What Can Vietnam’s excellent schools teach us about education quality and equality?
Alongside economic growth, the huge dash for education is fuelling massive expectations among the swelling youth populations in developing countries. Dramatic expansion of education systems over the past few decades has been accompanied by an international push for universal access through major initiatives such as Education For All and the Millennium Development Goals. Now the latest 3ie Working Paper, concludes that development interventions are succeeding in getting more children into school and keeping them there.
Even so our latest findings, from Oxford University’s large-scale Young Lives study – which is following 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam over 15 years – show that sending children to school and committing to keep them there involves huge challenges for countless poor families. It often means taking children away from work that boosts fragile family incomes and also involves significant costs for textbooks, uniforms and transport. But despite this, parents and children are prepared to make enormous sacrifices for children to attend, many families selling livestock or land or getting into serious debt to cope with the expense, particularly of the burgeoning low-fee private sector.
Families are willing to do this because they believe that schooling offers a way out of poverty, the drudgery of labour-intensive occupations like herding and farming, and a means of releasing future generations from the hardship and suffering endured by their parents. As one Peruvian farmer told us, “I … walk in the fields in sandals. At least he will have shoes if he gets a good head with education”, and a woman recalled her daughter saying, “We’re not going to suffer like this in the mud… it’s better that I go and study.”
Most families in our study are very poor and many of the parents have very little or no education themselves. Despite this, our surveys have found half the parents of 8-year-olds in Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam want their child to complete university.
But are their hopes warranted? Across the developing world, school teaching standards are extremely uneven and many pupils fall far behind the level of learning expected for their age.
The 2012 study by India’s ASER research centre found 47% of Indian grade 5 pupils unable to subtract even two-digit numbers, and more than half of grade 5 children in rural schools unable to read a test designed for pupils in grade 2.
By contrast, Vietnam is a beacon of hope. Young Lives recent Vietnam School Survey found that pupil performance in Vietnam (where per capita GDP is broadly similar to that of India) is truly exceptional. Around 19 out of every 20 ten year-olds can add four-digit numbers; 85% can subtract fractions and 81% are able to find X in a simple equation.
The education system in Vietnam is relatively equitable and this means that poorer children can expect a decent quality of schooling. Our data show children from disadvantaged as well as average or better-off backgrounds make good progress in classes taught by motivated and well-trained teachers. Teachers are evaluated six or more times a year and they assess their pupils regularly. Few teachers, including those working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, perform poorly in assessments of their knowledge for teaching grade 5. Most classrooms have electricity and more than 96% of pupils have core textbooks for their own use. Both teacher and student absenteeism averaged only two days over our study period of 8 months.
Some of the reasons for higher learning levels in Vietnam are cultural and historical. Parental expectations are typically high and the Confucian culture may be seen as emphasising hard work over natural ability. But the school system, which emphasises minimum standards and pays particular attention to disadvantaged areas, is very important too. The centralised curriculum, text-books and teacher training in Vietnam mean that standards across the country relate to common goals and norms. The demands of the curriculum are within reach of most pupils, and the system motivates teachers to ensure that the majority of their class reaches required standards by the time they finish primary school.
Vietnam has very few private schools so families expect the state system to deliver a good education for all children. And the government sets a benchmark for the resources and facilities it expects every school to provide. This contrasts with many developing countries where there is still a legacy of education systems that were designed to serve a small bureaucratic elite. Very often the curriculum is too difficult for most pupils so only a few reach the required standard and the less advantaged majority are left behind at the starting blocks.
Vietnam faces its own challenges, but we found a system where teacher commitment is absolutely fundamental and where there is an assumption of equity across the board. Some things about the Vietnamese schooling system are transferrable while others may not be replicable in contexts where social and cultural conditions are very different. But governments and their partners in other countries can learn from Vietnam’s common minimum
standards and appropriate curriculum.
Teachers in Vietnam are evaluated regularly, and are held accountable through the commune system rather than by the risk of being fired if their performance is unsatisfactory. Low levels of effort and commitment from teacher is a huge problem in many other systems where incentives are low and accountability is weak, often reflected in high absenteeism. If they want their investment in education to deliver the goods, governments need to find appropriate ways of making teachers more accountable and donors can play a strong role in providing assistance to support this. It would involve proper monitoring systems and much more parental involvement, enabling communities to have greater scrutiny over what’s going on in their schools.
Families everywhere are investing huge hope in education as a route out of poverty for the next generation and they are making enormous sacrifices to send their kids to school. But while the recent ‘MDG push’ means that millions of children are now going to school, until education systems are made more accountable, many kids will never learn enough to transform their future prospects.