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2 June 2013
Read in Minutes


Blind men and the elephant: Trying to pick the best parts of an education system

Wanwisa Suebnusorn

          Labour Development Section, TDRI

In the realm of globalisation, education is viewed as an instrument for national competitiveness.

Many countries are subsequently examining their education systems enthusiastically to learn how their performances rank in relation to their peers. Historically, this phenomenon originated as “International and comparative education” when the US became aware the Soviet Union could successfully launch Sputnik 1, the first-ever artificial satellite, into Earth’s orbit in 1957.

Since then, “international and comparative education” has been employed as a means to learn sound practices from other education systems. Innovative models of the top-performing systems are considered as models for others, but with a critical caution against a “one size fits all policy” and “comparing apples and oranges”.

Recently, the American system has been proposed again as a role model for Thailand during the second decade of education reform. Under the new basic education curriculum suggested by this model, core subjects should be highly loaded at the primary education level but will be less emphasised in secondary schools. Current evaluation processes also need to be more standardised. This seems to be a good model. However, is it the best? Would it be practical in Thai society? Even though the United States is generally considered to exercise global hegemony, it is ambiguous whether the US’ education system is the best in the world.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2011/2012, quality of primary education in Finland is ranked the first in the world (out of 142 countries/ economies), followed by Belgium, Singapore and Switzerland. Primary education in the US is ranked 37th, lower than our neighbouring countries – Singapore (3rd) and Malaysia (21st). As to quality of the education system, the US is positioned at 26th, underperforming many European and Asian countries. Interestingly, the two advanced Asean countries, Singapore and Malaysia, are ranked better than the US, at 2nd and 14th respectively.

With reference to learning achievements, the PISA test consistently revealed uncompetitive performances by American students. In PISA 2000, which focused on reading competency performance by learners in the US, stood at 15th (out of 43 countries) with a mean score of 504, just a little bit above the OECD’s mean score of 500. In this first-ever PISA test, Finland was the winner, followed by Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, South Korea and the United Kingdom (OECD, 2004).

Mean performance on the mathematics scale by American students, emphasised in PISA 2003, was significantly below the OECD average – at 27th (out of 39 participating countries). Again, the best performer was Finland while second and third places were filled by South Korea and the Netherlands. (OECD, 2004).

How about science performance – the key to PISA 2006? American students were again not able to beat up to 28 countries. In other words, the US’ score was ranked 29th (out of 57 countries) or statistically significantly below the OECD average. As before, Finland took first place, followed by Hong Kong SAR, Canada, and Chinese Taipei (OECD, 2007).

However, the latest PISA 2009 has implied a promising outcome for the No Child Left Behind Legislation (NCLB) introduced at the beginning of the new millennium. After almost a decade under NCLB, the rank of American students had slightly improved. Reading scale was placed 17th (out of 65 countries) with a mean score of 500, not statistically significantly different from the OECD average. Compared to the OECD average in 2006, science performance in PISA 2009 was also not statistically different from the OECD average. The mathematics score, however, remained significantly below the OECD average (OECD, 2010).

“Waiting for Superman”, a 2010 documentary film from director Davis Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott, critically points out failures in the American public education system (See Despite both praise and negative criticism from commentators, reformers, and educators, the film impressively received several accolades such as (i) Sundance Audience Award, U.S. Documentary; (ii) National Board of Review, Best Documentary; (iii) Producers Guild Award Nominee; (iv) Special Award, American Film Institute; and (v) Critics Choice Award, Best Documentary Feature. It is therefore obvious many Americans currently have little faith in their educational system.

For many Thai educators, why is the US’ educational system still perceived as the best model? Were they educated in the US and cannot consider other education systems? Did they go to the US for technical visits and don’t wish to see what is going on in other countries? Is the American education system really the best, or do we have too little insight into others?

Supposing that “a good education system” is the whole body of an elephant, it is time to look at the elephant more closely before selecting the best part of it. Otherwise, picking and choosing just the best will be equated to the story of the blind men and an elephant!

First published: The Nation Website on July 16, 2012