What explains Vietnam’s stunning performance in PISA 2012?


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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.

How do you think the PISA results should be used to improve the education system in your country? Share with us!

Watch video: A New and Exciting Way of Learning in Vietnam


Christian Bodewig

Practice Manager, Social Protection and Jobs, West and Central Africa, World Bank

Daniel Mont
December 13, 2013

I agree these results are impressive and to be lauded, but should also consider the issues raised by Diane Ravitch in a recent blog post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/03/four-les…

Christian Bodewig
December 16, 2013

Thanks for sharing, Dan. I agree with Diane Ravitch's lesson that improving the quality of life will enhance education performance. As I note in my blog, Vietnam's success in PISA relies on the performance of 15 year-olds who are still in school. Many, often disadvantaged and poor students, have dropped out by that age. This suggests that PISA may overestimate the competencies of Vietnamese 15 year-olds and underestimate the impact of socio-economic background on learning outcomes. Furthe progress in poverty reduction will enable more young people to get a good education and take advantage of expanding economic opportunity in Vietnam. Also, I agree with her that test scores are not everything. Vietnamese employers tell us that graduates often lack creative and critical thinking. Clearly, the Vietnamese education system has a way to go in this direction and needs to reflect these skills in a comprehensive student assessment system. Check out Chapter 4 of "Skilling Up Vietnam" for more!

craig burgess
December 15, 2013

Great observations Christian. However this is still a system that expects envelopes of money to be exchanged between parents and teachers for good grades and to get a child into a new school. Despite the good PISA results, education in its broader sense has a way to go on other metrics in Vietnam

Christian Bodewig
December 17, 2013

Thanks Craig. I agree that PISA is only one source of information for the assessment of the Vietnamese education system, though a very important one (and new for Vietnam!). Other evidence suggests that there are considerable remaining governance challenges in the education system which undermine its effectiveness. For example, payments for grades and diplomas undermine the value of the information that grades and diplomas should transmit. And poor information is a key barrier to effective skills development, as we argue in "Skilling up Vietnam".

Lars Sondergaard
December 16, 2013

Very interesting!
In your blog, you mention the "fundamental school quality levels" and provided a link for the Implementation Completion and Results (ICR) Report for the World Bank project (Primary Education for Disadvantaged Children) which supported the introduction of these "fundamental school quality levels". I just wanted to let others know that the ICR report is well-worth reading. It explains in more details what are these "fundamental school quality levels" and how they work. The ICR report also contains a nice summary of what happened in Vietnam's education sector during the years 2003-2010. By the way, the report argues that the notion of "fundamental school quality levels" was an important "policy instrument" to quantify problems of lagging schools/regions and direct more resources in their direction. I wonder how important this was to Vietnam's recent PISA success? And how many other countries are using similar tools?

Christian Bodewig
December 17, 2013

Thanks a lot, Lars. I agree that the ICR is well worth reading for those who want to find out what might be driving Vietnam's PISA success. I equally recommend reading the recent Young Lives paper on a school survey in Vietnam with an assessment of children in grade five. The paper demonstrates the remarkably small variation in indicators of quality inputs (including teacher competencies)between schools in richer and poorer parts of the country and the fact that poorer and ethnic minority children catch up with their peers in the command of grade five curriculum content over the course of the school year. Followers of the Young Lives project might perhaps have predicted that Vietnam would perform well in PISA: Vietnamese children at various ages outperformed their peers in the other Young Lives countries, India/Andhra Pradesh, Ethiopia and Peru. Read the paper here: (http://www.younglives.org.uk/publications/PP/vietnam-school-survey-summa...)