otherwise. After KKU’s Vice President of Finance Dr. Sommai Priprem emerged from the President’s office to receive the villagers’ letter, he announced, “I still confirm this is a University for the public, for the poor, and for the people.” He evaded questions regarding Mr. Kittibodi’s abrupt ban from the faculty and insisted the University had acted according to University policy.

Mani Boonrod, who handed the villagers’ requests to Dr. Sommai, summed up her cause before she traveled home to Udon Thani. “We believe Kittibodi was fired unfairly,” she said. “We handed over this letter to see that the University acts justly.”

Where Have All the Students Gone?

2011 June 17
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Khon Kaen University’s lone May 19 Red Shirt demonstration was something exceptional. Though there were the well-known calls for an end to double standards, the requisite declarations of love to capital-D Democracy, and one young man sporting the macabre face-paint of a corpse, the student rally could not have been more unconventional. In the heart of one of the largest and reddest provinces in the country, these students were missing one thing the Red Shirt movement almost never lacks: numbers. At a school of 24,000 undergraduates, 14 showed up.

“This has to do with Thai society,” student leader Patiwat Saraiyaem, 20, said of his pro-democracy group’s small turnout. “Society doesn’t really teach young people to do good for the country…. The education system doesn’t teach young people to be aware of the people around them.”

May 19 marked the one-year anniversary of the bloody military crackdown on Red Shirts who had stormed the streets of Bangkok to demand a fair election.

Granted, May 19 comes late in the University’s summer holidays and many students had been home for several weeks by the time the group Sumkiawdao congregated in front of KKU’s student center. Still, even by its members’ own estimates, the group was operating near full strength. On a good day, Mr. Patiwat told reporters, Sumkiawdao would not see more than 20 students in attendance.

This, KKU’s Associate Professor of Sociology Buapun Promphakping says, is in marked contrast to student involvement in the Black May protests of 1992. Almost everyday for a month, Dr. Buapun led student activists on the six-kilometer motorbike ride to downtown Khon Kaen to protest Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon’s appointment to the Prime Ministership. Back then, Dr. Buapun says, more than 20 percent of the student body was politically active. Now, he estimates, the number is less than half that.

And what’s to blame for this decline? “It’s consumerism,” said Dr. Buapun. “Education in Thailand is for promoting people’s status so they can make more money. And if you ask students what their priority is, they’ll say it’s money.” This consumerism, Dr. Buapun went on to explain, is the direct result of the last twenty years of Thailand’s explosive economic development and rapid modernization.

The rise of consumerism is a common explanation for student disengagement on university campuses, but former KKU Student Union President (and one-time Red Shirt arrestee) Mr. Yanyong Piwphong offered another, more insidious interpretation. “There are some people that you might think are red, but most people do not want to show themselves as red.” According to Mr. Yanyong, there is significant institutional and social pressure against overt political expression.

Though discussions of Thai politics in KKU’s English classrooms have sometimes inspired shouts of “I hate Thaksin,” or its equivalent, an antiestablishment remark is almost never heard. According to a KKU English teacher who prefers to remain anonymous, only one of this teacher’s hundreds of students has ever betrayed Red Shirt sympathies. In hushed tones, a first-year medical student confided that though he would like to publicly express his left-wing beliefs, he fears the academic repercussions it may have.

Even Sumkiawdao’s membership was less than fully confident in publicizing their associations. At their May 19 demonstration only eight of its members were wearing red and several refused to give their names when interviewed.

In recent days, student activism has been thrust into the spotlight after an anti-hazing group at Mahasarakham University sparked controversy when its video of a June 5 hazing protest went viral. In response, MSU President Supachai Samappito told ASTV Manager that the anti-hazing protesters were “too knowledgeable,” and that “they [had] been studying human rights too much….”

The Isaan Student Union and the Thai Student Union, however, came to the protesters’ defense in an open letter calling for an end to the SOTUS system (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit) of freshman indoctrination. The groups claim that the system infringes on the rights and freedoms of Thailand’s freshmen.

The MSU kerfuffle, though not explicitly about student political demonstrations, does provide some insight into University administrators’ conception of student expression on Thai campuses. In what very well may have been the MSU president’s most revealing remark, Mr. Surachai said “If students complain about [the hazing], Thailand will be in a terrible way.”

If the simple act of expressing dissent is enough to endanger the very foundation of the entire country, then it’s little wonder students retreat into easy consumerism and intimidated silence.