Why are Vietnamese schools so good?
H. isfrom Chi Minh, Vietnam’s founding father, was clear about the path to development. “For a ten-year benefit, we must plant trees. For the benefit of a hundred years, we must cultivate the people,” was a bromide he liked to blurt out. But despite years of rapid economic growth, the country GDP The person is still only $3,760, lower than their regional counterparts, Malaysia and Thailand, and barely enough to make the average Vietnamese feel well fed. However, Ho Chi Minh was referring to a Chinese proverb that praised the benefits of education, and against that the Vietnamese people cannot have many complaints.
Their children go through one of the best education systems in the world, a standard reflected in outstanding performance in international assessments of reading, maths and science. The latest data from the World Bank shows that in terms of overall learning scores, Vietnamese students are outperforming not only their peers in Malaysia and Thailand but also those in Britain and Canada, countries more than six times richer. Even in Vietnam itself, student scores do not show the level of inequality so common elsewhere between the races and different regions.
A child’s tendency to learn is the result of a number of factors – many of which begin at home with parents and the environment in which they grow up. But that is not enough to explain Vietnam’s excellent performance. His special secret is in the classroom: his children learn more at school, especially in the early years.
In a 2020 study, Abhijeet Singh of the Stockholm School of Economics measured the productivity of Vietnamese schools by analyzing data from similar tests taken by students in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. It showed that between the ages of five and eight Vietnamese children are racing ahead. One more year of education in Vietnam increases the probability that a child can solve a simple multiplication problem by 21 percentage points; in India the increase is six points.
Vietnamese schools, unlike those in other poor countries, have improved over time. A study published in 2022 by researchers at the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, DC, found in 56 out of 87 developing countries the quality of education had declined since the 1960s (see table). Vietnam is one of the few countries where schools have consistently resisted this trend.
The biggest reason is the quality of its teachers. It is not that they are necessarily better qualified; they are simply more effective in teaching. One study comparing Indian and Vietnamese students attributes much of the difference in math test scores to a gap in teaching quality.
Vietnamese teachers do their jobs well because they are well managed. They receive frequent training and have the freedom to make classes more engaging. To address regional inequality, those posted to remote areas are paid more. Most importantly, teacher evaluation is based on the performance of their students. Those whose pupils do well are rewarded through prestigious “teaching excellence” titles.
Apart from such carrots, a big stick is the danger of going against the ruling Communist Party. The party equipment is full of education. This goes down to school level, where many head teachers are members of parties.
The obsession has other useful effects. Provinces must spend 20% of their budgets on education, which has helped with regional equity. The party pays close attention and relentlessly also ensures that policies are changed to update curriculum and teaching standards. Society in general shares the arrangement. Vietnamese families are committed to education because of the depth of Confucianism, suggests Ngo Quang Vinh, an officer in the social sector at the Asian Development Bank. He says that even poorer parents are going out for extra private tuition. In cities, many seek schools where teachers have earned “teaching excellence” titles.
All this has reaped rich rewards. As schools have improved, so has Vietnam’s economy. But growth is testing the education system, suggests Phung Duc Tung, director of the Mekong Development Research Institute, a think tank in the capital, Hanoi. Companies want more and more employees with more sophisticated skills, such as team management, for which Vietnamese students are not trained. Growth has also drawn migrants into cities, overburdening urban schools. More and more teachers are abandoning education for higher paying jobs in the private sector. To ensure that Vietnam remains at its best, the government must address these trends. As Ho Chi Minh liked to remind people, cultivation requires constant attention. ■