In its first participation in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012, Vietnam scored higher than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average and outperformed many developed economies, including the US. Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, a former OECD analyst who writes and consults on global education, examines the factors that contributed to this stunning success as well as the opportunities and challenges facing the Vietnamese education system.
Vietnamese students surprised the world with their 2012 PISA results. Other assessments confirm that Vietnamese students and adults have strong numeracy and literacy skills. Vietnam's accomplishments over the past 20 years are indeed remarkable in terms of attendance, completion, and student achievement. In fact, whenever I am in Vietnamese cities, I am impressed by the energy of this dynamic society and its respect for education.
A few key factors have helped Vietnam get to this point:
Demonstrated commitment to education
Vietnam's commitment to education is visible in sizeable public and private investments and rising attainment levels. The belief that a healthy mix of education and hard work is the key to success is palpable on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where children are seemingly always en route to school or supplemental classes.
Improvements in school and teacher quality
In recent years, Vietnam has expanded enrollment while defining and enforcing minimum quality standards for school facilities countrywide. Teacher quality also matters, and Vietnam has laid a solid foundation by professionalizing its teaching force and establishing standards around teacher content knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The value that Vietnamese culture places on teachers surely helps.
Outwards orientation to keep the system evolving
Vietnam eagerly takes inspiration from abroad. Its experts regularly study curriculum reform in high-performing countries like Korea and Singapore. The country also participates in several initiatives focused on developing innovative teaching methods (such as the Escuela Nueva pilot adapted from Colombia) and deeper learning skills (including these ASEAN seminars). In addition, new K–12 and higher education reforms incorporate lessons learned from previous reforms.
Yet there are quality improvements and gaps to close in attainment and achievement:
Nearly 37 percent of Vietnamese children are not enrolled in upper secondary school. Since PISA assesses learning of 15-year-olds in school, scores were likely inflated by the underrepresentation of students from low-income and disadvantaged groups. A major challenge is to reduce early school dropout and related inequities while maintaining quality.
Changing skill needs
As Vietnam's economy evolves, good basic numeracy and literacy skills will no longer suffice. The labor market increasingly demands a mix of high-quality cognitive, behavioral, and technical skills—skills employers say are rare among graduates.
The Path Ahead: Streamlined Curriculum for the 21st Century
The next step for Vietnam is to provide better quality schooling that fosters higher-order cognitive and behavioral skills (such as creative and critical thinking) for more young people. Accordingly, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) is working with K–12 educators on an ambitious reform to design coherent, focused, high-quality curricular standards that optimize learning and promote the competencies needed to master content and apply knowledge.
Upgrading Instructional Practice for Effective Implementation
While curricular reform is an important step, the resulting change in classroom instruction is what matters. Ensuring policies and practices are aligned across the education system will require close attention to how the new curriculum is taught (and assessed).
Better pedagogical strategies
Although Vietnamese policymakers have promoted better teaching and active learning methods since the 1990s, lecture-style, rote learning remains the dominant practice. On my school visits, teacher-centered approaches were the norm, and students seemed conditioned to receive knowledge passively. Active, student-centered approaches were rare (the classroom pictured above was a notable exception). Not surprisingly, an analysis of PISA findings implies Vietnamese students lack confidence in applying learning to practice.
Vietnamese researchers, teachers, and students share similar perspectives and explanations for these gaps. A recent focus group and a UNESCO youth opinion poll confirm the persistence of one-way lecturing that emphasizes theory and relies heavily on textbooks. Though many teachers grasp the importance of active learning for student engagement and learning outcomes, they say they lack materials to support their use of such approaches. To help bridge these gaps, policymakers plan to ensure a comprehensive set of aligned textbooks and teaching materials is developed to support the transition to the new curriculum.
Stakeholder understanding and engagement
Classroom practices can change only if stakeholders understand and believe in new curricular standards and pedagogical models. Yet, the focus and implications of previous reforms were not made sufficiently clear to educators, parents, and students. Having learned from experience, MOET intends to conduct consultation and outreach campaigns to foster public support for the revised curriculum. MOET also plans curriculum piloting as well as online and in-person training to foster teacher understanding and engagement.
Strengthening capacity at the point of delivery
For teachers accustomed to traditional practices, changing teaching methods and fostering new skills can be a complex endeavor. Developing higher-order skills requires teachers to have a deeper mastery of their subjects and a wider pedagogical repertoire than what is needed for knowledge transmission.
Examples from other countries show that meeting new demands on teachers' skills and expertise at scale requires robust and sustained forms of professional learning. There is much to improve: the current professional development model is limited and needs to be upgraded to a model in which local institutions' capacities are enhanced to provide more tailored content, year-round, with new teaching methods.
Building instructional capacity also requires meaningful, ongoing support. Establishing appropriate support structures is vital for enabling teachers and principals to implement new pedagogical models in schools. In addition, creating mechanisms for professional learning and collaboration among teachers and clusters of schools would allow educators to learn from one another and continually refine their practices.
As Vietnam sets out to build on its initial successes and prepare for a modern economy, there has never been a more fascinating time to be learning from, and with, its education system.