Guest Blog: Vietnam’s PISA surprise; It's not about the resources

2 November 2015

by  M Niaz Asadullah and Liyanage Devangi Perera

(This blog originally appeared on The Diplomat on 1 November 2015)

Vietnam’s performance in the latest round of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has created a stir among education experts and policymakers around the world. The country’s 15-year olds participated for the first time in the 2012 assessment and ranked 17th in mathematics, 8th in science, and 19th in reading among 65 participating nations, placing Vietnam above the OECD average. At a time when Western countries are striving to replicate East Asia’s success in education, Vietnam has outranked the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. In doing so, it has become an exception to the argument that educational excellence is not possible without a high level of economic development.

This is all the more surprising because Vietnam still faces a multitude of the same kinds of problems that have been blamed for a low level of student learning in other developing countries. A sizable proportion of children still remain out of secondary schools. The level of corruption in Vietnam is higher than it is in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Vietnam’s higher education system also lags far behind those of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. A recent World Bank report “Skilling up Vietnam: Preparing the workforce for a modern market economy” even warns of a shortfall of critical thinking, team work, and communication skills among Vietnamese graduates. Echoing a report by The Economist, the World Bank blames the limited supply of such skills on the nature of classroom practices “which often focus on rote learning and memorization.”

Vietnam’s achievement in PISA is stunning when examined in terms of the performance of socially disadvantaged children. According to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, “almost 17% of Vietnam’s poorest 15-year-old students are among the 25% top-performing students across all countries and economies that participate in the PISA tests. By comparison the average across OECD countries is that only 6% of disadvantaged students are considered ‘resilient’ by this measure.” This is also consistent with our preliminary analysis of the PISA data. When a like-for-like comparison is made (holding differences in socioeconomic background constant), Vietnamese children do just as well as South Koreans. In other words, equalizing for socioeconomic differences among students from the two countries would give Vietnam an even better performance in the PISA.

Independent assessments of learning outcomes inside Vietnamese classrooms confirm that the country’s PISA rank does not simply reflect test-taking skills or an education system that is only good on paper. According to the findings of the Young Lives project, student performance in Vietnam is truly exceptional. Around 19 out of every 20 10-year-olds can add four-digit numbers; 85 percent can subtract fractions. When compared to student performance in India, a country with similar per capita GDP, 47 percent of Indian grade 5 pupils were unable to subtract even two-digit numbers.

Some commentators have identified years of government investment in education as an important contributory factor to Vietnam’s success – the country invests 21 percent of government spending on education, higher than any OECD country. Yet similar levels of financial commitment haven’t produced the same result elsewhere in the region. One of the country’s richer neighbors, Malaysia, lags far behind in PISA despite decades of heavy investment in education. If anything, Malaysia’s performance is on the decline in other international assessment exercises.

Vietnam’s surprising rise in education is not about resources. Instead, the explanation lies in the careful choice of education policies and in political commitment and leadership.

In a recent commentary published by the BBC, Schleicher, who coordinates the PISA program, attributes Vietnam’s success to forward-thinking government officials, a focused curriculum and higher social standing and investment in teachers. He also draws attention to Vietnam’s curriculum, which has been designed to allow students to gain a deep understanding of core concepts and master core skills as opposed to the “mile-wide but inch-deep curriculums” of countries in Europe and North America. Teaching is viewed as a highly respectable profession in Vietnam and math teachers, particularly those working in underprivileged schools, are exposed to more professional development than the average in OECD countries. Vietnamese teachers are able to build a positive learning environment, fostering positive attitudes towards learning among students and maintaining good discipline in the classroom. However, a culture that encourages hard work is likely to have aided policy initiatives in bringing high returns on public and private investment in schooling According to Schleicher, teachers are also supported by strong parental commitment and high expectations for their children’s education, and societal values of hard work and a good education. These views are shared by Christian Bodewig of the World Bank, who also talks about teacher quality and the level of professionalism and discipline in Vietnamese classrooms.

An additional endorsement of Schleicher’s assessment comes from Javier Luque of the Inter-American Development Bank. Having reviewed the PISA questionnaires that were distributed to school principals, Luque highlights two additional factors. First, most schools in Vietnam offer extra learning activities. For instance, 95 percent of school principals stated that their schools offered extra learning activities in mathematics, the third highest rate in the PISA sample. Second, the level of pressure parents exert on school academic standards is very high. Of the 65 countries that participated in PISA, Vietnam ranks 8th in terms of the level of parental pressure, reflecting a high level of commitment and parental aspirations for their children’s education. Students also value a good education – 94 percent of students agree with the statement in PISA study that “It is worth making an effort in math, because it will help us to perform well in our desired profession later on in life.” This implies that Vietnam’s success may also have much to do with its strong Confucian values and influences. Vietnamese parents value and invest in education for their children both at home and overseas. This is evidenced from the fact that in the U.S., Vietnam ranks 8th among all countries sending post-secondary students. Such high parental aspirations for educated children may be a key reason why returns, in terms of student performance in PISA, on steady public investment in education have been high. Today, the advantages of cultural traits emphasizing education are seen by many as key to the success of children of Asian heritage in the U.S., creating the so-called Asian-American Advantage.

Exactly what has driven Vietnam’s progress in PISA, despite a centralized education system and widespread poverty, will continue to be debated. But irrespective of the causes, the progress has been remarkable – Vietnam is a beacon of hope and should be closely studied by policymakers from the country’s ASEAN neighbors. Three ASEAN countries in particular, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, have remained trapped in the bottom third of countries in the PISA ranking for years. A key lesson from Vietnam is that a higher budgetary allocation will not on its own move these countries out the bottom third without policy innovation and a willingness to learn from others.

M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Development Studies (CPDS) at the University of Malaya, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). He is also an Associate Fellow of the Department of Education at Oxford University. Liyanage Devangi Perera is a doctoral student at Monash University, Malaysia.