Private tutoring in Vietnam: A public concern rather than a private story

The school operates extra classes because the students’ entry level knowledge is far below average and they are actually dumb” Ms. Mai, headmaster of a high school in Hue, Vietnam.

This statement was made earlier this year by an educational administrator who was trying to justify to the inspectors and reporters why her school held extra private lessons, charging students fees during school hours. Either feeling extremely shocked or somewhat empathetic with her explanation, many people have come to realize that this is only one among many reasons for having extra classes in Vietnam. Indeed, private tutoring appears to be indispensable in the context of Vietnam. This has in effect negated the ban on private tutoring for the last two years.

some snacks before the next extra class!

Choosing to confront instead of tolerate private tutoring, Vietnam has taken quite a few measures to tackle the rising scale of private tutoring over the last two decades. In addition to the regulations, the government has stipulated numerous policy documents to curb private tutoring and concomitant illegal financial affairs. Various measures and efforts to control private tutoring have been documented since 1993. In 2012, the country started enacting one of the strictest bans on private tutoring. Sadly, the phenomenon remains pervasive and tutoring practices become largely uncontrollable.

Despite the ban, extra classes in numerous forms continue to grow. The media continues to report cases breaching the private tutoring ban: school administrators violating the ban are fined, tutoring teachers are punished. Ironically, the more regulations introduced, the more teachers provide extra classes, both legally and illegally. The stricter the penalty provisions, the more creative parents and schools become in finding ways to continue the extra classes. While the vicious circle has not been broken, all people involved in this circle seem to feel more guilty. By seeking ways to supplement their salaries and cover the mainstream curriculum, many teachers now feel like criminals. By trying to secure their children the best possible education, most parents feel like accomplices. Worst of all, by attending extra classes to compete the regular curriculum or improve their academic performance, students feel that they are less able and even dumb!

Mark Bray, a scholar who has studied private tutoring for a long time, notes that private tutoring ban has appeared ineffective in most countries that implement it. South Korea has been the most often cited example. Its draconian measure against private tutoring during late 1900s was a complete failure, leading its government to loosen control on private tutoring practices.

Vietnam should learn the ‘private tutoring’ lessons from other countries, no matter whether these lessons are successful or not. It can also learn a lot from different education initiatives that have been introduced in other countries. More importantly, it should open the discussion on the related issues to the wider public, taking both parents’, teachers’, students’, and experts’ opinions. At the same time, more research on private tutoring and related issues in the local settings should be rigorously promoted.

Undeniably, it would take more time and resources to tackle the root causes of private tutoring than simply prohibiting it. I agree with many people saying that private tutoring seems like a chronic ‘disease’. But it’s by no means incurable. It also true that the effects of private tutoring are so serious that it badly needs fixing. But experience shows us that too often, quick medication proves ineffective in the long run and poses unintended effects. In fact, portrayed by the media as being “incompatible”, only “working on paper” or “going into an impasse”, the ban can hardly achieve its goal as a ‘silver bullet’ solution to private tutoring. Undoubtedly, choosing not to ignore private tutoring is a ‘must’. But inappropriate handling of it would run the risk of going against the very direction of the Vietnamese government’s ‘socialization of education,’ which emphasizes the need for “all segments of society” to contribute to the provision of education.

I share the view with the authors of the book ‘Shadow education in Asia’ who state that careful analysis and a great deal consultation need to be sought before implementing any policy. This can include thorough assessment of the current context to understand the supply and demand mechanisms of private tutoring in Vietnam.

Overall, instead of ‘upgrading’ the unworkable ban with new regulations and circulars, it’s high time for Vietnam to revamp the national examinations, which is private tutoring’s number one partner. In addition to reducing the study load at all levels, Vietnam should urgently reform teachers’ salary. Most importantly, it must improve the selection and training of teachers. It is teacher quality in mainstream schools that would gradually change parents’ deep-rooted stereotypes about education quality in public schools and misinformation about private tutoring’s miraculous effects on their children’s achievements.

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