Vietnam invests in poor students with remarkable results

A child writes on the blackboard at Thuong Nong Primary School, Tam Nong District, Phu Tho Province. (Credit: ILO/Truong Van Vi/Flickr)

The test results are in, and Vietnam’s education is schooling even developed nations. As a low-income country, Vietnam’s success proves that wealth no longer has to determine the educational success of a country or even a student if wise policies are in place to bridge the gap.

Out of 72 countries and economies, Vietnam placed 8th in science, with average performance in reading and math, according to the results of the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) published earlier this month. That’s above China, the U.K. and the U.S., which placed 25th.

The recently published results are from the 2015 PISA exam, which had a particular focus on science. Over half a million 15-year-olds took the exam, representing 28 million students near the end of their compulsory education. The assessment is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to judge participating nations not only on the quality of their education, but equity as well.

In that regard, Vietnam’s poorest students also stood up to wealthier students at home and abroad. On average, poorer students are three times more likely to be low performers in science than wealthier students, and the difference between the 25 percent most advantaged and the 25 percent least advantaged students within each country is equivalent to about two years of schooling.

However, 10 percent of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged students performed on par with the average student in the OECD. Add Macao into the mix, and 10 percent of the most disadvantaged students from the two economies outperformed 10 percent of the most advantaged students in 20 PISA participating countries.

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Vietnam’s disadvantaged students aren’t alone. The proportion of disadvantaged students performing above expectations is increasing. In 2015, 29 percent performed 2 percentage points higher than expected.

“It is no longer the case that the world is divided between rich and well-educated nations and poor and badly-educated ones,” Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, said to the Huffington Post.

So what is Vietnam doing right?

“Over many years, Vietnam has expanded enrollment at all education levels and has made big strides in enforcing minimum quality standards,” Ayako Inagaki, director of human and social development in the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Southeast Asia department, said in an article.

“Both the government and parents believe that education is critical,” she said. “This commitment is evident in the high degree of professionalism and discipline in schools where teacher absenteeism is low and student attendance is high.”

Much of that dedication to education is cultural. Parents have high expectations, students work hard, and teachers are highly respected in and out of the classroom. But what better way for a government to demonstrate its commitment to education than through a generous allocation of resources?

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Vietnam spends more than 20 percent of government expenditure on education – a larger proportion than any other OECD country. Additionally, it targets resources on schools and students who are struggling, attracting talented teachers to challenging schools. Teachers are expected to pursue their own professional development and work closely with parents and communities.

Curriculum in Vietnam also differs from most North American and European schools in that it digs deep into core concepts and skills, instead of introducing students to a wide variety of subjects. Students, then, are better able to apply those core concepts and skills to a variety of problems and situations.

Despite all these notable successes, the PISA results are still only based on those who attend school. According to the ADB, roughly 10 percent of lower secondary-aged youth are not in school, and domestic migrant youth and those with disabilities face serious obstacles.

Schleicher noted in a BBC article last year that if all children in Vietnam are enrolled in secondary school and gain at least a basic grasp of math and science by 2030, the country’s GDP should triple by 2095. But for those gains, Vietnam’s economy must also shift from low-skill to high-knowledge quickly enough to absorb it’s well-educated young graduates before other economies woo them abroad.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.