Vietnam’s PISA Surprise

How has the country been able to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages to perform so well?


Excellent analysis by M Niaz Asadullah and Liyanage Devangi Perera.  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.  Perera is a doctoral student at Monash University, Malaysia.

The results in a nutshell:

  • Vietnam’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.
  • Vietnam has outranked the US, Australia and the UK

The authors touch on a number of contributing factors that may explain the performance of Vietnamese students in the latest round of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Several of them are double-edged swords with obvious benefits and drawbacks.

  • it’s not about resources but rather “the careful choice of education policies and in political commitment and leadership”;
  • one analyst “attributes Vietnam’s success to forward-thinking government officials, a focused curriculum and higher social standing and investment in teachers;”
  • Vienam’s curriculum “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”,
  • a strong emphasis on the value of education, rooted in Confucianism, encourages hard work and is “likely to have aided policy initiatives in bringing high returns on public and private investment in schooling;”
  • extra learning activities, which 95% of principals surveyed reported in mathematics, for example, the third highest rate in the PISA sample; and
  • high parental pressure exerted on school academic standards and their children (this includes extra lessons for parents with the ability to pay).

One of the key lessons they identify 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.”  As a longtime observer and occasional participant in these efforts to “learn from others” in the spirit of comparative studies and education in particular, I agree with this point.

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

Bonus:  Here’s a related article that focuses on HCMC, in addition to New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Dubai.

Perhaps the single most impressive story is from Ho Ch Minh City. Vietnam entered the PISA test for the first time in 2012 and Vietnamese students did extremely well across the board. Students in Ho Chi Minh City performed well above average.



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