#ThailandTaughtMe - The 5 Ed Leadership Lessons I Learned Visiting Thailand

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As a first year doctoral student in education leadership (Ed.L.D.) at Harvard Graduate School of Education, our program requires us to travel internationally during January Term (J-Term) to learn from another education system. J-term is a three week period of time between winter and spring semester where students can take for credit and noncredit learning experiences. I have returned from a trip to Thailand and it was AH-mazing to say the least! Why did I chose to visit Thailand for J-Term? Honestly, I wanted my travels to not just be professionally fulfilling but also personally. I first considered if I could go anywhere in the world where would I go? My immediate answer was Africa, but for my first trip to Africa I AIN’T WORKIN’! Haha! So I kept Africa on my list for a future personal trip. I would be traveling in January and I preferred to twirl internationally in a sundress rather than a parka. That ruled out most of the world except Asia. Once I zoomed in on Asia it felt like the universe was speaking Thailand to me. I would scroll social media and see posts from Bangkok. I felt like I walked past the same Thai restaurant in Harvard Square weekly. Pictures of Phuket always seemed to make it’s way to my phone. I did a little research on the Thai education system and my research sealed the deal.

Through my research I learned that Thailand recently passed the Equitable Education Act which established the country’s Equitable Education Fund (EEF). EEF began with 1 Billion Baht (the currency in Thailand) of start-up funding and the core mission of reducing educational inequity in Thailand. Among its founding objectives are: 
1. To provide financial help to underprivileged children and youth
2. To help the underprivileged acquire vocational skills for their livelihood
3. To conduct research for teacher and learner development
4. To conduct research in support of human-resource development.

It was love at first site of an equity policy. I knew I had to get to Thailand! I applied for a grant through Harvard’s Asia Center and was blessed to secure additional funding to make this trip a reality. While in Thailand, I visited a number of departments in the Ministry of Education, met with the EEF, visited a Thai K-12 school, and met the Dean of the College of Learning Sciences and Education at a local university. I learned SO MUCH! Here are the five biggest lessons about education leadership that Thailand taught me……

Lesson #1 - System-Level Strategic Planning Means Planning on a Million

I had the opportunity to meet with the Office of the Education Council (OEC) within the Thai Ministry of Education. OEC takes national education policy and translates into practice. The Thai government sets the vision for what must be true of education in the country and the OEC creates the roadmap. The OEC walked us through their 20-year National Education Plan. Most strategic plans that I have seen in America are planned out for 5, maybe 10 years. Thailand is planning 20 years out!!! Creating a 20-year plan acknowledges that sustainable and meaningful change takes time. The OEC shared their goals and success factors aligned to the country’s National Education Plan. I was blown away by the level of detailed strategic planning happening at a system level! Because of this intentionality all departments within the Ministry of Education have a clear direction and don’t have to guess their priorities. The alignment at a system-level was exemplar!

Side note: One of my favorite success factors the OEC identified was “Shifting the paradigm of education management, considering that education can be managed by all sectors of society and not just by government institutions”. (#3 under “Success Factors” in the 2nd picture on the right)

Goals and Indicators of Thailand’s 20 year National Education Plan.

Goals and Indicators of Thailand’s 20 year National Education Plan.

Actions and success factors identified by OEC to achieve Thailand’s National Education Plan.

Actions and success factors identified by OEC to achieve Thailand’s National Education Plan.

Lesson #2 - Walking the Equity Walk MUST Include Policy

Equity is a hot (and often misunderstood) word in education right now. Most want equity but few have the courage to make it happen. Equity and equality are both important, and they are not the same. Equality says we all get the same thing, regardless of who we are, our needs, and our backgrounds. Equity says we all get what we need to reach the same goal, therefore some of us might get more because our need is greater. A student growing up low-income in a rural area does not have the same needs as a wealthy student in an urban area. To give both students with different needs the same resources to meet the same expectations is not fair. Thailand has recognized the value of equity hence the passing of the Equitable Education Act. 184 out of 188 Thai legislators voted in favor of the act! Y’all…..when is the last time you recall almost 98% of any branch of government in America voting in unison to approve an equity policy?!?!? #Illwait

By the Thai government passing this legislation, the government is MANDATING equity. They are mandating underprivileged students get more resources. When policy says it, you have to do it…..there is no opting out, you can’t make excuses. When policy mandates equity, it presents a whole ‘nother level of necessary accountability to ensure underprivileged students get what they need. And most importantly, Thailand has recognized that being equitable makes the community better.


