This post is drawn from a conversation with Dr. Phillip Hallinger, the Joseph Lau Chair Professor and director of the Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He spoke with us about some of the issues surrounding the last two decades of education reform in East Asia, which he addresses in his most recent article, “Synthesis of findings from 15 years of educational reform in Thailand: lessons on leading educational change in East Asia,” published in the International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice.
East Asian countries have been actively pursuing education reform over the past two decades. Largely, goals of such reforms have included student-centered learning, teaching with technology, school-based management, and teacher empowerment – ideas that have originated in either the US, the UK, or Australia, and travelled around the world on what Hallinger calls “the winds of globalization.” As Hallinger explained, where Asian societies years ago were once much more isolated, cultural and national boundaries today are permeable. While this “policy borrowing” can be interpreted as a move to build a more modern education system, it belies a “cultural mismatch” that can render the policy ineffective in practice. As Hallinger (2013) suggests, “where educational changes conflict with fundamental cultural values, the process is likely to encounter even greater resistance and require a longer time frame for implementation” (p. 17).
Hallinger’s (2013) recent article, written with Darren A. Bryant, focuses on Thailand and identifies lessons that can apply broadly to the region and beyond. As Hallinger and Bryant explain, Thailand aimed to expand access to education during the 1990s by increasing compulsory education from six to nine years, and finally to 12 years of free schooling, in an effort to improve the knowledge and skill level of the labor force. However, with the increase in access came concerns over educational quality, and in 1999 the National Education Act (1999) was passed, setting ambitious new goals for teaching and learning that many today feel the country has not attained in the ten years since the initial implementation of the reform. Some have also linked the country’s recent social unrest to the perception of unequal access to quality education.
Hallinger and Bryant also note that in countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Taiwan, there is a similar gap between the vision of educational change and the reality on the ground. In Thailand, for example, despite the government directive that all teachers implement student-centered learning, a survey of 1800 principals found that only about a one-third reported that their teachers actively engaged the reforms in their teaching practice. Hallinger attributes this disappointment to “over-promising,” rather than faulty strategy, and explains that a successful implementation would require more than a decade in any country. In Thailand, “local factors,” such as budget constraints, cultural mismatch, and political instability, have further tested reform efforts.