Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.

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