Lesson #3 - Teacher Coupons on Deck

The Thai government provides every credentialed teacher with 10,000 Baht (about $300 USD) every year to spend towards professional development. The Teacher’s Council of Thailand, which sets the standard for teacher excellence, manages the relationships with providers and curates a list of approved training opportunities for teachers to select from. This type of government spending places a national value on the teaching profession. It also ensures that all teachers (regardless of subject, school, experience, etc.) have the resources to continue to develop in their practice. A lesson America can definitely learn for sure!

Lesson #4 - Show Me The Community Accountability!

The Equitable Education Act requires an independent 25 member committee to be set up and advise Thai legislators on education reform and provide accountability. The committee is called Independent Committee for Education Reform (ICER). ICER is made up of a variety of community leaders in and outside of education. The diversity in sectors amongst the committee ensures diversity of thought and strengths. To serve on the ICER, one must NOT have any political ties. It is a required that committee members have not held a public office within the past five years. The rationale shared was that this ensures that political motives do not interfere with the committee’s work. Each member serves a two-year term. Any educational policy that is passed within Thailand is first reviewed by ICER. ICER also drafts education policy. This type of structure provides accountability, gives the community transparency, and embeds community input into the country’s education policy.

The Equitable Education Act also set up the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) which consisted in 1 Billion Baht of start-up funding to serve the needs of underprivileged students. When I met with the Assistant Manager of the Equitable Education Fund, I asked “How did you determine your spending strategy?”. He shared that they first met with underprivileged families and the educators who serve them. He stated, “We always have to remind ourselves that we know less than them (families and educators). We just have more money and a political platform. It’s our work to set up the platform, bring the social enterprise and make it happen.” He stated that the educators identified school needs as a spending priority and the families identified personal needs as a spending priority. Consequently, a portion of EEF’s year 1 funding goes directly to schools serving underprivileged students to 1.) fund school meals or 2.) create equitable learning activities, and a portion goes directly to underprivileged families to fund personal needs with the condition that students maintain school attendance at 80% or above.

Lesson #5 - Do It For the Culture

The biggest difference I observed between Thailand’s education system and education in America is the intentional preservation of Thai culture. I saw this play out in many ways. I was able to visit a Thai school and the school offered classes such as Thai dance, Thai instrumental music, and ribbon art. The students had access to some western inspired learning experiences but it was not held as superior or “the right way”. The principal shared that it was important for students to know their community and the Thai culture they come from.

In meeting with the Teacher’s Council of Thailand, they shared with us the Southeast Asia Teacher Competency Framework Thailand developed with neighboring countries. The framework defines the qualities of a great teacher. Partnering with families, leveraging community funds of knowledge, and valuing the backgrounds of students is embedded in the framework. One of the indicators included “Designing learning activities using community conditions, local wisdom, traditions and knowledge”. You can review the framework here!

I visited the College of Learning Sciences and Education at Thammasat University which provides bachelor and master degrees. Students attending the university on scholarship are required to work with local farmers in the rice paddy fields as conditions of their school funding. What a beautiful way to “repay” your community for the gift of education!

Overall Thailand was incredible. I made a quick stop in India and Dubai too! I had an experience that I will never forget. To view more highlights from my travels head over to my Instagram @ejordanthomas.

A Thai dance class we observed during our school visit.

A Thai dance class we observed during our school visit.

The school served us delicious green curry and tom yum for lunch!

The school served us delicious green curry and tom yum for lunch!


Erica Jordan-Thomas