The results from the Program for international Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 show that Vietnam’s general education system is more successful than systems in many wealthier countries in providing students with strong basic cognitive skills such as reading literacy and numeracy. Participating for the first time in PISA, Vietnam’s 15 year-olds perform on par with their peers in Germany and Austria and better than those in two thirds of participating countries. This stunning performance is consistent with results from a recent survey of adult literacy which found Vietnamese adults to be strong readers. Indeed, widespread literacy among the workforce has been a major driver of Vietnam’s development success over the last two decades by helping Vietnamese workers move from low productivity agriculture into higher productivity non-farm jobs.
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How to explain Vietnam’s PISA success? My observations are:
- First, years of focused investment into expanding enrolments at all levels and efforts to define and enforce minimum quality standards (the “fundamental school quality level” in primary education) across the country have paid off.
- Second, a recent report from the Young Lives research project of child poverty in Vietnam, India (Andhra Pradesh), Ethiopia and Peru shows that there is a high degree of professionalism and discipline in classrooms across Vietnam: Teacher absenteeism is virtually unknown and Vietnam’s teachers are capable. Moreover, student attendance is high.
- Third, however, Vietnam still suffers from early school leaving, particularly among the disadvantaged and poorer students who are often ethnic minorities: The net enrolment rate in upper secondary education stands at 60 percent, and only as few as a third of the students from the poorest 20 percent of the population are in upper secondary school. Since PISA assesses competencies of 15 year-olds in school, this suggests that it only captures those Vietnamese students that remain in upper secondary education – typically the better off, and likely better performing, students. Clearly, a major remaining challenge is to reduce early school dropout rates among the disadvantaged.
Moreover, as a new World Bank report titled “Skilling up Vietnam: Preparing the workforce for a modern market economy” shows, employers are not just looking for basic cognitive skills, but also increasingly for skills like critical thinking, team work and communication skills. They say these skills are in short supply among Vietnamese graduates. This is because of today’s classroom practices which often focus on rote learning and memorization. While they turn out great readers, they insufficiently emphasize those other important skills. But employers’ views are increasingly being heard: As announced recently, the Vietnamese government plans to capitalize on its strong performance in PISA 2012 with further reforms to its curriculum, teaching practices and assessment to help students develop those skills more. The new education reforms are taking inspiration from experience abroad: Vietnamese experts are studying the example of curriculum reform in Korea, a top-performing country in PISA 2012, and the experience from innovative teaching methods adapted from Colombia for the Global Partnership for Education-supported Vietnam Escuela Nueva pilot in 1,500 schools across the country. Vietnam is not resting on its PISA 2012 success. Expect it to perform even better in PISA 2015.
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